A parallel Worlds

Sunday December 18 2011 / Science & Technology - Art & Design

Those driving down 39th street and 1st Court in Miami over the past month or so could have not failed to notice two stunning additions to the Magic City.

Design Miami’s “Architecting the Future” exhibition has brought together for the first time in decades two iconic inventions from the great American systems theorist, designer and futurist Buckminster Fuller.

Sitting resplendently on a piece of downtown parkland for all to admire has been the only original prototype in existence of Fuller’s revolutionary, low cost, autonomous dwelling machine “The Fly’s Eye Dome” along with his sleek, omni-directional transport system the “Dymaxion” car, recently reconstructed by renowned British architect Norman Foster.

The Dymaxion car was designed by Fuller in the early 1930s. Its name was a composite of the words ‘dynamic’, ‘maximum’ and ‘ion’ and it featured highly innovative, and ultimately influential, features compared with the common car of the day.

In 1928 he had conceived a flying car with inflatable wings which was modified in subsequent drawings into a streamlined road vehicle the rear of which would rise in an aerodynamic lift to ‘fly’ steered by a rudder as the front rolled. In 1933 he presented his plans for the three-wheeled Dymaxion Car with rear steering and front-wheel drive powered by a Ford engine.

Success of the design was realised in its performance efficiencies: The car could transport up to 11 passengers, reach speeds of up to 145kmh/90mph, and ran 30 miles to the gallon (12.7km to the litre).

The aerodynamic shape, most closely related to high performance yachts, came partly from Fuller’s co-designer, the shipbuilder Starling Burgess. The rave reviews of the car’s styling, speed and manoeuvrability were tragically undermined when the first of three prototypes was rammed and overturned, killing the driver, outside the entrance to the 1933 Chicago World’s Fair.

Foster, who worked with his hero Fuller from 1971 until his death in 1983, borrowed it for inspiration from the National Automobile Museum in Nevade a few years ago when he decided to build Dymaxion No.4, the joint showpiece of the Miami exhibition which has also featured talks and films on Foster and his own design philosophies.

“A design classic may not be recognised at the time, but over time it may become timeless,” says Foster. "I have driven the Dymaxion No.4. It’s just wonderful to drive. The experience of pivoting on itself, turning literally on a dime, is just extraordinary.”

The external appearance of the Dymaxion was sensational; its streamline shape is still strong today and the design had an enormous impact on the future evolution of  "horseless carriage."

After 1947, one invention dominated Fuller's life and career: The geodesic dome.

Lightweight, cost-effective, and easy to assemble, geodesic domes enclose more space without intrusive supporting columns than any other structure; they efficiently distribute stress; and they can withstand extremely harsh conditions.

Based on Fuller's “synergetic geometry” – Fuller coined the term “synergies” as we may use them today – the geodesic dome was the result of his revolutionary discoveries about balancing compression and tension forces in building.

In the 1950s, domes began to be used by US government departments as temporary shelters for expeditions by the military, for housing radar installations in the Arctic, for example.

And this type of dome structure was also successfully deployed as the American pavilion at the Montreal world fair, Expo ’67.

“Bucky talked about the possibilities of plants and air movement, and that has been quite inspirational,” says Foster. “I could talk about architectural projects we have done and are doing now that really develop those principles where you work with natural ventilation and you reduce the energy load of a building.

“His mission, his philosophy, his beliefs and, in many ways, his demonstration of the ability to do more with less have come true. He talked about satellites in the sky weighing a few kilos, for instance, compared to the thousands of tonnes of copper cable that were being used for communications.”

“In a way he anticipated all the things we take for granted. He would say ‘I told you so’.”

For more information on Buckminster Fuller, his ideas and inventions, please visit http://www.bfi.org/

Suggested by
Maximilian Büsser