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The following article appeared in the Fall 1997 edition of the Windstar Vision.
Bucky Works: Buckminster Fuller's Ideas for Today
An interview with author Jay Baldwin
-- Sherryl R. Stalinski
Windstar Vision: Tell us about your relationship with Bucky. Early in the book, you refer to yourself as an "artifact" of Bucky rather than a protege.
Our relationship was student/teacher at first, then grew to be collaborator. But I never worked for him, or sat at a desk next to him designing, and I didn't worship him like so many people do. Those things made him uneasy, and it simply wasn't my nature. I wanted to make sure when people read the book they didn't think I was someone who sat at his knee. I wanted to make it clear I wasn't a protege. Frank Lloyd Wright, for instance, had lots of proteges, but Bucky went out of his way not to have any.
The first time I heard him, he spoke for 14 hours nonstop. It was the University of Michigan in 1951, I had just turned 18. It really startled me to hear someone talk about things I had always wondered myself. Much of what he said that day struck a chord with me. My father was an engineer and I always wondered why, if engineers were so smart, they didn't deal with these simple things that didn't work well. I was at U of M to learn about car design because a friend of mine had been killed in a car accident. His death was the direct result of bad car design, so I decided I was going to design safe cars.
When Bucky came to the U of M, he wanted a single, private room to stay in so I offered him mine. I had all sorts of car models and he asked me about my ideas of car design. Then he started telling me about his dymaxion car and I insisted it wouldn't work with a single rear tire. I told him it might blow out and cause the car to lose control. Some of his students, myself included, went on to use and build on some of his ideas and that's the purpose of the book: to encourage people to build on his ideas and more importantly, to learn to think like he thought, and that's not an easy task. His major books, Synergetics I & II are really difficult to read.
WV: As a matter of fact, you preface the chapter on Synergetics by saying in essence, "This chapter is going to be difficult to get through, but get through it anyway, because it's just that important." You spend a lot of time in the book encouraging people to learn from and build on Bucky's ideas. Why is this so important to you?
For one thing, if you imitate, you're doing what has already been done so you're not cutting any new ground. Also, when people imitate, they sometimes begin to focus on the erroneous parts of the personage and approach them as a celebrity. Bucky was so much not like that, and he did have foibles. I mention some of these in passing in the book, like his strange diet and sleeping habits because these were examples of how he lived as a guinea pig.
WV: Bucky is considered by some to be the "Leonardo DaVinci of the 20th century." You even mention this in the book and yet his work is not as widely known as one might expect. Why do you think that is?
Our society places great value on material success. He didn't make any money off his ideas. In any given year, he might see a half million dollars go through his hands and yet I bought him lunch more than once.
WV: Additionally, you talk about him not being taken seriously by the scientific community and branded a "generalist."
Or a "pseudo-scientist" which is even worse! This is because, as he said, "I leave the mathematical proof of this to others." He was very intuitive and believed that all good ideas come from individuals working from their informed intuition. Some people are better at it than others. Bucky taught that you can train your intuition. I agree.
WV: You say perhaps he would have had more credibility if the term "comprehensivist" were more accepted.
To my knowledge, there is not a school anywhere which teaches a course in comprehensive thinking. I tried myself at Sonoma State this year and they wouldn't go for it. They said it would mean I would have to stand and lecture my students and they couldn't possibly learn how to think without participating. I explained that the class would actually consist of all student participation. Their response was that students wouldn't know how to participate. "That's right!" I said, "they'd have to do it to learn it." Just like you can't teach someone to be a painter by lecturing. What are you going to say to them? "No, no! Don't put the red there! Put it here! No! Not that red, stupid! A different red... a better red!" Ha!
The way to teach is to force students into a position where they have to use intuition to get out--where they have to think for themselves. I've developed ways of teaching this effectively, which is why I approached Sonoma State.
WV: Why weren't they interested?
If you're going to teach an interdisciplinary class, FTE (Full Time Enrollment) units must get split between departments, which is viewed as weakening the department financially and politically. It's compounded by the problem that "disciplines" themselves don't occur in nature. Nature doesn't have a department of ecology and a department of biology and so on; so the very word "interdisciplinary" forces compartments, which nature doesn't have. Fuller was a proponent of an omni-disciplinary approach, where there isn't any single discipline and the goal is to look at the interaction between the way things fit together.
