R. Buckminster Fuller Montreal Biosphere

Life as a Verb: R. Buckminster Fuller’s I Seem to be a Verb

R. Buckminster Fuller Montreal Biosphere
Examining R. Buckminster Fuller’s I Seem to be a Verb through the lens of 21st century architecture and societal needs.

I live on Earth at present,

And I don’t know what I am.

I know that I am not a category.

I am not a thing – a noun.

I seem to be a verb,

An evolutionary process –

An integral function of the universe.

-R. Buckminster Fuller

If you read enough books, or listen to enough lectures by R. Buckminster Fuller, you will start to notice commonalities. These aren’t thematic commonalities; every thinker is prone to points of obsession around which their ideas revolve. These are points of reference, facts, such as the conversions of one type of energy into another or the differences in weight between different construction systems. The points of reference remain consistent, even if the intellectual journeys diverge. These references function like rhizomic nodes, points of convergence anticipating dispersion. The resonance between divergent branches is frequently concordant, but rarely coordinate.

In many respects, the network of ideas described by this system of convergence and divergence resembles Fuller’s own concept of the universe as a matrix of interacting forces. “I always start with the universe: An organization of regenerative principles frequently manifest as energy systems of which all our experiences, and possible experiences, are only local instances.”

In a universe defined in this way, the goal of technology becomes the redirection of energy from one trajectory to another. Fuller’s tensegrity structures function in this way to create, not a static system, but rather one in dynamic equilibrium — a closed system that is self-rejuvenating. When one’s point of reference is the universe, all systems are globally closed, even if they are locally open.

The elegance of such a system is that, by “design” or definition, it is eternal, since it is premised on a resource that (by the First Law of Thermodynamics) cannot be depleted, only altered. Perhaps it is this element of closure that drove Fuller’s interest in domes and globes, the geodesic figures for which he became famous, with their underlying tetrahedral and icosahedral systems of energy conversion.

Fuller regularly associated the organizational principles of geodesics to the structure of atoms, molecules, and biological organisms (like radiolarians and diatoms). The scalar instability revealed in these types of associations was expanded in his own work, which ranged from individual habitats to his proposal for a two mile diameter dome over New York.

This insistence on systems thinking, which embraces changes of states and relative positions, as opposed to objects, regularly put Fuller at odds with conventional architects, as he insisted that “Form is a verb,” not a noun, or that “Space is a meaningless term. We have relationships, but not space.”

Yet, focusing on energy allowed Fuller to expand his architecture globally, emphasizing the global energy flows and conversions that inform architectural production, if not ultimately human health and well-being, which constituted Fuller’s primary design interest: “My objective has been humanity’s comprehensive welfare in the universe.”

To some, this insistence on human welfare might seem quaint, a humanistic hold-over from the 19th century, but Fuller himself regularly reminded his audiences that he was born in the late nineteenth century, so he can be forgiven. But should he be? People have been through a lot. Wouldn’t it be nice to have someone extend a compassionate hand, and through the discipline of design alleviate some of the suffering, or even bring joy — like the ephemeral image of thousands of travelers floating within geodesic clouds?

“Geodesic spheres larger than half-a-mile in diameter can be floated in the air, like clouds. Draped with polyethylene curtains… the spheres would be light enough to remain aloft, at preferred altitudes. ‘Cloud nines’ one mile in diameter could house thousands of people, whose weight would be negligible. Passengers could pass from ‘cloud’ to ‘cloud,’ or from ‘cloud’ to ground, as the ‘clouds’ float around the Earth or are anchored to mountain tops.”
The last might seem somewhat fantastical, even childish, but not only did Fuller maintain a certain sense of youthfulness even late in life, he regularly extolled the virtues of childlike thought: “Everybody is born an inventor. As children, we invent games until ‘grown-ups’ persuade us that our inventing is ‘futile,’ that we should conform with yesterday’s seemingly proven but usually outworn invention.”

The unconventional thinking of children is often laden with all manner of original ideas, if you take the time to listen, and maintain an open mind. Sometimes, it can even reveal how stuck within entrenched notions we might become, even where there is little evidence that such notions are right, or even useful.

Children, or those whose minds have not become too clouded by convention, have the capacity to discover new patterns and new means of understanding, which provide insights, not into how things are done, but how they might be done.

The capacity for exploration is proportional to one’s availability to new ideas or perspectives, regardless of their sources. Ideas, like energy, are transmutable — they change states as they traverse the landscape of the imagination, sometimes densifying, aggregating thoughts, notions, and dreams, sometimes rarifying and dispersing, sometimes taking flight, sometimes taking form — even if that form (as Fuller would remind us) is only a transitory state.

I Seem to be a Verb manifests some of the child, some of the adolescent, some of the old man (Fuller was 75 years old when it was published). Enlivened by the richly textured graphic design of Quentin Fiore and Jerome Agel (both of whom also designed Marshall McLuhan’s The Medium is the Massage), the book is populated by voices of the past, newspaper clippings, quotes, collages, film stills, and images plucked from the popular publications of the time, overwritten with snippets of text from Fuller himself.

Published in 1970, the book suffers little for its age, perhaps because of the prescience of its author and designers, or because in the intervening half century we have found ourselves somewhat stuck in convention, distracted, maybe, by the mundane and immediate. In this regard, it feels both forward-facing and nostalgic, if only insofar as one wishes for a brighter future floating along in a geodesic cloud, and wonders, after fifty years, “what’s taken so long?”