Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth

The 10th and last section of the Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth exhibition shows the strength of his influence on a variety of disciplines: in the 1970s, hippies in California constructed small, tent-like geodesic domes from recycled material; his urban utopias were adopted in the space cities of Jona Friedmann; and his hexagonal constructions can be seen in skyscraper designs from Gregotti to Louis Kahn.

Fuller’s transdisciplinary imagination of design science remains an inspiration to artists, architects, designers and scientists even today. »The most important thing we can learn from Bucky is the cooperation between the most different of disciplines,« said Norman Foster at the opening. »The exhibition shows many objects, but the essence of Buckminster Fuller’s work are his ideas and what I particularly valued about him: despite all the science, the most important aspect for him was how something looked.«

The principle behind the geodesic dome, which was developed in 1948 at Black Mountain College using a prototype made of window blinds, became a huge success. Fuller was asked to develop it further for numerous uses, from lightweight hangar frameworks for the army to the large dome of the American pavilion at the 1967 Expo in Montreal, in which an Apollo space capsule was hung from three parachutes. When it came to scale, Fuller’s imagination knew no bounds, developing utopian ideas for a climate-controlling dome over Manhattan, or spherically shaped cities named Cloud 9, which would fly over the Grand Canyon.

Norman Foster met Fuller in 1971 and while many of their collaborations never came to production, Foster continued to be inspired by his ideas and principles even after Fuller’s death in 1983.

Buckminster Fuller was also renowned for his teaching at the Black Mountain College in 1948-49, where he taught classes together with Bauhaus-master Josef Albers, composer John Cage and the artist Willem de Kooning. These workshops resulted not only in the first attempts at the geodesic dome, but also the discovery of »Tensegrity« structures, which the young artist Kenneth Snelson developed initially as sculptures. The design involved compression struts that were connected by load cables, without touching each other. A year previously, Snelson had been Fuller’s assistant and he named the structures after their properties of »tension« and »integrity«. Although the creatorship was disputed between professor and student, it was Fuller who filed the patent.

Dymaxion Dwelling Machine or Wichita House, 1946. The revolving house is made from lightweight materials, while the ventilation is controlled by an outlet on the roof.

As early as 1928, Fuller filed a patent for a hexagonal house, anchored around a central mast. In 1936, he received a patent for the Dymaxion Bath – a prefabricated bath cubicle made from light alloy. The watercolour comes from Fuller’s wife.

Three stages of development on the way to the Dymaxion House: patent for a changing cubicle made of light alloy,1928; the Dymaxion Development Unit, 1941; and the Dymaxion Dwelling Machine (Wichita House), 1946.

Alongside the number of original design sketches and models, further highlights of the exhibition include the detailed films, which show original footage as well as a montage of the Dymaxion Car driving through the streets of New York City, both in the 1950s and then the present day. The effect is striking – despite being over 60 years old, the car still has a futuristic look to it and could yet make an important contribution in the search for the ideal urban car of the future.

Foster’s 2010 reconstruction is only the fourth model to have ever been built. The inspiration came from a sketch by Fuller of a streamlined, 4D flying car. The land version, without the flying element, was designed by Fuller and yacht designer Starling Burgess. They built three prototypes between 1933 and 1934.

The teardrop form of the Dymaxion Car was common among many car designers in the 1930s, as was the three-wheel design. What set the Dymaxion Car apart was that it offered space for 11 people and, in particular, the wheel-away rear wheel, which offered a small turning circle.


Models of the wooden frame and the interiors of different versions of the Dymaxion Car enhance the fully functioning life-size model.

The Dymaxion principle: dynamic, maximum, tension in both buildings and vehicles.

Lord Norman Foster and Fuller’s long-time colleague Thomas Zhung seem satisfied with their efforts for the exhibition.

A look inside the exhibition »Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth«. The red Rowing Needles hangs on the ceiling, while the view from the entrance is dominated by the reconstruction of the Dymaxion Car.

