The imagination of the late R. Buckminster Fuller is on scintillating display in Culver City

By Sarah Davidson

Melding engineering with design, R. Buckminster Fuller was a renaissance man of the modern age

Visitors to Edward Cella Art + Architecture’s new exhibit “R. Buckminster Fuller: Inventions and Models” have likely heard the acronym STEM: science, technology, engineering, mathematics. But they may not have heard the acronym that best describes the spirit of design innovator R. Buckminster Fuller’s philosophy: STEAM. The “A” stands for — you guessed it — art.

“The more we emphasize that ‘A,’ then we start to understand Fuller,” said Thomas T.K. Zung, Fuller’s protégé and CEO of Buckminster Fuller, Sadao and Zung Architects. “How could you look at the Eiffel Tower and not think of art? How could you look at the Brooklyn Bridge and not think of it as art? You’re leaving out most of the universe when you say, ‘Oh, you have to be a nerd to do science or technology or math.’ The ‘A’ embraces all of it.”

According to Zung, who worked with Fuller for much of their careers, the “A” is the sparkly energy, or passion, that humanizes science. It also energizes the objects on display at Edward Cella, such as beautifully bound metal-and-wire sculptures held together by tensional integrity (or, as Fuller called it, “tensegrity”) and an elegant but utilitarian 21-foot rowing shell. In “Duo-Tet Star Polyhedras,” multi-colored molded thermoplastic structural tubes and connectors work together to create something that is half-sculpture, half-model, demonstrating a sublime synthesis of form and function — you get the sense that the object’s creator was attempting to both worship nature and transcend the laws of physics.

It’s something that Westsiders, who bring ample creativity and technological savvy to their everyday lives, should appreciate during Saturday’s Culver City Art Walk & Roll (see page 32). And it’s also a particular brand of innovation that Fuller, in a sense, popularized through his adventurous fusion of art and science.

During our interview, Zung emphasized that fusing art and science through design is what powered Fuller’s career, which influenced the fields of architecture, engineering, tech and environmentalism.

Fuller is famous for popularizing the concept of “Spaceship Earth,” which suggests we look at our planet as a vessel that the human species is navigating through the universe. He also introduced the idea of “ephemeralization”— doing more with less. He also designed multiple famous geodesic domes (think of the one at Epcot), bringing the architectural model into the zeitgeist. And that’s just a narrow slice of his accomplishments.

There are more than 30 patents in Fuller’s name; many are represented here in a limited-edition series of prints from the “Inventions: Twelve Around One” portfolio, originally published by the Carl Soloway Gallery in 1981. Framed at the gallery, the patent drawings are superimposed over photographs of the inventions themselves. Some of the most well-known inventions depicted in the prints are Fuller’s landmark designs — the 4D House, the Dymaxion Car and the Geodesic Dome.

“Bucky is so inspirational to so many people in so many fields: technology, architecture, planning and the arts,” said Edward Cella, the gallery’s eponymous director. “There’s
an inherent beauty to the synthesis of ideas and the elegant solutions he made for very complex problems.”

Because he passed away in Los Angeles in 1983, Cella said, Fuller has a special connection to and legacy in the city. The exhibit’s placement in California is appropriate;
the state is a hotbed of technological creativity, as well as environmental activism.

“Bucky used to urge young people: don’t try to change man,” Zung said. “Change the environment. That’s exactly what Apple, Intel, did. They changed the environment.”

Even after Fuller’s death, Zung is carrying on Fuller’s legacy through his work on a 100-foot geodesic dome that would help prevent environmental disasters like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Zung said Fuller would call this “comprehensive anticipatory design science.” The idea is to anticipate the needs of the world, then get ahead of them by designing a scientific solution to the potential problem.

Perhaps a quote by Fuller, printed on a framed poster on view at the gallery, says it best: “Humanity has the option to become successful on our planet if we reorient world production away from weaponry —from killingry to livingry. Can we convince humanity in time?”

“R. Buckminster Fuller: Inventions and Models” is on view through Nov. 3 at Edward Cella Art + Architecture, 2754 S. La Cienega Blvd., in the Culver City Arts District. Call (323) 525-0053 or visit edwardcella.com for venue information.

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