In 1978, the British architect Norman Foster was showing a distinguished visitor around the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts, an innovative new art gallery he had just completed. Now, typically, such a guest might ask the architect about his inspiration, his design philosophy, or any one of a dozen more-or-less standard questions routinely fielded by architects. But this distinguished visitor was architect/inventor/visionary R. Buckminster Fuller, and the question he memorably asked Foster was: "How much does your building weigh?"

What Fuller was driving at — something he drove at in nearly all his work — was the question of how to do the most with the least. His was a lifelong concern with energy and material efficiency, not only in the field of architecture, but also in engineering and design. As such, he was a pioneer in the study of what we now call sustainability. Fuller had an almost eerily prescient perception that socioeconomics would inevitably have global repercussions and not just national ones — hence his coinage and frequent use of the term "Spaceship Earth."

If Fuller’s concerns sound strangely familiar to us today, it’s all the more astonishing to realize that he was already thinking along these lines in the early 1930s, when he first began mulling over his ideas for what would eventually become the Dymaxion house and the Dymaxion car. The latter addressed concerns that Detroit didn’t bother with until 50 years later, if at all. Fuller’s car had an innovative, teardrop-shaped chassis that could turn nearly within its own length, making it easy to park in tight spaces, as well as a lightweight aerodynamic aluminum body that achieved exceptional fuel efficiency for its day.

Fuller’s Dymaxion house projects of the 1940s seem equally relevant in this era of bloated, resource-gobbling McMansions. The attributes of his design, which he termed a "radically strong and light tensegrity structure," read like an affordable housing wish list for our own time: It was to be mass produced (ostensibly in aircraft factories idled by the end of World War II), shipped to the building site, and assembled out of two packages. Its flattened hemispherical shape made it resistant to high winds — a serious concern in many parts of the country — and it included provisions for natural cooling and even a special water-conserving shower head.

As brilliant as Fuller might have been, he was, alas, no genius at business. Despite healthy popular interest, he was unable to make either of these Dymaxion ventures commercially successful. Ironically, his best-known concept, the geodesic dome, was not — strictly speaking — his own invention, being based on a German patent of almost 20 years prior. Yet it famously became one more facet of his quest to extract the most use from the least material.

As for Fuller’s conversation-stopping question about the Sainsbury Centre for Arts, the building’s architect — now Lord Foster, Pritzker Prize laureate — recalls:

"He was challenging us to discover how efficient (our building) was; to identify how many tonnes of materials enclosed what volume. We did not know the answer, but we worked it out and wrote to him. We learned from the exercise as he predicted we would."

We’ve learned from you, all right, Bucky — though perhaps not all we could have.


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