The Utopian Impulse: Buckminster Fuller and the Bay Area, which opened 31 March at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, is the first exhibition of its kind to consider the local influence that Bucky Fuller (1895 – 1983) — that legendary and inimitable 20th century mind — had on the Bay Area's realized structures, and, just as importantly, on its widely, even "collectively" envisioned ones.
Utopian Impulse examines Fuller's (sometimes literal) presence in many seminal movements and experiments from the 1970s, including those of the avant-garde architecture collective, Ant Farm. Ant Farm's proposal for a domed city, called "Convention City 1976," is one particularly striking example on display, among others: in the form of models, videos, and photographs we see a media-centric public arena in a city built for 20,000 inhabitants (most of them "actors" clued into the roles demanded of their turned-on and on-view center of activity). A clever and even eerie foreshadowing of the way we live now, the domed city is as relevant to say, Times Square, as to the more general "small town", in which every inhabitant watches the same nightly newscast and simultaneously casts a vote for his favorite contestant on Dancing With The Stars or Eurovision. Given the show's context, Convention City is an excellent demonstration of a work that cooks in the same juices as Fuller's, but comes out of the skillet free of any derivation, an independent and original product of its time and dialog.
Also on prominent view in Utopian Impulse is the Oval Intention Tent (1976) by The North Face, the outdoor-gear company established in the Bay Area in 1966. The tent is, in no mistakable terms, a realized geodesic dome, a forward march away from the "A-Frame" tent of decades past. The OI is, in practice, "tensegrity" — a Fullerism that combines tension with integrity; it is a physical structure made of metaphysical "big ideas." And on view alongside the tent, is a 9-minute video clip of Fuller's visit to The North Face in 1981.
"Influence" is a cold and abstracted term, but to see Fuller like this, in motion amid the lines of thought that he inspired, puts "influence" into an unusually intimate and even immediate contact with the viewer. If it weren't for the "do not touch" code of museum conduct, one could reach out and grab Fuller's ideas, quilted as they are into remarkably diverse works.
But rather than reclining comfortably into the years that Fuller was active, Utopian Impulse links seamlessly with present-day relevance, as well, displaying evocative projects and proposals that Fuller did not live to see. Among them is Jellyfish House by San Francisco-based firm IwamotoScott: the proposal shows a comprehensive and "animated" single-family home, which filters and cleans bay water and provides UV protection to those inside. Forward-thinking in its sustainable philosophy, the home can trace up to Fuller in its family tree, though it was conceived more than two decades after his death. Likewise, there can be no video clip of Fuller walking through Thom Mayne's San Francisco Federal Building (completed 2007), but the exhibition draws attention to the building's movable screen, which slides over the roof and down the facade to "facilitate the entrance of shaded natural light into the building." In doing so, Utopian Impulse dusts for evidence of Fuller in the world as we see it today, and points to credible signs that his fingerprints are all over the dynamic concepts and multi-functional aesthetics that drive modern architecture and design.
The show stems from thirteen patented designs by Fuller, on loan from the R. Buckminster Fuller Archive at Stanford University. As a portfolio of drawings and images, which Fuller created toward the end of his life in collaboration with graphic designer Chuck Byrne, the designs are called Inventions: Twelve Around One. Notable among them are the famous 4D House (1928) and the Dymaxion Car (1933), although, really, they're all notable. Displayed as captivating prints on the walls, these images cocoon the show in both the aesthetics and limitless potential Fuller envisioned for the world around him. They also serve as reference points: visual guides that allow the viewer to more easily trace the indirect germination of those seeds Fuller planted.
As his legacy, Fuller leaves many loose threads to pull. Utopian Impulse demonstrates how grand his ideas were, how "custom-made" (to put it lightly) his ideals and vocabulary. And his projects? They were largely "unfinished" (let the bad connotation flow). Unrealized, not wholly understood, perhaps, "paper." Typically, these are fighting words in the world of architecture and design. But not so within the walls dedicated to The Utopian Impulse. That Fuller's own projects remain for us to see in an "unrealized" state, really, gratefully, means that they remain for us in an uncompromised state: unedited by commercial, social, even practical realities and demands. Bluntly put, these projects never became diet-Fuller or Fuller-lite. Perhaps that is why they remain inspiring. Fuller considered himself a "comprehensivist" — someone whose interests are informed by whole systems rather than by a single specialty. One can imagine, then, how even one compromise of his ideas could lead to their collapse.
Above all, what The Utopian Impulse does successfully is put on display the presence of a person, the weight of his convictions, and the comprehensivist earnestness of his proposals. The most difficult step to take in Utopian Impulse is not a mental one — the show is quite persuasive in illustrating the Fuller effect, past and present — but the physical step from the show's entrance, where a video of Fuller speaking (from his forty-two-hour lecture, Everything I Know) and a mini-glossary of Fuller's invented terms easily demonstrate his magnetism.