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Buckminster Fuller      

Date/place of birth:
12 July 1895
Milton, Massachusetts

Date/place of death:
1 July 1983
Los Angeles, California

Relationship to the college:
Guest Faculty
1948 Summer Session in the Arts
Director and Guest Faculty
1949 Art Institute




When Chicago architect Bertrand Goldberg, who had agreed to teach at the 1948 summer session at Black Mountain, had to cancel at the last minute, he recommended Buckminster Fuller as a replacement. Despite Albers’s reservations about inviting an unknown person at the last minute, he extended the invitation, and Fuller arrived two weeks after the session opened. Only two days later, Albers wrote to Goldberg thanking him for sending Fuller, who the previous evening had given a three-hour lecture. The college hoped he would return.

In 1948 Fuller was at a turning point in his life. His Dymaxion Dwelling Unit (Wichita House), though hailed as a low-cost solution to the postwar housing crisis, had, like his previous Dymaxion inventions, never reached production. In the meantime, he had immersed himself in a study of the geometry of geodesics, a term that describes an arc of intercrossing great circles on a spherical form. His first application of this geometry was the Dymaxion World Map – a map which when flattened minimized the distortion of land and water masses. The map received a patent in 1946.

Buckminster Fuller, 1948. Photograph by Hazel Larsen Archer. The dome in the upper left corner is the model for the "supine" dome. Permission Erika Zarow.

The second application of geodesic geometry to a specific project was the creation of hemispherical domes which could be used as houses or span vast areas. The project for the summer of 1948 was construction of his first dome based on geodesic geometry. When the dome of Venetian blind strips did not rise as predicted, it was christened the Supine Dome. (Supine Dome)

The summer at Black Mountain was Fuller's first teaching experience and it took place at a critical moment in his career. Most of the community sat in on his classes and students as well as many faculty were captivated not only by his presentation of geodesic geometry but also by his vision for a world in which technology would provide solutions to the worlds problems of housing, hunger and other dilemmas. Among the students officially registered in Fuller's class were four who would become architects and designer/builders: Albert Lanier, Lu Lubroth, Warren Outten, and Paul Williams as well as a young art student from Oregon, Kenneth Snelson.

The summer at Black Mountain was one of the college’s most successful. The guest faculty included, besides Fuller, John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Willem de Kooning, Richard Lippold, Edgar Kaufmann, Jr., and Beaumont Newhall. Besides teaching his class in architecture, Fuller played the role of the Baron Medusa in the production of Erik Satie’s Le Piège de Méduse directed by a student Arthur Penn.

Fuller spent the winter teaching at the Institute of Design in Chicago where he lived with Warren Outten and Mary Phelan Outten (Bowles), two Black Mountain students from the 1948 summer.

At Black Mountain over the 1948-49 winter a crisis culminated in the resignations of Theodore Dreier, the last of the college founders, along with Josef and Anni Albers and other members of the arts faculty. On the recommendation of Josef Albers, the remaining faculty asked Fuller to return to direct the 1949 summer session. Fuller accepted and invited as summer faculty Chicago friends and colleagues: Emerson and Diana Woelffer, John and Jano Walley, and two Indian dancers, Vashi and Pra-Veena. He also brought a group of students, his “Twelve Disciples” (Black Mountain designation): Louis Caviani, Arthur Boericke, Eugene Godfrey, Mary Jo Slick Godfrey, Joseph Manulik, Alan Lindsay, Jeffrey Lindsay, Ysidore Martinez, Donald Richter, Robert Richter, Masato Nakagawa, and Harold Young.

The plan for the summer was to continue work on the Autonomous Dwelling Facility with a Geodesic Structure which Fuller and his students had designed at the Institute of Design. He brought with him a small model showing the dome and enclosed house. The dome, which could be collapsed and moved, provided a controlled environment; the house could also be collapsed into a trailer-like form and transported. The project for the summer was to make and test an double-walled plastic cover for the dome. (Autonomous Dwelling Unit)

The second project was to cast fibreglass forms for a different dome. Each form was to have a compound curvature (both concave and complex). A plaster mold was made and then laid with fibreglass cloth laminated with resin. Unfortunately, in the heat and humidity of the summer, the fibreglass would not dry, and the project was abandoned.

Students (left to right): Joseph Manulik, Eugene Godfrey, Mary Jo Godfrey, Jerry Levy.

Photograph Kenneth Snelson.

Fuller’s two summers at Black Mountain were to have far-reaching influence. Among other things, he attributed his considerable success in lecturing to Arthur Penn, a young student who was later to become a successful director of film and stage. Penn had used techniques to help Fuller forget himself and assume the role of another character. The friendships formed in the summer of 1948 with John Cage, Merce Cunningham, Ruth Asawa, Theodore and Barbara Dreier, and Josef and Anni Albers were to last a life-time. The Institute of Design students were to form the core of those involved in the further development of Fuller's domes.

Among the visitors in the summer of 1948 was James Fitzgibbon who had taught with Henry Kamphoefner at the University of Oklahoma. Kamphoefner had been invited to head the newly formed School of Architecture (presently, School of Design) at the North Carolina State College of Agriculture and Engineering (presently, North Carolina State University) in Raleigh, North Carolina. Fitzgibbon was to join him there. As part of his program to modernize and revitalize the curriculum, Kamphoefner planned to invite esteemed guest lecturers. Fitzgibbon recommended Fuller, and Fuller gave his first lectures in Raleigh in March 1949. In later years faculty assisted Fuller with technological and design assistance for the domes. James Fitzgibbbon was a Fellow in the Fuller Research Foundation, and in 1955 he started his own firm Synergetics Inc. in Raleigh. (David Louis Sterrett Brook, Henry Leveke Kamphoefner, the Modernist, Dean of the North Carolina State University School of Design 1948-1972 © Draft manuscript, May 1, 2007)


This webpage was funded by a grant from the Graham Foundation for a study of architecture at Black Mountain College.

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