Buckminster Fuller (left, on a photo from the exhibition) and Norman Foster weren’t just colleagues, they also became good friends thanks to a shared passion for flying, among other things. It was Fuller’s father-in-law, though, who attracted him to the arts and he went on to become best friends with Isamu Noguchi. A bust of Noguchi – made by Fuller – begins the exhibition.


In 1983, shortly before Fuller’s death, he and Foster designed two identical geodesic domes, which could be twisted against each other to alter the shadow according to the position of the sun. One of them was to be located at Fuller’s house in California, the other at Foster’s in England. The photograph shows Norman Foster with a model of the Autonomous House in 1983 (left) and also with Thomas Zhung in 2011 at the MARTa exhibition (right).

The press conference had something of a fireside-chat feel to it between old friends reminiscing about times gone by. Since he was 19, Thomas Zhung (3rd from left) worked with Fuller and remains in charge of his office today. Lord Norman Foster recalled how associates had recommended him to Fuller, who had been looking for an architect at the time. »After lunch I wanted to show Bucky my reference project that I planned to include in my application. He just said: there’s no need – you’ve got the job.«

Foster’s wife Elena (far left) didn’t just provide the impetus to the Buckminster Fuller exhibition: as the CEO of Ivorypress, she produced the catalogue for the Dymaxion Car 4, as well as the exhibition, which was first shown in Madrid in the Ivorypress Art Rooms. Alongside such long-time acquaintances, MARTa director Roland Nachtigäller (far right) took a somewhat relaxed, back-seat role, although he did persuade Norman Foster to sign the official guest book for the city of Herford.

Suddenly, the rotor blades of a helicopter began to turn outside the MARTa museum. It wasn’t Lord Norman Foster and his wife Elena landing by the entrance – they landed at the Paderborn Lippe airport in a private jet. No, the helicopter is a sculpture by Michael Sailstorfer and is the »figurehead« of the MARTa museum.

It was for the likes of Foster and his wife that the red carpet was laid out in front of the MARTa Herford at the exhibition’s opening on 10 June. Located near the Sprengel Museum in Hannover and Philip Johnson’s Kunsthalle Bielefeld, the MARTa Herford blurs the boundaries between art and design.

Designed by Frank Gehry, the building opened in 2005 and was originally intended to be a »House of the furniture industry« in North Rhine-Westphalia, as Herford is home to several internationally renowned companies. However, Jan Hoet, founding director of the MARTa from 2003 until 2008 and now artistic director of the Dokumenta IX in Kassel, transformed the museum with his avant-garde and often controversial exhibitions into of the world’s most important in contemporary art and design.

Roland Nachtigäller has been in charge since 2008. As the pioneer of a field that included elements of art, design and science, Buckminster Fuller was always high on Nachtigäller’s wish list. And now his wish has come true, with two separate exhibitions running at the MARTa Herford until 18 September. The exhibitions are independent of each other, but thematically connected: »Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth«, curated by Norman Foster and Luis Fernandez Galiano, shows Fuller’s work in 10 different chapters. The second exhibition, »We are all Astronauts«, refers to Fuller’s book »Operating Manual for Planet Earth« and presents various contemporary artists, who have all used Fuller as a source of inspiration. Some were even commissioned to produce special work based on the geometry, materials or concepts that Fuller developed.

»If we are going to design a Buckminster Fuller exhibition, then I want to personally take care of reconstructing the Dymaxion Car«. What Lord Norman Foster announced at the Bucky Fuller exhibition in the Whitney Museum has now become reality. The futuristic car is the highlight of the »Bucky Fuller & Spaceship Earth« exhibition initiated by Foster’s wife Elena. Director Roland Nachtigäller has further enhanced proceedings by juxtaposing Fuller’s world with work from contemporary artists ranging from Ai Weiwei to Olafur Eliasson. The exhibition runs until 18 September in Germany’s MARTa Herford museum.
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