'You Belong To The Universe' Explores Visionary Spirit Of Buckminster Fuller NPR's Robert Siegel talks with author Jonathon Keats on his book, You Belong to the Universe, which looks at famed inventor Buckminster Fuller.

'You Belong To The Universe' Explores Visionary Spirit Of Buckminster Fuller

'You Belong To The Universe' Explores Visionary Spirit Of Buckminster Fuller

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NPR's Robert Siegel talks with author Jonathon Keats on his book, You Belong to the Universe, which looks at famed inventor Buckminster Fuller.


What do we make of the futurist whose version of the future never quite panned out, the profit of technology whose prophecy proved wrong? Well, Jonathon Keats says when the prophet in question is Buckminster Fuller, the vision itself is less important than the visionary spirit. Fuller built himself as a comprehensive anticipatory design scientist. He designed geodesic domes, cars and houses like this one featured in a 1946 newsreel.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: At Wichita, Kan., in the very center of the United States, the housing problem brings out a circular dwelling built of aluminum and plastic. Instead of a foundation, this cornerless cottage is suspended from a central mast of stainless steel. The engineering principle with the safety factor of a suspension bridge permits new ideas like a revolving room which gives a complete change of air every six minutes.

SIEGEL: In his book about Buckminster Fuller, Jonathon Keats argues that Fuller's ideas are now more relevant than ever. And Jonathon Keats joins us. Welcome to the program.


SIEGEL: Buckminster Fuller was a celebrated futurist. He was born in 1895, died in 1983. If you had to sum him up for someone too young to have heard or heard much about him in short, who was Buckminster Fuller?

KEATS: Buckminster Fuller spent his entire life trying to make the world work for a hundred percent of humanity in the shortest time possible without offense to the environment or to anyone. And he truly made that attempt through myriad projects, most of which failed in one way or another, but with a sincerity that remains resonant and powerful to this day.

SIEGEL: We do not live in houses like the one we heard described in Wichita. We don't drive three-wheeled cars that look like rocket ships, and there is no dome over our - over most of our cities (laughter) that I know of. What is relevant from this man's ideas if so often they were impractical?

KEATS: Fuller believed that if you were to look at all of the resources in the world and all of the needs, that you could start to map them in a way that would optimize for the planet and for the people on it.

SIEGEL: Natural solutions to man-made problems is one way of describing what he was after.

KEATS: Indeed. He was very interested in trying to understand how nature builds, trying to look at natural systems. And he could do this sometimes with a degree of naive literalism that frankly is kind of quaint or infuriating.

He, for instance, built a three-wheeled car that he claimed had steering like a bird or a fish but got it completely wrong in the case of birds and also got it completely wrong in the fact that both birds and fish are single-medium organisms. They go through air or water whereas a car has to navigate on the land and go through air.

However, he was also much more profound in terms of his thinking about whole systems. That three-wheeled car was initially meant to be the taxiing apparatus for an airplane, a personal plane that people would be able to use to get around from their house to other houses, all of which would be distributed across the planet much as birds are able to nest wherever is optimal. And so this self-organizing principle was something that he was advocating as an alternative to the crowded conditions of cities.

SIEGEL: But as you describe in your book about Fuller, time and again - and in one case, it's a man who is completely taken with the idea of living in a geodesic dome and built it only to discover that it actually can't handle nature, that the structure can't handle temperature change and humidity. It was a very - seemingly a one-dimensional view of what nature is.

KEATS: Buckminster Fuller spent his entire life insisting that the geodesic dome was a solution to many if not all of the world's problems. He had a way in which once he had come up with an idea, he could not see the faults in it. So the fact that the domes leaked, for instance, he would waive off as being simply a matter of a problem with the materials at hand at a given time.

He, however, had a much more profound idea underlining the domes, which is something that, even for all the leakage, remains important and relevant today. And that was that he was looking for the ways in which to cover the most ground with the least material. And that way of thinking about the problem of shelter is the foundation for this comprehensive, anticipatory design science that is, to me, the essence of Buckminster Fuller.

SIEGEL: What's an example of something that we see today and that was inspired by the thinking of Buckminster Fuller?

KEATS: One of Fuller's ideas was that television could be two-way, that you would be able not only to watch TV but also to channel it, accessing whatever you wanted to see. Today this, of course, sounds a lot like YouTube on the one hand. But also because he envisioned his two-way TV as an educational medium, what it seems even more to be like is the MOOC, the massive online courses that are offered by most of the universities worldwide.

SIEGEL: Jonathon Keats, author of "Young Belong To The Universe: Buckminster Fuller And The Future," thank you very much for talking with us today.

KEATS: Thank you.

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