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Supporting Humanity: A True Pioneer of Design

Bucky Fuller lived ahead of his time. Decades ago, the architect and thinker was laying the groundwork for sustainable life. Steve Conger pays tribute to his late mentor.

B12th July 1980 and I am driving my aging VW convertible around the final hill before the Windstar Foundation where I serve as Design Director. Riding with me is in the car is Buckminister Fuller, my co-instructor for a environmental design course that we teach. I say ‘we’ but in truth my part of teaching consists largely in learning from Bucky.

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A sunny Colorado day, the convertible’s top down, we make the last turn and see several hundred people gathered for a surprise 85th birthday party for Bucky. Windstar has gotten hold of a dymaxion car from Harrah’s Auto Museum. There’s a flyseye dome, the Windstar bio-dome, and other Bucky artifacts. John Denver, Bucky’s wife, and his grandson are also there.

The first person to reach us as we pull into the party is Colorado Governor Richard Lamm, camera crew in tow. “Happy birthday,” he says, and launches into “Population is the root of all the environmental and survival problems…”

Bucky stops in his tracks, and turns to Lamm, his focus fixed on him alone.  The crowds seem to recede, and, with full concentration, Bucky interrupts “Governor, we do not have a population problem, we have an intelligence problem.”
Nearing the end of his life, he had summoned up some of his intense insight into that pithy remark. We understood what he meant. Bucky had taught us that humanity needed a consciously designed operating manual for spaceship earth, one that co-operatively supports all humans and is sustainable. He thought of this as more of a design process than a political one: “I was convinced in 1927 that humanity’s most fundamental survival problems could never be solved by politics.”

Richard Buckminster Fuller, to give you his full name, regarded ignorance almost as a moral question: “All of humanity is in peril of extinction if each one of us does not dare, now and henceforth, always to tell only the truth, and all the truth, and to do so promptly-right now. Lack of knowledge concerning all the factors and the failure to include them in our integral imposes false conclusions. It is essential to release humanity from false fixations of yesterday, which now seem to bind it to a rationale of action only leading to extinction.”

Though seemingly intolerant, his rounding on the Governor that day in 1980 was in no way mean-spirited. He had spent a lifetime standing against factionalism. “Take the initiative,” he once said. “Go to work, and above all co-operate and don’t hold back on one another or try to gain at the expense of another. Any success in such lopsidedness will be increasingly short lived. There are synergetic rules that evolution is employing and trying to make clear to us.”

Bucky was on the Board of Advisors at the Windstar Foundation, John Denver’s vehicle for grappling with the environmental and humanitarian issues of the time.
I designed a building for the land there guided by our principles.
The aim was, “to blend with the surrounding terrain, and to be in balance with local eco-systems by using only renewable energy.”

Were we ahead of our time? The Windsor brochure, brought out in 1980 cited “a succession of worldwide crises in the environment, in energy use, and in the economic crises which have challenged our very ability to survive.” It was prescient stuff.

At night, after class, Bucky and I would sometimes go to Arthur’s restaurant in downtown Aspen. He would drill me on drawing complex geometric shapes. I drew them on the back of Arthur’s paper placemats.  Bucky set my task: “Draw a three-frequency two-thirds dodecahedron.”  I would draw, turn in my work, and he would grade me.

What he was teaching me were light-weight efficient structures, the heart of this design philosophy. After dinner one night, he stopped and looked at me. He peered through his thick black glasses: “Go out and build artifacts that support humanity,” he ordered.

With Bucky as my mentor, and Windstar in my background, I spent several decades as an architect and planner, working to make contributions according to the principles that I had learned. In 1980, I designed and build the Rocky Mountain Institute for Amory and Hunter Lovins. Amory was one of Bucky’s colleagues on the Board of Advisors at Windstar.
The Institute saw itself presenting a vision of a world “thriving, verdant, and secure, for all, for ever.” Powered by renewable energy, it had a banana tree in the central garden.

The same principles held me in good stead for years to come. In 1993, my partner Michael Fuller and I developed and designed the Inn of the Anasazi.

We replaced a white metal panel office building with a respectful, green hotel. The materials were non-toxic, the food organic, the hotel employee team multi-cultural.

Equally exciting was the facility we designed for the Snowmass Monastery.

This time we turned Bucky’s philosophy to constructing an environmental-cum-inspirational retreat center for the monks. It won a national AIA Award for Religious architecture.

Over in Mexico, I had the opportunity to work on a site of historical importance.
I designed and participated in the development of a great hotel and residential project on the only large parcel of land near the Centro in San Miguel de Allende.

It is completely pedestrian at ground level with access from the circulation below like the tunnels of Guanajuato.

The challenge was to benefit the community and to blend with the scale and complexity of a 400-year-old architectural treasure. The project was expected to create up to 600 permanent jobs.

Things took a turn for me 7 years ago. I began concentrating on solar energy systems with panels supported by cables. This, I realized, would be the most efficient, cost effective, and environmental way to quickly and efficiently deploy the massive amount of solar necessary for a clean, secure, cost/resource-efficient energy infrastructure.
Such light weight, structurally efficient systems can be easily elevated. This allows for the use of the land under the panels. What excites me about the system we launched, under the brand name P4P, is that it ticks so many boxes: energy, agriculture, building integrated PV (photovoltaic panels), environmental protection and restoration, even uses and methods yet to be thought of.

As time rolls on, Bucky’s words ring ever louder in my ears. In one of his profoundest pronouncements he once declared “humanity is now experiencing history’s most difficult evolutionary transformation.”
It’s certainly been proving painful. Last year Ban Ki-moon warned of the geo-political threats posed by desertification and land degradation. “One third of the earth’s surface is affected by desertification endangering the livelihoods and development of up to 1 billion people,” said the UN Secretary General, addressing the World Day to Combat Desertification and Drought. “Faced with long periods of drought famine, and deepening poverty, many have only one option: flight from the land.”

A whole matrix of ecological threats has worsened. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned of rising risks on several fronts: unique and threatened systems, extreme weather events, distribution of impacts (net positive/negative to all), and large scale discontinuities. The panel’s 2007 update of its Third Assessment Report showed a deterioration on all of those fronts compared to 2001.

All those years ago Bucky had warned that we would be challenged to the core. He acknowledged that failure was possible: “I think it’s absolutely touch and go whether we are going to make it. But the point is, for me to tell you that you have an option is not to be optimistic… Time and again of course, I am running into millions who don’t know we have the option, because it’s invisible, and I feel that I have tremendous responsibility… Of course they are pessimistic not knowing that.”

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