Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House
To some people it’s a giant Hershey’s Kiss, while others sense a kinship with the Airstream travel trailer—both, it should be noted, recognized as icons. Even the more general touchstones—retro-futuristic spacecraft themes seem to hold sway here—tie into something powerfully elemental. Either way, the Dymaxion house has over the last decade assumed an iconic presence in Henry Ford Museum, a presence that delights and provokes a wide range of visitors.
To architects and architectural historians, the Dymaxion house has long been an icon. For many decades it was a kind of lost icon, the grounded flight of R. Buckminster Fuller’s fancy, known through photographs or the recollections of people involved in the house’s development. It was appreciated in the context of Fuller’s own achievement, but also spoke to wider possibilities, opportunities, and needs: low cost housing, born out of industrial production, deliverable anywhere. The New York Museum of Modern Art’s Home Delivery exhibit of 2008—which included images and models of the Dymaxion house—offered an historical overview (with a number of contemporary offerings) of the many structures designed to solve the same housing and shelter problems that Fuller had identified and attempted to address throughout his own career.
The power of the restored Dymaxion house aligns with Fuller’s preference for artifacts as a starting point for expressing and exploring ideas; he understood that the physical immediacy of objects provided a shared beginning, whereas ideas expressed in written form were often subject to variant interpretation at the outset. The house also squarely inhabits territory dear to Henry Ford, not only with regard to his own general preference for objects, but also in connection with his faith in environments and installations—places that function as vessels in which the provoked imagination can take flight, places that seem to stare back while you explore within them.
The house’s popularity has placed considerable stress on the structure. Earlier this year our conservation staff disassembled a large portion of the house’s floor to repair damage and take measures that will allow the structure to safely accommodate continued heavy traffic. Obviously it is not unusual for museum artifacts to have spent more time in preservation than original use, but it is sobering to realize just how little time Fuller’s concept was prototyped—no more than a few months—and how heavily used it now is.
The repairs will allow the house to continue eliciting vivid responses. Comparisons to confections or trailers aside, I have to say I enjoy the more out-there reactions the most, and my favorite occurred in 2008 when I toured Dr. Charles Elachi, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, through the museum. As we stood in the house looking over its structural system, Dr. Elachi suddenly said, “You know, this might be the way we could construct buildings on Mars…” Who knew that the individual famous for encouraging the idea of Spaceship Earth might inspire off-world communities—in the mind of someone who heads an organization that actually explores Mars?
Marc Greuther is Chief Curator at The Henry Ford.
conservation, collections care, design, Henry Ford Museum, by Marc Greuther, Buckminster Fuller, Dymaxion House