Model, Fuller

Recreating (and advancing) pk’s censored domains: & / Personal / Writing / Fiction / The Model / Notes /
@ K. c. 1996

The Model: The First Week: R. Buckminster Fuller

R. Buckminster Fuller was invited to speak at Colby College’s Fine Art Department while I was teaching English there in the late ’60s. The hall had been reserved for the evening talk while a comfortable room with tea service had been reserved for an informal afternoon chat.

I had not only heard of his marathon improvisations, I’d spent an afternoon at a Fuller exhibit in MOMA’s sculpture garden in 1958 or so. Three items had been on display: a geodesic dome, an octet truss, and a “tensegrity” scultpture; a mast exhibiting discontinuous compression by sculptor Ken Snelson. [note] The truss, a plaque explained, balanced despite the impossible-seeming cantilever of its upper member but disclosed that NYC’s building code required that it be anchored anyway: the point the truss was proving being deemed impossible by our protectors. A friend and I had climbed around in the third structure of the exhibit, a geodesic dome [note], roped off and still to be completed.

For once in my life I was on time: for Colby’s afternoon tea. But no one else was. The caterer arrived, looked confused, and asked me if I were Prof. Fuller. “I think you can look for an older gentleman,” I replied. The next person to come was a short, bow-legged octogenarian. He wore two hearing aids and three wrist watches, strode up, stuck out his hand, and said, “Hi, I’m Bucky.” As we became acquainted I told him about playing human fly on the inner surface of the Modern’s dome, adding that I’d stood under the Snelson’s tensegrity mast, dizzying myself as I looked up through the whirl of struts spiraling one hundred or so feet aloft, and wondered, “What in hell is holding this thing up?”

Snelson, tensegrity mast
tensegrity concept in the flesh
sculpture by Ken Snelson
thanx internationalturningexchange

We had each other to ourselves, and Bucky started to explain. He was well into it when his hosts, both faculty and student, arrived. He ignored them even when they complained that they’d like to have a clue what we were talking about.

Perhaps he’d turned off his hearing aids, as I later learned he was wont to do, so he could concentrate. I broke his grip on my arm long enough to turn our chairs, randomly taken at the side of the room, so that we weren’t quite so conspicuously not the room’s stage-center. I passed around a coffee table art book I’d brought with some pages on his work. It was a new book and Fuller’s American Pavilion for EXPO ’67 was included. My hand on his arm enabled me to add that I’d asked Dr. Fuller about tensegrity … and he was off again.

Bucky, tensegrity
thanx dradio
I’ve built several such tensegrity icosaherdrons

Three hours later he was still at it: the most lucid exposition I’d ever heard: more cogent than anything I’d ever dreamed. His real talk was scheduled to begin in less than two hours. Late for the dinner, the Fine Art faculty finally forced him away with them. “You’ll be joining us, of course,” Bucky said, pulling me along. But I’d seen the glowering displeasure in the faces of his hosts. “Uh, my wife’s expecting me,” I lied (she being in New York at the time). If the Fine Art Department already believed I had kidnapped their guest, I didn’t want to alienate them further. And I wanted to fuel myself for part two of the marathon. Whatever Bucky ran on, I needed calories.

This file narrates our meeting. A file [link to be added] in my Biographical Narratives begins to adumbrate the significance of what Bucky said in terms of its impact on me. It was only yesterday, 2001 08 19, that I was able to complete the circle with what I hope is a clear explication of the core of what Bucky said (and Snelson conceived and executed), marrying it to what I’ve done with it since.

That evening Fuller went on, adding pieces to what I eventually perceived to be the same puzzle. The engineering and design genius that had invented tensegrity had actually discovered it in nature. It was not different from geodesics except in the question of “where is our attention at the moment?” Fuller had looked at the same world that Einstein had looked at, and, like Einstein, asked: “What did god really do? What is it? And how does it work?” (It’s appropriate that I drop the capitalization, because I am no longer talking about the Jewish / Christian God on whom we force the arrogance to dictate a capital letter.) (Some time after this file was sketched I composed a module on the subject. My gods, God, and god is one of the core modules here.)

