Sunday, June 25, 2017

231: A New Dimension in Housing

You may recall several earlier podcasts in which we discussed the works of Buckminster Fuller, the visionary futurist and architect of the mid-20th century.   He is best known for his discovery of the geodesic dome, and has been memorialized in the name of the chemical “fuillerene”, an arrangement of 60 carbon atoms with a similar structure.    He also was a popular, if somewhat eccentric, speaker on the idea of “Spaceship Earth”, offering various feel-good prescriptions for enabling the future survival of the human race.   A critical component of his philosophy was a new “synergetic” geometry based on 60-degree rather than 90-degree angles, which would surely lead to new ways of looking at the world.    But recently I’ve been reading a new biography of Fuller’s early years, “Becoming Bucky Fuller” by Loretta Lorance, and was surprised to learn that despite his own later descriptions of his early life, Fuller did not originally set out to be a futurist or visionary, or to save the world through a philosophical revolution.   Originally, he was simply trying to start a successful company, and hoping to follow in the footsteps of industrialists like Henry Ford.

Fuller’s first significant job in the 1920s, after leaving the army, was with his father-in-law marketing the “Stockade System”, a clever design of reusable wood-composite blocks for construction purposes.   The idea was to standardize construction on a precision-manufactured type of block, with holes in each block that could be lined up to pour in large quantities of concrete to add structural stability.    This could improve construction efficiency and reduce the cost of buildings.   This company eventually failed, but it gave Fuller a more ambitious idea.   Why not try to mass-produce full houses, rather than the component bricks?    He compared the concepts to Ford’s mass production of cars, in contrast with the cumbersome process of getting a house built.  “What would happen if a person, seeking to purchase an automobile, had to hire a designer, then send the plans out for bid, then show them to the bank, and then have them approved by the town council, all before work on the vehicle could begin?”   Cars would be far more expensive, and would only be affordable to the wealthiest citizens.   By mass-producing houses like cars, private homes would be within reach at much lower income levels.

Fuller attempted several versions of the design of this house, thinking of the practicalities of mass production.  However, his inclination to have it supported by a central, cylindrical metal frame supporting an overall circular or hexagonal design was very unusual for the time, and probably appeared to most people like something out of science fiction.   He also concentrated as much on the philosophy of his new houses as he did on the actual design, marketing it in a pamphlet called “4D Timelock”, implicitly linking his project with new scientific developments regarding the fourth dimension.   There were several reasons why Fuller considered his new designs to be four-dimensional.  First, there was the push for temporal efficiency of construction, to a greater degree than past architecture, incorporating the dimension of Time.   Then, there was supposed built-in longevity to his designs, due to the use of superior materials and techniques, again incorporating the idea of Time from the beginning.   Finally, he claimed that using advanced geometric concepts, like radiating spheres and trigonometry, was a key component that integrated all dimensions.   I find that last claim a bit odd, since those concepts are clearly part of three-dimensional geometry, but was unable to locate an online copy of Fuller’s original pamphlet to check the claim in more detail.

Fuller’s attempts to get investors to actually fund this new concept were, unfortunately, not very successful.   He initially made the mistake of trying to unveil it at a national architects’ convention— one which was dominated by a fear of mass-production and a movement among architects to make sure that every design remained custom and unique.    He then sent out many copies of his “4D Timelock” to potential investors, but while he received some fascinated replies, he got very little money.   Thinking the “4D” concept might be scaring some people off, he changed the marketing name to “Dymaxion”, combining “dynamism”, “maximum”, and “ions”.    His first big break was when he got permission to display a model at the Marshall Field department store in Chicago, and the public were intrigued by the bizarre design.   

Word-of-mouth led to other opportunities for him to display and talk about his ideas.  He exhibited and spoke about the Dymaxion house throughout the 1930s, as well as working on other related projects.   Along the way, he had to start describing his ideas as potential houses of the future— because despite his popularity, he had failed to attract enough investment to mass-manufacture the actual house anytime soon.    But the model’s bizarre appearance, and the rhetoric that connected it with the fourth dimension, were nicely tied with this conception.   Connected with this futurism was the appealing idea that these new houses could enable social progress:  by making housing less expensive and delivering it efficiently, a huge proportion of humanity could be lifted out of poverty and provided practical homes of their own.   As Lorance puts it, “As time progressed the issue changed from the specific house to the possibilities the house represented”.    

In other words, Fuller’s tours promoting the Dymaxion House launched his reputation as a futurist, visionary thinker, and his popularity as a public speaker.   This gave him the freedom and success to later explore many other radical ideas, such as his geodesic domes, which led to well-deserved worldwide fame.   Ironically, we would probably not remember him nearly as well today if his first proposals had actually succeeded in attracting investors, and he had simply become the founder and CEO of a practical manufactured-home provider.

And this has been your math mutation for today.