The NanoWorld of Buckminster Fuller
by Bonnie Goldstein DeVarco
IV. Instrumental Architecture -- Energy, Frequency, Music
Ephemeral Structures -- Doing More with Less
Deriving synergetic geometry from experience, like Archimedes before him, Fuller's sought to understand the dynamics of a world that could be touched, tasted, felt, heard and experienced through all of the senses. Like experimental geometers before him such as Durer and Leonardo, Fuller's system drew its applicability from such experience, it was demonstrable rather than abstract, its purpose was to create problem-solving instruments rather than to ponder an imaginary universe of abstract symbols. But growing up during the rapid explosion of the early technological revolution, his was an oscillating, resonating world, not a world of solid, stable, static forms.
In the early part of this century, Einstein's theories of general and special relativity began to make sense to Fuller in a pragmatic way. In the late 1920s he was invigorated by Einstein's gravitation away from Euclidian geometry and his claims that his new theories were "not in harmony with the theory of Newton."19b Fuller began his attempt to define a whole new approach to the geometry of the sphere, completely side-stepping the history of non-euclidian geometry. He ignored the geometry of curved surfaces and spherical geometries of Gauss and Riemann, the two mathematicians Einstein turned to in his first description of his theories of General and Special Relativity.19c Instead, for the next 40 years, Fuller started from scratch, beginning with modelability. He began in the center of the sphere outward, and through this method, he defined a completely new approach to geometry. He focused on the inter-angling of forces within structure rather than merely mapping their various topologies. Through these earliest efforts, Fuller discovered that the basic building block, the most primitive form which accomodated the energetic behaviors of spherical geometry was the tetrahedron rather than the cube.
Although not fully understood or appreciated to this day, through synergetic geometry, Fuller attempted to introduce a paradigmatic shift in which form and matter could be related to for their dynamic characteristics of energy, motion and pattern. As our technologies continue to confront us with such an ephemeral world of energetic forms on the microscale -- forms so changeable that it's hard to get a finger on them -- such an approach to geometry should begin to open more doors than it closes. Synergetics in many ways can augment and enhance our present understanding of structural dynamics on every scale, from the macro to the micro.
However, Fuller's geometry in service to such a dynamic, fluid world has been almost entirely overlooked by other mathematicians, geometers, architects and scientists of today. Fuller already saw the "Einsteinian world" of the twentieth century unveiling a new generation of technologies that explored the dynamic realities of the micro world. The concepts of physics, Fuller argued, would soon begin to gain relevance in the domestic world of the everyday, yet people continued to live in a solid, static, "Newtonian world" of the previous century. But they could not unless they could be understandable to the common person, unless they could be modeled.
During his lifetime, the concepts of physics revealed a vastly different set of structural characteristics and behaviors on the atomic scale. Yet this new view remained the province of physicists and scientists, not the other 99.9% of humanity. Now, as a new generation of microtechnologies swiftly take us from wire to wireless, matter to energy, form to formless, Fuller's lengthy explorations into the dynamic geometry of energy systems becomes more rather than less relevant. His core concept of doing more with less, a concept he deemed "ephemeralization" should be looked at more closely.
Early on, Fuller applied the term ephemeralization to what he called the "design science of doing ever more with ever less."20 He looked at the optimum efficiency of architecture in the way a ship builder looks at the efficiency of ship design, as performance-per-pound. He saw that this could be accomplished for land based structures by informing design with the latest scientifically discovered physical principles. It would be made easier by utilizing the newest building materials which emerged from materials science and applying a better understanding of the physics of energy systems to structure itself.
By introducing the energy characteristics of music, frequency and ephemerality to his exercises in design, Fuller was able to demonstrate larger, stronger, weightless architectures that did not depend solely on the strength of the materials to determine their overall strength. He articulated these ideas well before the birth of nanotechnology at a time when computers as we know them today were in their infancy. In a 1966 article, "The Music of The New Life," he wrote:
Fuller's emphasis on the relationships between science, art and technology, mathematics and music came up again and again in his philosophy and in his approach to architecture. He called a system "the Universe's first subdivision into sets of approximately synchronous magnitudes of frequency events."22 "Tunability" was a concept Fuller used often. In his view, the brain functioned by the "tuning out of irrelevancies" -- events of experience which were too large and too infrequent to be important and those events too small and too frequent to be important. He called this property "frequency modulation" and suggested that the patterns sifted through and tuned into eliminated the cacophony of chaos in the medio world we inhabit. Fuller used frequency as a metaphor for the complex patterning of structure itself as well as for the distinct patterns of its use.