WV: Bucky had deep convictions about our society of "specialists"; our future as a human species, politics and the environment.
If you look at Bucky's writing, he evolved, as did his ideas. For instance, his car was originally supposed to fly. Can you imagine after the Superbowl, for instance, 50,000 cars lifting off from the parking lot?! On the other hand, the idea that you can fly and land where you need to and not have to worry about roads is a very good idea. Back in 1927, he thought that by recycling, eventually we would have to do very little mining. The whole idea of doing more with less, or as we say today, replacing mass with information, Bucky expanded on this, believing that eventually we would get so metaphysical we would hardly be using anything. By studying patterns and connections between phenomenon, we would learn to harmonize and do synergetically as nature does, do our thing without harming or infringing or disturbing other systems, but rather incorporate them in a seamless way which isn't destructive. The older I get, the more I agree this is how it's going to be. For instance, one communications satellite takes the place of approximately 75 thousand tons of wire. Computers are taking the place of file cabinets. The dome I built is down to a half pound per square foot and yet can withstand hurricanes better than conventional buildings weighing hundreds of tons. One dome sustains temperatures such that when the weather outside is 15 below, with no furnace, inside vegetation is growing -- with less than 12/1000th of an inch of material! And we can still do better.
WV: Bucky is probably most noted for his work on domes and geodesic structures. Windstar's biodome project is featured in the book. Why was this dome significant?
It was bigger than anyone had tried before as a solar-powered dome in that climate. Also, the Windstar biodome used a different frame system. It was still geodesic, but much more sophisticated. Very little material was used. Eventually, condensation began to form between the layers and less and less sun was able to get through. But nonetheless, it was a great big thing that for the money was a large building which produced well. It needed another prototype. One always needs three prototypes to get something to work right. The next one will be terrific.
WV: You talk about 3 prototypes. Why?
The first one is concept. "Lets just put something together and see if it works." And you do. The second prototype is actually an improvement on the first. It's a learning process and people are usually goal oriented. I have never been goal oriented and I teach my students not to have goals. What you should strive for is direction. So with the second prototype, you modify: extra weight here, less bracing there. Too much light here, not enough fasteners over there. It ends up looking like a third grade art project but now it's really working. The third prototype is built from scratch, incorporating the improvements. This one is it. The third is a prototype of what will be manufactured in quantity.
WV: If you could have your readers walk away with one thing...
Pay attention! Pay attention and try to understand what's going on in the universe around you. Don't settle for simplistic explanations and the limiting labels of names. One of the really great things Bucky had in his dymaxion house, which he thought should be in every home was a "go ahead with life room." In that room, he said in 1927, should be a calculator, a television (which had just been invented), books, maps, globes, a telephone line... so children could teach themselves. He used to pronounce the word "ignorance" as "ignore-ance", which is what it is. If we are going to have any hope of world peace, any hope of a promising future, we have to provide a "living" environment for our children. We have to provide opportunities to learn how Universe operates. Show kids everything there is to see. Bucky used to say "Universe" all the time -- not the universe -- because Universe is an evolving changing thing all the time; it's a verb -- not a noun -- it is action and living and growing.
We need to operate in an intuitive, integrated way. It is our duty to learn how Universe works and then solve local problems to the best of our ability. If we do that, we won't have to worry about "making a living." Universe will take care of us if we do what we're supposed to be doing. Squirrels don't have to go to the market to buy nuts and berries. I've found, if you do what needs to be done, what you need comes to you. The idea of the book then, is simply this: "If you think this way, here's what you can come up with." It's about learning and evolving.
Underscoring his final statement, Jay closed with the following anecdote:
In 1979, Bucky and I were eating lunch and he looked up across the booth and said to me, "You know, old man, you were right about that rear tire." He showed me the patent drawings with a second rear tire in place.
Published by John Wiley & Sons, Bucky Works: Buckminster Fuller's Ideas for Today is now available in paperback.
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