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Buckminster Fuller Challenge Launched

September 4, 2007

by C.J. Hughes

In the mid-1940s, long before the phrases “carbon footprint” and “green building” were coined, R. Buckminster Fuller urged people to lessen their environmental impact by taking up residence in aluminum-and-fiberglass geodesic domes. Construction of these shelters avoided the destruction of trees, and the domes required less energy to cool and heat compared to traditional rectangular buildings.

Spaceport America
Photo by F.S. Lincoln, Courtesy The Isamu Noguchi Foundation and Garden Museum
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With today’s tremendous interest in sustainability, the time is ripe to celebrate Fuller’s legacy. This is the aim of the Buckminster Fuller Challenge, a new annual competition inaugurated today and the first among several upcoming tributes that will culminate in 2008 with the 25th anniversary of Fuller’s death (he was born in 1895). The Challenge, which is open to architects and non-architects alike, awards $100,000 to an individual or team who dreams up a novel solution to a pressing world problem, preferably by blending multiple disciplines, such as engineering, ecology, and art—just as the jack-of-all-trades Fuller once did.

“Bucky recognized it was important to treat issues holistically, and that ideas can survive for much longer than structures can,” says Jonathan Marvel, a board member of the Buckminster Fuller Institute, which is sponsoring the competition. An architect based in New York City, Marvel also happens to be Fuller’s grand-nephew.

If competition entries embody Fuller’s so-called “trim tab” principle, all the better. A trim tab is the thin, moveable back-end flap on a ship’s rudder. Fuller believed this relatively tiny navigational device, which could control the movement of a large ship, provided an apt metaphor for what he was trying to do: change the direction of the world, but incrementally. Competition entries, which can contain no more than 1,500 words and six images, will be accepted between September 4 and October 30th, with a winner declared in June 2008. More details are available at the Challenge Web site, http://challenge.bfi.org/.

Next June also brings a retrospective of Fuller’s life and work at the Whitney Museum of American Art. It’s the first major such exhibition since his death. And at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan, there’s Best of Friends: Buckminster Fuller and Isamu Noguchi, from November 3 through January 15.

Noguchi, the sculptor, met Fuller at a Greenwich Village bar in 1929 and the two quickly became collaborators on projects such as the Dymaxion Car, an automobile that could also fly. Also on display in Dearborn will be the Dymaxion House, a circular one-story structure resembling a metallic hamburger that could be packed into a tube and shipped.

Mass-produced Dymaxions were intended to satisfy a housing shortage in the mid-1940s, as soldiers returned home from World War II, but a dispute between Fuller and has associates scuttled these plans. Still, the Dymaxion prefigured the easy-to-transport modular BoKlok houses by Ikea and other designs in the prefab renaissance, says Marc Greuther, a Ford curator: “Fuller’s influence is way more pervasive and subliminal than people would realize.”

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