Phil Leggiere reviews the book "Buckyworks: Buckminster Fuller's Ideas for Today" by Phil Leggiere.

Published May 16, 1996 7:00PM (EDT)

"Buckminster Fuller was the last American thinker to really believe in the future," observed architect Philip Johnson after Fuller's death in 1983. Which may account for the anomalous position the charismatic utopian futurist holds at the fin de sihcle. Technology we surely have -- as cyber-cultural commodity fetish or nightmare ecological and social nemesis -- but in an era of postmodernist pessimism, Fuller's trademark technological humanism appears almost an oxymoron, more quaint than relevant. Fuller, to be sure, is fondly remembered, but seldom read and even more seldom considered terribly salient to business and politics as usual.

In this context, J. Baldwin's "BuckyWorks" comes as a pleasant surprise. Eschewing the twin biographical temptations of hagiography and cynicism, Baldwin, a former student of Fuller's and editor of the Whole Earth Catalogue, succeeds (no mean achievement) in making Fuller unsafe for intellectual nostalgia.

Baldwin concentrates primarily on Fuller as inventor, the occasionally successful (or, more often, ahead of his time) entrepreneur and maverick engineer of the visionary. He sketches, in extensive detail, high points of 60-plus years of design, ranging in focus from the cosmos to, literally (with Fuller's energy efficient "Packaging Toilet"), the commode. Included are discussions (complete with illustrations, diagrams and photos) of Fuller's major projects -- the Dymaxion House and Dormitory, Dymaxion Car, Geodesic Domes and Fuller's Synergetic-Energetic System of Geometry -- as well as marginalia and humorous curiosities such as the "Steak-Prune and Jello" diet Fuller followed and his pioneering of the "power nap".

As a historian of design and technology, Baldwin presents Fuller's schemes warts and all, unflinchingly describing the leaks which plagued Fuller's domes, the poor insulation in the Dymaxion home prototype and the erratic back steering system of his three-wheeled Dymaxion Car. However, far from seeing these as merely eccentric dead ends or esoteric museum pieces, Baldwin persuasively makes the case that Fuller's prophetic forays into ecologically sustainable alternative technology (and the vision of post-scarcity abundance which inspired them) are likely to become ever more influential and relevant as we enter a new century.

By Phil Leggiere

Phil Leggiere is a cultural critic living in Hoboken, NJ.

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