Anybody who’s followed my blog for any length of time knows I am an admirer of the late R. Buckminster Fuller and have written about him on prior occasions. Were he alive today I’d probably have a shrine to him in my home and camp in the bushes outside his house on weekends with binoculars and a notepad, hoping to work out what he’s up to until he calls the cops on me.
Though best known for the geodesic dome and tensegrity architecture in general, Bucky always insisted that his inventions were only things he stumbled upon in the process of trying to eliminate waste. That is to say, finding ways to do more with less, so a larger number of people could live the good life using less resources. The Dymaxion Car was one of his first steps on that path.
Widely credited as the first effort at a streamlined automobile, the Dymaxion Car may look bizarre to us, but most will recognize what he was trying to do with it. That’s because every car today is streamlined for the sake of fuel efficiency. Believe it or not that was a novel concept for automobiles at the time, and Bucky was the first mover in that area with his Dymaxion Car.
Seating four, with a top speed of 128mph and a fuel efficiency of 36mpg, the Dymaxion Car could turn in a very tight circle which often astonished onlookers during demonstrations. Fuller originally wanted to design a vehicle which could travel on land, at sea and in the air. Realizing this was impossible with the technology of the day, he instead applied aircraft engineering principles to a land going vehicle in the hopes that later versions might fly.
Not content to revolutionize automobile design, Bucky then focused his energies on revolutionizing how we live. His “Dymaxion House” as a prefabricated dwelling designed to be delivered by helicopter and easily assembled within a few hours. The only surviving example is in a museum now, being that just two prototypes were built.
The Dymaxion House leveraged many design innovations from motor homes, in particular the integrated utilities, electrical system and appliances. Based on the design of a grain bin, the Dymaxion House leverages the same passive cooling effect as the Siberian grain silo house, and geodesic domes. A single overhead vent and vents low on the sides will cause a heat driven vortex that sucks cool air down into the structure without using any electricity or fuel.
Features like a grey water system, packaging toilet and “fogger” in place of a shower represented one of the earliest efforts to design a home around efficient water usage. The bathroom design was so well received, that although the Dymaxion House itself never went anywhere, prefabricated bathrooms based on its design were available well into the 1980s.
It’s tough to say why the Dymaxion car and house never took off. The romantic in me wants to conclude they were too advanced for their time and pitched to a public not yet concerned at all with efficient energy or water use. Perhaps it’s something like false nostalgia, but for a future that never was. A future in which we all live in our neat little Dymaxion Houses, scooting around an idyllic community in our Dymaxion cars.
Nothing lasts, but nothing is lost. Even if these concepts didn’t find success in their time, nothing prevents them from being revived now or in the future. The Dymaxion House in particular, designed to withstand violent storms and make extremely efficient use of water and energy, will only make more and more sense to people as the climate continues to change. Perhaps, then, Bucky was not designing for a future that never was. Rather, for a future which we still haven’t reached.
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