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His "simple aim in life," or so said Fortune magazine in 1946, was "to remake the world." He did not quite pull that off, but not for lack of trying. Indeed, he was so prolific that 20 years later The New Yorker billed him as "an engineer, inventor, mathematician, architect, cartographer, philosopher, poet, cosmologist and comprehensive designer." By then, R. Buckminster Fuller had adopted the shorter job descriptions of "comprehensive anticipatory design scientist" and "astronaut from Spaceship Earth."
Bucky (as almost everyone called him) was 70 years old when The New Yorker interviewed him on the tiny island off the Maine coast with no electricity, telephones or running water where he spent each summer. His most successful project, the geodesic dome, has provided emergency shelter for many thousands of people, but other designs, including a flying car and floating city, had flopped, and he had yet to complete a long promised book on his theory of Energetic-Synergetic Geometry.
Hailed as a visionary by the 1960s hippie movement, Fuller, who died in 1983, was dismissed as an eccentric by the design and architecture establishments. (This assessment was shared by their peers in mathematics, cartography and other disciplines he had challenged.) The critics and curators who defined 20th century design history tended to prize materialistic achievements, preferably corporate-friendly ones, such as Mies van der Rohe's monumental buildings, and Charles Eames's opulent office furniture. Iconoclastic dreamers were relegated to the margins, especially if, like Fuller, they were self-taught, befuddlingly verbose and uncompromising altruists with a string of spectacular failures in design and business.
The Whitney Museum of American Art in New York is now reassessing Fuller's achievements - and his contribution to design history - in "Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe," an exhibition opening Thursday. "In some ways his 'comprehensive, anticipatory design science' is more relevant for design today than it was even in his own time," said K. Michael Hays, a curator of the show. "He thought of the world in terms of flows of information and energy that interact and exchange in a complex totality. This is why it is relevant for scientists and artists, as well as designers."