Buck to the future

Samanth Subramanian in Aeon:

SIZED-wikimedia-Biosphère_MontréalThe old mill town of Winooski in Vermont gets an average of 75 inches of snow per year, and temperatures in January fall below -10ºC. In 1979, in the clutch of a global oil shock, Winooski’s 7,500 citizens found themselves paying an annual $4 million for heating – around $13 million in today’s money. Desperate to spend less and still keep warm, the city council approved a tremendous plan: to build a dome over Winooski. Manufactured out of clear plastic, and held aloft by metal cables, the dome would enclose a square mile in area. Fans would pull in fresh air, to be cooled or heated as necessary. To leave or enter, cars would have to pass through a double-doored airlock, as if Winooski had turned into a space station. Within the controlled climate under the dome, heating expenses would fall by 90 per cent; you could, one planner exulted, ‘grow tomatoes all year round’. A federal government agency promised research funding. The next year, R Buckminster Fuller, the designer and inventor who had popularised the geodesic dome, came to Winooski to bless the project.

Through the preceding decades, Fuller had become a darling of the counterculture. He defied disciplinary boundaries, describing himself as a ‘comprehensive anticipatory design scientist’ working across architecture, science and economics. Marshall McLuhan, that other great hippie hero, heralded Fuller as ‘the Leonardo da Vinci of our time’. It wasn’t just in his work that Fuller described a famously eccentric orbit. He wore three watches, and his diet consisted for years of steak, prunes, Jell-O and tea. He compiled many of his sage-like musings – as well as his laundry bills and other irrelevancies – in 4.5 tonnes’ worth of scrapbooks, known as the Dymaxion Chronofile; in this manner, he recorded his life in 15-minute chunks for more than 60 years. Fuller wasn’t the first person to dream of domed cities – they’d featured for decades in science fiction, usually as hothouses of dystopia – but as an engineering solution, they feel thoroughly Fullerian. Implicit in their concept is an acknowledgement that human nature is wasteful and unreliable, resistant to fixing itself. Instead, Fuller put his faith in technology as a means to tame the messiness of humankind. ‘I would never try to reform man – that’s much too difficult,’ Fuller told The New Yorker in 1966. Appealing to people to remedy their behaviour was a folly, because they’d simply never do it. Far wiser, Fuller thought, to build technology that circumvents the flaws in human behaviour – that is, ‘to modify the environment in such a way as to get man moving in preferred directions’. Instead of human-led design, he sought design-led humans.

More here.