Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Buckminster Brooklyn (I like that)

When the Brooklyn Dodgers outgrew Ebbets Field, club owner Walter O’Malley proposed a domed stadium, the first of its kind, to be built at the now-controversial Atlantic Yards area. The probable designer? The geodesic dome master builder himself, Richard Buckminster Fuller. But another master builder by the name of Robert Moses preferred Queens over Brooklyn, and soon the disagreement between O’Malley and Moses turned into deadlock. O’Malley would whisk away his ballplayers to California and the domed stadium would die on the drafting table.

Fuller never built a physical structure in Brooklyn, but he did call the borough home for a while. After getting expelled from Harvard (twice!), he spent time living at a YMCA in Fort Greene and working at a nearby branch of Armour and Company, the meat-packing house, all the while courting his future wife, a Brooklyn Heights girl. “The only way I could express my feelings for Anne–I was pretty inarticulate about my emotions–was to send bunches of red roses from Weir’s, the florist on Fulton Street,” said Fuller.

This Brooklyn Based writer was educated about Fuller from a very young age thanks to her father and his 3-D toothpick models, but for those of you not familiar with Fuller’s weird genius, here’s a quick history lesson: Fuller was a designer, engineer, writer, architect, philosopher, inventor, mathematician, humanitarian and fervent optimist who lived from 1895-1983. Although friends called him Bucky, he referred to himself as “Guinea Pig B,” viewing his life as an experiment. As early as the 1920s, Fuller was developing ideas for cost-effective shelters and forms of transportation in addition to looking at renewable sources of energy–he was an environmental activist before the term existed. He was known for such sayings as “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims” and, “Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.” But because his global and futuristic thinking was forward-thinking, he was considered a crackpot by more moderate minds.

Today, Bucky’s spirit lives on in Brooklyn at the Buckminster Fuller Institute, which in 2004 moved from California to Bedford Avenue near McCarren Park in Williamsburg.

According to Will Elkins, one of three staff members at BFI, the move coincided with the hiring of a new executive director. The goal was to make the private, archives-only institute more proactive and accessible, in order to “take programming off the ground.” Elkins started out as a volunteer in 2007, after having heard Fuller’s name tossed around at college and working for Chuck Hoberman, the creator of plastic collapsible spheres for kids. He has since moved on to a full-time role at BFI, a job that includes program planning and facilitating, seeing to general office tasks and fielding inquiries that range from general questions about the institute to, “What was Fuller’s eye glass prescription?”

BFI’s most prominent endeavor is the annual Buckminster Fuller Challenge, in which $100,000 is awarded by a jury to a design proposal that supports “the development and implementation of a strategy that has significant potential to solve humanity’s most pressing problems.” Past winners have included MIT’s Smart Cities Group and its plans for more sustainable modes of transportation, and John Todd and his blueprint for a carbon-neutral economy in coal-heavy Appalachia. This year’s semi-finalists, recently announced, include Plastic Island, an ambitious, oceanic recycling plan, and FarmShare, a site that will directly link consumers and producers created by BK Farmyards (whose Youth Farm we wrote about last week).

The BFI also has a variety of programs for non-professional crackpots. The Prototype Program is an outlet for artists and architects to construct original projects based on Fuller’s designs and principles. The results have appeared around New York, from a geodesic tent at Park(ing) Day, to a 12-foot climbing wall at the DUMBO Arts Under the Bridge Festival, to a spherical structure made from plastic containers not currently recycled by the city at the Governors Island Figment Festival. Next up for Prototype, BFI is partnering up with a local architect to create a pavilion out of re-purposed (and possibly melted-down) 2-liter bottles. Grant-funded research is underway for spring construction so the pavilion can debut at summer events in the city.

In the meantime, you can now visit BFI. It was a private office, but on February 3 they unveiled the public Study Center, comprised of books, magazines, photographs, videos and the Dymaxion timeline with various domes and models dotting the room.

The Study Center is open Monday-Thursday from 1pm-4pm and by appointment. On the BFI site you can sign up for the monthly newsletter, Design Science News, or reach out if you want to get your geek on and volunteer. For as Bucky once said, “You can never learn less, you can only learn more.”



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