Research: “R. Buckminster Fuller’s Prototypes and Manuals: A Pedagogy of Designing and Building”: Daniel Lopez-Perez, University of San Diego; 2014 ACSA [Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture] Fall Conference: Peer-reviewed Conference Proceedings, Halifax (October, 2014)
R. Buckminster Fuller was a pioneer in design/build education. Travelling tirelessly across many schools of architecture and design, Fuller worked alongside students, building large-scale geodesic constructions whose form and complex geometry tested the limits of numerous materials. Experts have observed how “no single construction system has been built in so many sizes and of such diverse materials – wood, pipes, sheets of plastic and metal, foam panels, cardboard, plywood, bamboo, fiberglass, concrete and even bicycle wheels and the tops of junked cars.” Forfeiting conventional architectural drawings, Fuller also developed an original culture of representation. One that resulted in annotated assembly “manuals” whose goal was to succinctly describe the different constituent parts that formed these geodesic structures, while also illustrating their prototypical part-to-whole relationships. By challenging architectural conventions of form, materials and representation, Fuller’s extraordinary geodesic experiments with students can be understood as an original design/build pedagogy that resulted in both unique prototypes and new building systems.
Among the many photographs of Fuller working alongside his students, perhaps one of the earliest is at Black Mountain College in the summer of 1949. In the photograph, Fuller can be seen holding a manual standing next to students. Their puzzled gaze signaled the challenge in deciphering the differences between a sturdy geodesic dome model made of what appears to be Venetian blinds measuring three feet in diameter; and its flat equivalent, unable to gain any curvature at a much larger diameter. Students exclaimed how they had “worked like the devil all summer and waited for the dome to rise like the second coming of Moses, but it laid there like a bowl of wet spaghetti.” As illustrated by this image, on the one hand, drawings alone could not be the medium to test the limits of design. On the other, neither were materials enough to adequately challenge those of building. Fuller’s lesson, and way out of this paradox, was to simultaneously explore the irreducible nature of drawing and building. Rather than prioritizing design, or building, Fuller’s pedagogy cut productively across both as a way to tap into their potential.
This paper proposes to study a number of Fuller’s geodesic prototypes, and their assembly in these “manuals” as a way to explore the irreducible nature of design and building. If annotated drawings were designed to convey the geometric and material protocols that give rise to these as assemblies, both as unique instances but also larger systems, the built constructions were shaped to reflect their process of assembly and thus, their systematic logic. The paper will focus on original documentation, including Popko’s Geodesics (1968); Khan’s Domebook 1 (1970) and 2 (1974), Fuller’s own Inventions (1983), and The Artifacts of R. Buckminster Fuller (1985); as well as a number of contemporary examples and research projects that have followed this tradition, including Engel’s Structuture Systems (2007) and Moussavi’s Function of Form (2009), as a way to trace the legacy of Fuller’s design/build pedagogy today and into the future.