I saw Fuller again at Bowden College in Brunswick, Maine not many weeks later. Once again it was a marathon, three hours plus. This time he introduced the triangle-based algebra and geometry he had had to invent in order to do his work comfortably. But it was still the same great subject: what is the universe? What are its relationships? How can we make our engineering as efficient as nature’s already is?
Fuller pointed out repeatedly that he was far short of that science. His tensegrity structures require steel wire for their tensional components, other materials for the compresssional. In contrast, there are no wires holding the moon to the earth or the earth to the sun. We humans engineer for gravity, not with it.

Design is weightless.

I had been mystified by the tensegrity mast because of my failure, common enough I am sure, to appreciate the role of tension even in work I was familiar with. We’ve all pulled on ropes, but only John Roebling saw that if you made the ropes of steel, you could hang a great bridge from them. Only Fuller saw that you could build huge buildings, light and strong, and that the “columns” (compressional elements) had neither to be vertical nor to make massive contact with the ground. I hope you see in his reference to the solar system that gravity is tensional while sun, moon, and earth are compressional elements.
Fuller had said that having first trained himself, he had taught his grandchildren to feel the rotating earth of the Copernican solar system rather than the stationary earth system that most of us act as though we still believe in. Indeed, the evidence is embedded in the language which continues to speak of the sun “rising” and “setting.” How can we know what we don’t also feel?
Forthwith, I did the same for myself. I try to experience the system as I know it to be. Also, when the sun seems small overhead I remind myself that there are only a few miles of atmospheric lens to magnify it. Whereas when the earth rotates toward dusk, there’s a hundred or so miles or air in that lens. There’s far more air horizontally than vertically. I feel that lens refracting the white light into its spectrum, dirt in the air determining the never identical colors. The person who empathizes with the “engineering” is a very different person from the one who watches the sun set in what is perceived as a grand magic show. The latter is also likely to still believe in “fixed” positions. Or that Gibraltar is “solid.”
Fuller had gone to Harvard but he’d clearly created his own genius. He maintained that his intelligence was “ordinary.” I’m sure he meant that his brain was a “normal” organ. But his mind was far from ordinary. My point is that to some extent it was in his control. Genetics sets one limit, a fairly high one. Environment sets another, necessarily lower. You can’t do much on bread and water in a dungeon and you can’t be perfect even in a better box than B. F. Skinner could build. Society sets still another, all too frequently still lower. We get along by finding the mean level. And then lying about it, as though it were high. If you attempt a high path, you know you’ll be alone. And mistreated if not crucified.
One can’t expect to meet Fullers on the subway. Though if one were sitting next to one, how would one know it? I’ve illustrated meeting one on several occasions in a series of institutions. I could mention others. Greeting Ivan Illich in Cuernavaca was like embracing a high tension wire: twenty-thousand volts, which then levitated! But thanks to literature (the word here including a variety of media) one can at least receive communications from more than one on any day: in the library, to give one example. On the net, makes it two. (One day I’ll put a few outside links here.)

Let me add that I built my own series of tensegrity and geodesic models in the following years. It was in that context that I became friends with Fuller-disciple Joe Clinton. Joe told me that he had become a polyhedra mathematician as a result of attending a Fuller talk. “I decided that if he could keep talking, I could keep sitting,” Joe said.

A reception followed Fuller’s talk at Bowden. I went up to pay my respects while my companion fidgeted about my getting her back to Colby in time for her dorm’s curfew. I flatter myself that Fuller’s anxiousness to resume our talk was obvious even to the bores who were pestering him with questions more trendy than relevant. “What do you think of Marshall McLuhan,” asked one young instructor, flushed at the attention his question necessarily brought him. Fuller had obligations. I had obligations. My next message to him was The First Week of The Model.)

Life is born ignorant.

