Friday, August 01, 2008

p33 Buckminster's Cathedral

Fuller and the Dome

By John Taylor; 2008 Jul 31, 19 Kalimat, 165 BE

This is a rewrite of a little series on my teen-hood hero, Buckminster Fuller, that I wrote just before I started the Badi' Blog several years ago.

The most interesting part of Buckminster Fuller's world thinking is his understanding that technology arises from morality, and vice versa. Fuller was a member of the Unitarian Church, the Christian denomination in whose churches Abdu'l-Baha spoke more often than any other (I have not confirmed that Unitarians were visited most often, but that is my gut feeling, especially about the talks in North America). I cannot help but wonder whether Fuller might have either seen the Master speak in a Unitarian church or read about His travels in a church publication; there was ample publicity of His visit just before Fuller entered his creative crisis.

My favorite example of Fuller's grasp of the dialectic between tools and morality is his position on the population explosion. He was one of the first to prove that the cause of runaway population growth is poverty, man's inhumanity to man, and nothing else. One of Fuller's biographers writes,

"Another telling point Bucky makes - and proves with statistics - is that in fully industrialized countries the birthrate automatically drops to about zero population growth. Therefore: he argues, if all the under-developed countries were fully industrialized, as they could be by intelligent use of the world's resources without taking anything away from the "have countries," the problem of overpopulation would simply disappear. Margaret Mead does not like his saying this; it undercuts her." (Buckminster Fuller: At Home in the Universe, Alden Hatch, Dell Publishing, New York, 1974, p. 227)

There are roots of this in scripture. For example, the Qu'ran, in forbidding infanticide offers similar assurance that parents need not worry about future economic disparity, that they can be assured that resources will not run out, that God will provide if we run things according to God's law. If we, as individuals and as a society adhere to spiritual principle prosperity will spread and there will be no need for harsh measures either to restrict or promote population growth. Baha'i morality similarly leans more to encouraging marriage and raising a family as a moral act, rather than the reverse, saving our resource base by not reproducing. The latter would be a valid moral position if and only if humans had an incorrigible tendency to grow beyond their resource base. Such does not seem to be the case -- only corrupt, selfish, materialist societies grow beyond their means.

Indeed it is materialism's presumption of shortage that fulfills its own prophesy, as Fuller points out in his last book, A Grunch of Giants, written in the early 1980's,

"The great communism vs. capitalism, politico-economic world stand-off assumes a fundamental inadequacy of life support to exist on our planet. So too do the four major religions assume that it must be you or us, never enough for both. Jointly the two political camps have spent $6.5 trillion in the last thirty-three years to buy the capability to kill all humanity in one hour." (

A similar link between ethics and technical means is to be seen in Fuller's most famous innovation, the geodesic dome, though in this case it is not all to Fuller's credit. Embarrassingly, Buckminster Fuller did not invent the geodesic dome. A German architect and designer of planetariums discovered it, and Fuller came across his patents during his wartime job of reviewing enemy patent applications. However, although Fuller made no effort to publicize this, neither did he actively cover it up. And it is true that he did see the dome's potential beyond looking up at the heavens, sublime as that may be, when nobody else did. The full story of the dome's provenance is in the Wikipedia article on geodesic domes. It is understandable but not laudable that, owning patents on the structure himself, Fuller did not go out of his way to give this architect due credit.

For us, the most important aspect of the geodesic dome is its religious implications. This structure, found at many levels in nature, may be seen as a mathematical application of the spiritual principle of foundations laid out by Jesus Christ when He spoke of a man who,

"built an house, and digged deep, and laid the foundation on a rock: and when the flood arose, the stream beat vehemently upon that house, and could not shake it: for it was founded upon a rock. But he that heareth, and doeth not, is like a man that without a foundation built an house upon the earth; against which the stream did beat vehemently, and immediately it fell; and the ruin of that house was great. (Luke 6:46-9)

Older structures were based on a pervasive misunderstanding of what foundations imply. Architects imagined that a building must made of rock, or appear to grow out of rock, in order to have a solid foundation. Construction used heavy, clumsy materials that, taken beyond a restricted scale, fell in upon themselves. But the parable teaches the reverse, the most solid foundation is invisible, it comes out of the Will of God and the ethereal realm of spirit.

Thus the strength of a geodesic dome comes not from the ground it sits on (indeed, it can fly or float just as well) but the theoretical realm of mathematics. This foundation Fuller called "tensegrity," that is, pulling (tension) and pushing (compression) both at once, all around the whole skeleton. This integrity is based on a holistic, universal, principles. The result is a super-lightweight structure as strong as rock but based on theoretical, mathematical abstractions that distribute the strength of rock around its entire outer surface without its ponderous weight.

The materialist mindset misunderstands spiritual foundations. Although "spirit" comes from the word for breath, that does not mean that it is insubstantial. Spirit, like the wind, "bloweth where it listeth." It is as free as the breeze. But this does not mean that those moved of the spirit are slapdash or overly spontaneous. This is a common misconception. Jesus taught that following him, "bearing his cross," was not casual or haphazard, it is like planning out the construction of a building, as the parable of the watchtower illustrates. "The Kingdom," Jesus also taught, "is within (or among) you." The true base of all that is solid and reliable in the universe lies not underneath but within, it is distributed all around. This principle Abdu'l-Baha called the Power of the Holy Spirit. And, as the parable of the true foundation teaches, it is all nullified if those who hear do not put spirit into action in every aspect of life and love.

The geodesic dome is a series of triangles arranged into a sphere according to great circles, or geodesics. The triangle is the strongest, most stable structure in nature. The dome or sphere encloses the most area for the least amount of surface area, which is why planets above a certain size and soap bubbles always form into that shape rather than squares or pyramids. Combine the strength of the triangle and the economy of the sphere, and you have a geodesic dome.

Similar to a triangle, there are three basic sides or aspects of spirit, as symbolized by the cross or trinity. This is in Isaiah's vision of God creating the sphere of the firmament in three motions,

"Mine hand also hath laid the foundation of the earth, and my right hand hath spanned the heavens: when I call unto them, they stand up together." (Isaiah 48:13, KJV)

The three forces of Spirit form a trinity like a triangle, with three creative acts. In the first, God's left hand forms the earth. Second, His right hand spans the sky. Third, he calls ("be" and it is), and the three form an integrity, they "stand up together." Pressure, tension and integrity. Similarly, the two pillars of religion, prayer and fasting, stand together on the earth of the heart, like the force of compression in a wall.

The Manifestation of God, the architect of the great circle of spirit, models religious "geodesics." His teaching is strong and economical, like the geodesic dome. He lays on the individual a creative responsibility to build the structure of our lives on a firm foundation of love and spirit. Spirit, although unplanned itself (the spirit bloweth where it listeth) can only be built upon by planning, based on faith, to take invisible love into the visible realm of action.

Next time I will follow some other Fullerian lines into the unseen but essential realm of ethics and moral integrity.

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