R. Buckminster Fuller, Critical Path
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I’ve known the name Buckminster Fuller for a long time because many great designers and architects of our age paid respect to him. Before reading this book, I had no idea about what he thought and did.
The word critical path is a term used in project planning. Let’s say cooking. You have various tasks to complete three dishes. There are many tasks, like going to the supermarket, boil water, cut vegetables, etc. The final task, i.e., making three dishes, does not end until the other precedent tasks are completed. If we draw paths connecting each task, there will be the longest time-consuming path, determining the project period. That path is the critical path. Fuller often mentions the critical path of the Apollo project.
The book is not easy to read. It starts with Fuller’s conception of the history of the universe and human beings. Perhaps it is because the book was authored in the early 1980s, the period that people still remember the enthusiasm of the space endeavor.
As I read through the book, I understood why the world’s best architects and designers respect him. His vision was astonishingly innovative at that moment and still is pertinent. Perhaps his idea back then was too innovative given the context (he started working on his project in 1927 when he was 32).
At least there are three reasons why he is a great thought leader of the 20th century.
First, he started thinking about resource scarcity and the environment long before they become a central topic of the earth. One of his key concepts is “Spaceship Earth”. His contention was that earth has limited material resources as spaceships do. We “Earthians” need to think seriously about how to deal with the scarcity, he said. He argued that current business and political thinking does not fully take this point into account. For example, any environmental damage from a business activity is counted as an externality issue, not included in the cost. He proposed time-energy world accounting (or earth accounting, cosmic accounting, etc.) as opposed to financial accounting. The idea reminds me of what the impact measurement practitioners are currently trying to do with social impact accounting. Change of measurement system influences mindset.
Second, his idea of utilizing tensions for architecture impacted many people. As a designer and an architect, Fuller is known for his Dymaxion projects. Dymaxion stands for dynamic, maximum, and tension. The Dymaxion house is like a Mongolian Pao tent, which is supported mainly by tension, not by compression. He kept saying that architectures should be supported more by tension, not by compression. Although Mongolian Paos are still popular, the Dymaxion house project apparently failed (I don’t know the reason).
Another well-known Dymaxion invention of Fuller is the Geoscope, a globe made by simple joints and sticks. Spherical structures enclose the greatest volume with the least surface. Also, the shape gives the strongest structure per weight of materials employed. Fuller always wanted to do more with less. He adored nature, which is the most economical in his accounting system, and obtained inspiration from it.
The structures supported by tension are common in bridges. Some architectures also apply tension to support the structures, and many of them are geometrically beautiful.
Third, he expanded the role of designer. He was a rare designer in the age who tried to impact not only his projects but also on society and thought. In the early 20th century, people thought that designers are professionals who carry out the tasks that the clients ask.
Fuller wanted to produce artifacts that would induce the right behaviors of the people. In other words, he wanted to change people’s minds and thoughts through his creations. His idea inspired many of the designers and architects of the world. Nowadays, it is a norm that designers talk not only about their products but also about how they change their society and the world. Fuller indeed was an innovator in that sense.