Earlier, back at Colby, I had noticed that his evening “speech” was given in modular units, some nearly verbatim from our “conversation” of that afternoon. He knew what he had to say about a series of things and could rattle them off for any occasion. But, put together, like the individual triangles in his domes, they make a single, magnificent, coherent structure. (Notice, when you read his published “writings,” that for all their stylistic perfection, he actually wrote little of it: he spoke; someone else recorded it; someone else transcribed it, someone else published it.)
I don’t doubt that it’s thanks to my perception of his method that I’m now posting modular units to this site. The quality of the structure that you find here partly depends on how you put the pieces together. You make your own meaning. (2000 10 09 I’ve finally gotten around to promoting this point to my homepage’s cover page.)

You make your own meaning.

Also see Reality. [Hmm: I’m not certain these dozen and a half years later which module I meant: here’s a menu of possibilities: I’ve written so much on the subject.]

I apologize (helplessly) for how long this module [had] been up without my getting back to report further on Fuller’s insights into compression versus tension. Even more important is its implication: relating to his observation that “99% of reality is invisible.” In particular “99%” of all important structure is invisible. Meantime, stare at the Snelson sculpture until you see what I mean. (You have to notice that no compressive member (strut) in the sculpture is in contact with any other. Only three compressive points (one end of each of three struts) are in contact with the ground.)

I refer to Bucky again and again at . I also say a fair amount about his influence on me and on my deschooling at deschooling.

Literature Quotes


Geodesic Dome: No, MOMA did not permit such activities. We did it while the area was roped off and under construction.

A high school buddy stopped by once while I was home from college for Christmas. He’d been kicked out of Notre Dame where he’d begun their architecture program. His theory class had discussed whether or not it was possible to design a “burglar-proof” building. It’s the same question as whether a locksmith can design a lock that some other similarly clever locksmith can’t pick. He and his buddy pondered the question over a keg of beer, both of them finally cementing their alliance with genius and proving it by appearing at midnight on the second floor of one of St Mary’s new burglar-proof dorms.

My friend ratified his independence by moving into my crazy apartment on West 118th Street just off Morningside Drive. Neither the cops nor I noticed the heroin kits on the piano when they’d knock at three AM to relay complaints about the live jazz. The Guggenheim Museum was then under construction on Fifth Avenue. I joined my friend in being a Frank Lloyd Wright nut. My head at the time was filled with Soren Kierkegaard’s notion of “the teleological suspension of the ethical” apropos of Abraham’s dilemma at being told by God to sacrifice Isaac, son of his old age and scion of His promise.

My friend and I agreed that the law had no right to keep two such fans from the treasure and indeed we found it easy to explore the Wright masterpiece as a four-dimensional sculpture: time being a necessary ingredient. (And let me tell you, you haven’t seen that building unless you’ve seen it empty. And by natural light (natural dark, actually). The metaphor that came to my lips at the time centered on Beethoven.)

We returned several times to the construction-dusted Guggenheim and even had a dusk picnic on top of the dome, that time my girl friend also attending. So it was nothing new for us to duck under the ropes and free-climb the inside of the geodesic dome, my friend being the real spider. I also put my new skill to good effect when the groundskeeper failed to let my refreshment agency personnel into the Baker’s Field kitchen so we could exercise our monopoly in catering the basketball game.

2005 11 21 My Refreshment Agency stories remain scattered about despite a number of reorganizations. Checking coordinations today I realize that the latter particular could use a bit more detail:

I arrived with my crew at Baker Field to cook hotdogs and then transport them down to Morningside Heights for sale at the basketball game. We went up to the gatekeeper’s cottage to ask to be let into our building. His TV was way up loud. He was old and deaf. We knocked, we rattled his window, we shouted. Time was passing. The situation looked bleak to my sophomore managers but I refused to be daunted.

There’s always a way of opening things if you date to look.

