Mark Lamster | Essays

Yesterday’s Future, Today

Last week I travelled up to the Canadian Centre of Architecture, in Montreal, to review Architecture in Uniform, a new exhibition on architecture and World War II, curated by Jean-Louis Cohen. That review is forthcoming (in AR), but for the moment let it be said that this fascinating, disturbing, and provocative show was absolutely worth the trip. Among its discoveries: the modernist landscape architect Dan Kiley designed the courtroom of the Nuremberg Tribunal.

One of the principal contentions of the show is that the war led to the "definitive supremacy of modernism in architecture." Cohen makes a convincing argument for this, but one could argue the opposite is true, as well. One of the final pieces in the show is a model of Bucky Fuller's ill-fated Dymaxion House, a modernist vision of the future that, as Cohen notes, went "nowhere at all." This message is inescapable in Montreal, where the carcass of Fuller's US Pavilion (now, the "Biosphere") sits on the former site of Expo '67, a relic of Fuller's dream of a techno-utopia. That vision never materialized, but a trip out to the pavilion is still a pleasure, and comes with the added bonus, if you travel underground, of a passage through the Jean-Drapeau metro station, a masterpiece of brutalist structure and design by architect Jean Dumontier.

Comments [3]

I missed not seeing an image of Fuller's Biosphere on fire. There are several amazing shots, any one of which would serve as an interesting comment on where modernism's "definitive supremacy" has taken us. The CCA show sounds great, but you don't have to go very far to "discover" Kiley's role in the design and fit out of the Nuremberg Courtroom. It's covered in Dan Kiley: The Complete Works of America's Master Landscape Architect, (Bulfinch Press, 1999).
javier zeller

I was told by one of his collaborators on the Wichita House after a lecture at the Cooper-Hewitt about 15 years ago that Fuller "got 90% there" and then lost interest, both because the intricacies of tool-making probably didn't interest him much at that point and his near-simultaneous discovery of tensegrity (probably thanks to a model by Kenneth Snelson) and the geodesic dome shortly after. The blaze was a result (as usual) of a welder, who managed to set fire to one of the acrylic panels creating what became an inextinguishable and nasty fire. But it did not burn down. I have no idea to which degree it was disassembled for cleaning, if at all, but I tend to think of this as another triumph of the geodesic structure rather than a failure.

Shoji Sadao told me he thought Fuller's greatest weakness as a designer in practical terms was his assumption of the economies of scale reducing unit costs to near-universal affordability. To me, this makes sense in light of Bucky's reaching maturity about the same time Henry Ford started mass-producing Model Ts. It was the obsession of that generation and an interesting lens through which to view their works.
Russell Flinchum

the idea that bucky was thisclose to realizing the dymaxion dream, but failed due to his inability to stay focussed or properly manage a business, is a part of the standard narrative of his career. it's true that he might have self-sabotaged the wichita program, but it's also hard to believe that it could ever have been more than a blip on the radar of postwar building, for all the reasons prefabs of all sorts have failed. absolutely his generation's preoccupation with mass production is a big part of that story; it's a preoccupation that seems still to be with us today. (see chris hawthorne in the latest metropolis on this subject.)
mark lamster

Jobs | April 12