Tensegrity and Resonance -- The Home as an Instrument
Through geodesic architecture Fuller applied a structural principle in which the forces of a system were equally distributed throughout each of its components. He understood and developed this principle through his close observations of design in the organic world -- the intricate patterns of a spider's web, the skeletal webwork of a leaf on a tree. In a geodesic dome, no one "wall" bears the brunt of a strong wind, or carries the weight of a large load. Instead, the inter-angling of its many structural components spreads out the internal forces and balances them with external forces to maintain flexibility and strength even when using the lightest building materials. He called this principle of the equal distribution of forces "tensegrity," a word combining "tensile strength" and "structural integrity." Through applying this principle in architecture, Fuller planned to develop a new series of strong, durable structures whose strength increases with size and lightness rather than the heaviness of its components.23
Unlike other structures in the history of land-based architecture, tensegrity structures would distribute loads with continuous tension and discontinuous compression. In his earliest attempts to build a tension-based structure with his Dymaxion House of 1929, Fuller demonstrated a model of a house which was held up by a central pole with tension wires attached. His house would be built to exhibit a flexible strength in the same way that a mast on a ship holds its huge flexible sails to its body or the way long, relatively lightweight cables suspend a heavy suspension bridge effortlessly over the water. Using the strength and design sensibilities of a nautical designer, Fuller's house was a hexagonal structure which was to be made of lightweight aluminum and Plexiglas. His Dymaxion House was held up by a central "mooring mast" to which a skeletal series of concentric hexagonal "wire wheels" were suspended with each pneumatic floor attached. The interior walls were moveable, as was its central utility core which could be replaced with newer appliances as they were developed or needed. He began to call his house a "machine for living."24
Fuller's later prototype for mass-produced housing, the Wichita Dymaxion House was designed in the mid-1940s at the close of World War II. This prototype took his vertical house with a hexagonal structure to another stage by introducing curvature to a triangulated network of tension rods. This overlapping network of adjustable tension rods radiated outward like spokes of a bicycle wheel from a central mast of close packed stainless steel tubes. The tension elements which angled down in a triangulated network were load bearing and flexible.25
A significant aspect of this house was that the roof, covered by thin strips of sheet metal "cowling gores" sloped downward to cover the roof like a dome. This time, however, the model combined the nautical influence with the aerodynamic qualities of a lightweight aircraft. According to J. Baldwin who in 1991 spearheaded the disassembly of the only existing prototype of the Wichita House, "the sheet metal skin, deck structure, and even the acrylic windows are in tension, too. The completed structure is strong, yet slightly resonant, like the wings of a large aircraft. After a few minutes, the odd boat-deck sensation is unnoticable."26
But it wasn't until 1949 at Black Mountain College that Fuller would take his application of tension into the fully functional tensegrity structures he envisioned. While developing his energetic-synergetic geometry, he attempted to build the first geodesic structures, testing many of the structural ideas which had been gestating for more than 20 years with a group of college students. Up to this point Fuller still could not figure out how to make the compression elements discontinuous and the tension elements continuous. His student, Ken Snelson discovered the key to suspending the compression units in a three dimensional form.
One night Snelson showed Fuller his "X" piece of plywood x's "floating" effortlessly on a nearly invisible network of monofiliment tension threads. Fuller immediately saw that Snelson had developed the way to hinge the tension elements together so that the compression members would seem to float. It was exactly what he had been looking for!27 Within weeks, Fuller eagerly applied this new approach to the vertex connections of a few of his models, introducing continuous tension and discontinuous compression to closed structures. Before long he had introduced this application to his own numerous repertoire of geometric structures and gave them the name, "tensegrity."
