January 16, 1970: R. Buckminster Fuller gets Gold Medal from American Institute of Architects

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A Brief History

On January 16, 1970, one of America’s greatest architects and all around “Renaissance Man,” Richard Buckminster Fuller, was awarded the Gold Medal from the American Institute of Architects.  Mostly famous for his use of what he called the “geodesic dome” in architecture, Fuller, known simply as “Bucky” to friends, was also famous for his 30 books and penchant for inventing words and phrases.

Digging Deeper

Fuller is so highly regarded that a form of carbon molecules called “fullerenes” are named in his honor.  Fuller also served as the second president of the genius organization, Mensa, from 1974 to 1983.  Amazingly, Fuller accomplished all this without the benefit of a college degree, having had the ignominy of being expelled from Harvard not once, but twice!

A man of eclectic talents, Fuller worked as a mechanic, as a radio operator for the Navy during World War I, and then as a crash rescue boat commander, as well as working in the meat packing industry.  He and his father in law also went into the business of producing lightweight, fireproof housing, a venture that failed.  At the age of 32 (1927), Fuller was drinking heavily and was on hard times financially.  Although it appeared his life would be a total flop, he had an epiphany in which a vision gave him the motivation and purpose to succeed.  This revelation led Fuller to develop his idea of a “Dymaxion House” in 1930 (revised in 1945), an easily shipped and assembled model house with maximum efficiency for production and for living in.  The house featured a dome like structure of aluminum tubes radiating out similar to an umbrella, with aluminum wedges as roofing between the tubes.  Fuller also collaborated on a “Dymaxion Car,” with less success.

After World War II Fuller taught at Black Mountain College in North Carolina, where he worked on perfecting practical uses for the geodesic dome design.  Although he did not invent the geodesic dome, it was his work that made it practical.  Fuller showed the flexibility of his designs by creating large geodesic dome buildings and small, portable shelters for the Marine Corps.  By the 1950’s Fuller achieved international fame for his work, and was teaching at north Carolina State University.  One of his most famous domes was built for the Expo ’67 World’s Fair in Montreal, the dome later adapted for use as the “Biosphere,” a popular tourist attraction.

Fuller’s work garnered many honors and awards, including 28 patents and numerous honorary doctorates.  Fuller also earned awards for his writing, and ultimately was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1983 by President Reagan.  Just a few month later, as Fuller’s wife lay dying in a coma, Fuller suffered a fatal heart attack, his wife dying only 36 hours later.  Fuller had a philosophy he called “ephemeralization” meaning to create things efficiently and in harmony with the environment.  Concepts such as synergy, efficiency, minimalism, and protecting the environment were central to his thinking.

Fuller left a legacy of writings and structures, some interesting phraseology (such as “dymaxion” and “ephemeralization”), but it is his influence on so many architects that leave a testament to his life.  Books and films have been made about this interesting man, a US Postage Stamp was issued in his honor (displayed on the cover of Time Magazine, January 10, 1964), and even Rock music has alluded to him.  Fuller is certainly one of American History’s great architects.  Question for students (and subscribers): What other American architects would you rate as being in Fuller’s class?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

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The featured image in this article, a photograph by Cédric Thévenet of The Montreal Biosphère by Buckminster Fuller, 1967, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.

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About Author

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.