Richard Buckminster Fuller (1895–1983), who preferred to be called Bucky, wrote more than 30 books, earned 28 U.S. patents, circumnavigated the globe 57 times, and coined the term “Spaceship Earth.” Along the way, he invented the Dymaxion (short for dynamic maximum tension) house and car, and he popularized the geodesic dome, an efficient but often leaky structure designed and built through application of the principle of tensegrity.
Tensegrity is the balance of forces of tension (cables) and compression (rods) that the artist patented. His 1962 patent defines tensegrity as “the physical phenomenon that produces a stable geometric structure with solid members that are arranged in tandem with tense metal cables. The solid members of this system do not touch or support each other directly.
The spare beauty of the principle of tensegrity is aptly demonstrated in Twelve Degrees of Freedom (and by Fuller himself in a photograph by Yousuf Karsh, 2009.9.2), but not long ago that sculpture was limp and unable to stand on its small tripodal foot as originally designed because an accident in the galleries stretched its plastic-coated, braided steel wires.
Fortunately, a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services (IMLS) enabled the museum to employ McKay-Lodge Fine Arts Conservation of Oberlin, Ohio to restore the sculpture. After careful research into the design and fabrication of the sculpture, which was produced in Fuller’s architectural studios in Cleveland, conservator Tom Podnar painstakingly measured, knotted, and inserted each of the eighteen replacement wires and fitted their knotted ends into holes in the rods and the central sphere so that the entire geometric structure attained a rigid state. Only in that condition will the sculpture stand on one of its tiny tripodal feet as designed. Podnar’s persistence has paid off. Once again viewers can appreciate Twelve Degrees of Freedom as the artist intended.
This sculpture is part of Triad, a group of three similar tensegrity sculptures of rods and cables that Fuller designed and fabricated in an authorized edition of ten around 1982. Some of those are now in the collection of the Buckminster Fuller Institute in Philadelphia. Fuller made a few other sculptures like these, but most of his formidable creativity was focused on functional structures in a lifelong quest, as he said, “to find what a single individual [could] contribute to changing the world and benefitting all humanity.”
Fuller said, “call me Trim Tab.” That is the tiny adjustable flap on the trailing edge of an ocean liner’s rudder that creates a low pressure area, easing the movement of the relatively small rudder that steers the massive ship. Bucky made a career of applying minimal amounts of energy to effect maximal results, designing efficient sculptures, houses, cars, and other components of Spaceship Earth to achieve sustainable systems that maintain nature’s delicate balance.
Michael W. Panhorst, Ph.D
Curator of Art