Shortly after, Fuller wrote enthusiastically to Snelson, "If you had demonstrated this structure to an art audience, it would not have rung the bell that it rang in me, who had been seeking this structure in Energetic Geometry."28 Now an internationally renowned sculptor, Snelson went on to develop the artistic and sculptural application of what he called "floating compression" in his well known mast sculptures and eventually patented his original tensegrity application. Fuller applied the name "universal joint" to Snelsons' concept and developed it further in his own realm of functional structures, using tensegrity in everything from his octet trusses to his newly emerging geodesic spheres.29
Fuller hoped his tension-based structures would follow an evolutionary path in which this unique form of architecture could meet the goal of becoming so large and so lightweight that it would eventually be "invisible." With a perfect balance between compression and tension, stretched uniformly around a spherical curve, the tensegrity sphere was the truest ephemeral form visually representing the property of dynamic strength, the hallmark of all geodesics. To Fuller, it was nothing less than the perfect man-made demonstration of optimal efficiency in the use of materials. The larger the structure was, the stronger it would be. Just as he saw everything in nature combining the forces of tension and compression, his tensegrity and "Aspension" structures were designed to act like nature, suspending loads with the greatest of ease. These structures, which could be built on any scale would have a structural integrity and a resonant quality, like well tuned instruments, just waiting to be played. He said:
Fuller's development of tensegrity structures and his ideas for large scale "Aspension" structures brought Fuller's work closest to the musical instrument that his original approach to shelter encompassed. In the last chapter to Nine Chains to the Moon, written in 1934 and published in 1939 Fuller described an encounter between his fictional protagonist, "Jones" and a beautiful girl from Planet XK 23 in trapezoidal segment 727831 of the star layer of the expanding universe" during his first "HYPER SHORT WAVE RADIO" transmissions. Jones conveys to the beautiful "X-ian" the gist of his epiphany. In his moment of eureka, he explains that his was an intentional plan to attempt to design shelter as an instrument on which to play music rather than merely a prosaic object to live in:
This early fictional account written between his first designs for the Dymaxion House and the curved structures that were soon to follow was an avenue for Fuller to articulate his mission in shelter design. Fuller's architecture would not be frozen or static. His home for the future would be an example of a dynamic, well-tuned instrument. Toward the end of his life, he felt he had made progress toward this goal by applying the principles he had demonstrated with geodesics and tensegrity. Using the analogy of architecture as "frozen music" he saw standard approaches to architecture as something like a "player piano" with the owner sitting there pretending to play."32 In a phone conversation with Ed Applewhite he said:
Fuller saw everything in terms of frequency. For instance, sound was a high frequency phenomenon. According to Fuller, Nature "deals with the various human senses at distinctly different rates." The average rate Fuller thought of as a middle range frequency, a Middle C:
Looking closely at the word, "music" we will note that it came from the Greek Muses, the goddesses of the arts, but originally the water nymphs. The Greek word, "muse" itself came originally from the Egyptian word, "mos" for water. Here we return to the Pythagorean notion of icosahedron = water. This exercise in etymology may open up a tiny glimpse into the fluidity of Fuller's original concept of resonance, or more aptly, the "frequency" exhibited by Fuller's final, geodesic and tensegrity structures. We can begin to understand his original ideas coming from navigating the sea in the Navy or from the bubbles that formed on waters below the aft of the ship as it moved forward through the water, initiating his earliest understanding of process, dynamic flows of water, waves, and ultimately, frequency. Of a significant link to Pythagoras, five, octaves and frequency, Fuller himself wrote:
For Fuller, how a structure was put together was more important than what it was made of. Strong and flexible design could accomodate a broader range of materials because it did not depend solely on their strength or weight. The questions he asked were, "How does nature design her universe?" "How much does it weigh?" Function was first, but in his urge to do more and more with less and less, higher functioning capability meant lighter weight and, almost by accident, greater aesthetic unity of form. Even though he felt that it was too static of a structure built out of solid steel struts instead of lightweight aluminum, the Expo '67 Dome which he referred to as his "Taj Mahal" to his wife, Anne, came closest to reaching the perfection of neutrality that he seeked in a high frequency, ephemeral piece of architecture.
Umberto Eco wrote about Fuller's greatest artifact, the Expo dome in his 1967 essay "A Theory of Expositions." Eco talked about problems of cross-cultural displays where every element has to contain one's culture while at the same time representing it to all other cultures in an understandable way. He saw two ways to cultures represented themselves to each other: "open symbols" which could have endless interpretation and conventional code symbols which are commonly understood. A third solution combined and transcended both open and code system. Eco described this solution as an allegorical representation recorded in the collective mind through eons of time, alluding to something beyond one culture or time period. Fuller's Expo '67 Dome became, for Eco, the perfect example of this type of sign:
To Fuller early in his experiment with shelter design, houses -- the artifacts we envelope ourselves in and surround our most domestic, intimate moments with -- were meant to resonate. Shelter could become, in its most globally applicable form, a type of "music" or instrument of ephemerality -- an almost transparent, transcendent form of form that could be played in myriad ways by a myriad of humans.
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copyright 1997, Bonnie DeVarco