The Annotated Artwork: Fuller’s Dymaxion Houses

Photo: Patrick Hobgood, Iannis Kandyliaris, and Ilias Papageorgiou. Image Courtesy of the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller.

Dana Miller says she co-curated “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With the Universe” (opening June 26 at the Whitney) because Fuller’s ideas just kept turning up in her research for other shows. Fuller, the architect-visionary-guru-weirdo best remembered as the inventor of the geodesic dome, was an absolute idea machine. His proposals ranged from the prescient (a sleek aluminum car, effectively the first minivan) to the wacko (he disdained the terms up and down, saying they were inconsistent with a spherical planet). One highlight at the Whitney is a model (pictured) of a cul-de-sac lined with “Dymaxion Dwelling Machines,” the round prefab home he tried to mass-produce after World War II. Although much of Fuller’s urbanism missed the mark, the houses contain a striking number of ahead-of-their-time features.

The Name
Fuller loved neologisms, especially Dymaxion (combining dynamic, maximum, and either ion or tension, depending on whom you ask). The houses had revolving storage units that Fuller called Ovolving Shelves.

1. The Space
The house covered 1,017 square feet, slightly more space than a Levittown ranch, and weighed about 3 tons, as opposed to the 100 tons of a typical house. It was to cost $6,500, about as much as a Cadillac.

2. The Shell
The walls were made of thin aluminum shells. Fuller figured that aircraft factories, running below capacity after the war, could build 250,000 houses per year. Actual production: One, plus some spare parts, and a dozen or so bathrooms.

3. The Support System
The house hangs off a central mast with a net of radiating cables, allowing the weight of the house to stiffen the thin walls. Fuller claimed the shape was hurricane-resistant, and that it also spared the Dymaxion wife housework by eliminating dusty corners.

4. The Process
No part weighed more than ten pounds, and the whole house could be assembled by two laborers in two days. Fuller’s proto-conservationist maxim of “doing more with less” turns up today in refugee housing, built for varying conditions and climates.

5. The Roof
The house was passively cooled by a huge ventilator at the top, which recirculated air in a primitive form of air-conditioning. The circular shape also loses less heat than a standard box.

The Annotated Artwork: Fuller’s Dymaxion Houses