The field house’ bottom floor was a basement. Windows were sunk below the ground, light and air coming in through extra trenching around the windows, the holes covered by steel gratings. I had my sophomore manager / assistants hold the shrubs back as I inspected the gratings. Ah ha, they’re not cemented down! And the window isn’t locked. Two seconds later we had the grating removed and I was down in the hole prying the widow. I wriggled through, almost drowned as my struggles turned the faucet on in my kitchen sink, the water filling my nose as I struggled to get my head above my feet once more than half through the window.

I unlocked our cage from the inside, opened the delivery entrance, and admitted my sophomores.

A flustered gatekeeper arrived, accompanied by New York’s Finest, just as we were about done and ready to leave.

Finding a way involves resistance to social blinders more than to intelligence.

My next imperial disregard of the sanctity of property was my last. I ducked the group at Wright’s Taliesen West in Arizona to explore on my own when Mrs. Wright walked into what I was only just realizing was a lived-in bedroom. That building wasn’t empty. The blush to my hair roots had nothing to do with Kierkegaard. I was wrong. I knew it. And I fled before I was exposed to more than a split second of her indignation.

My profoundest apologies, Mrs. Wright. I was wrong.

Tensegrity, Fuller, Snelson … Mid-2001 I phoned Snelson to tell him that had displayed one of his pieces in relation to Tensegrity for years and that I’d just added others at He gave me his email address and I sent him the URLs. I never guessed I’d spent the next few months snagged by a buzz-saw of resentments, accusations, and recrimination: spreading to other URLs, Fuller disciples, and webmasters.

Snelson reports that his sculptures involved tension more conspicuously than compression before he met Fuller, that Fuller never gave Snelson proper credit for his innovations. I was surprised, but find it believable: Fuller certainly was wrapped up in his own expressions of things: for which I feel more gratitude than blame: having benefited from the explanations. MOMA had labeled Ken’s piece with his name in the sculpture garden, but the exhibit wasn’t under the banner Fuller-and-Snelson: it shibbolethed under the rubric “Fuller” alone. Neglected, Snelson wanted divorce from Fuller. He wanted me to separate any mention I made of him from Fuller: don’t put them in the same paragraph.

I had taken a moment from my invention of macroinformation to offer what I regarded as a small courtesy. I’d hoped that Snelson would recognize Macroinformation as kin to his own work as well as to Fuller’s. I’d hoped that Snelson would see Macroinformation as an exciting continuation of the concept of tensegrity. Instead I was arrested from my invention, entreated to reedit old as well as new work. (Imagine interrupting Einstein as he formulated Relativity to carp about his spelling.)

Coincidentally, I was shortly contacted by Kirby Urner, host to Grunch.Net (and, unknown to me at the time, the net-source of my new Snelson borrowings). He’d read my comments at Macroinformation about information exhibiting both compression and tension, and linked me to his own writing on tensegrity. I was delighted until it dawned on me that however well he’d followed Fuller, he hadn’t properly heard what I’d said. If he’d made the step to information with me, I hadn’t seen it: I fail to recognize his recognition.

Now I notice that Urner’s “biography” of Fuller is a Apology: not in the medieval to Renaissance sense of Exposition, but of the modern sense of Shame. Not Mea Culpa; but Sua Culpa.

ASAP I’ll mount my present view of what we owe Fuller, Snelson … pk, Urner … For the moment I’ll merely emphasize the obvious: I saw the tensegrity in Snelson: it made no more sense to me than the sun or moon. It’s Fuller who illuminated the universe for me: explaining it, making my intellect see it as well as my eye.

Before, I credited Fuller 100% with Tensegrity. Snelson wrenched me away from that belief: without making me feel one bit grateful to him! Now I’ve snapped back. God didn’t give us Gravity: Newton did. I am more in awe of Newton than I am of God. Snelson showed us tension without elucidating anything.

The Model (a triptych of stories) The First Week
The Second Week
The Third Week
Bucky Fuller
Publishing Woes


About pk

Seems to me that some modicum of honesty is requisite to intelligence. If we look in the mirror and see not kleptocrats but Christians, we’re still in the same old trouble.
This entry was posted in fiction and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s