On the Fuller Centennial 1995

a Personal Account
by Kirby Urner
Part I

We filed in to the darkened auditorium en masse, taking in the stage flanked by large projector screens showing earth from space. Outside, conferees purchased lattes and espresso from a brass samovar, while listening to melodious tones played live on a keyboard. In the foyer were GENI exhibits about the global energy grid, impressive collages about design science and geometry in nature, and tables stacked with Buckyware: T-shirts, books, maps, all being picked over hungrily by the conferees.


A simple geodesic dome sat towards the back of the stage, a dry ice mist boiling up around it, reflecting the multi-hued stage lighting. Video cameras perched on tripods aimed at the nine empty chairs lined up in front of the dome. The show was about to begin.

Actually, the show had begun the previous day in that same Mandeville Auditorium at UCSD, where Medard Gabel and Chuck Dingee led their first two of six World Games. And in Balboa Park, volunteers unloaded trucks and began constructing the various artifacts without which no Fuller symposium would be complete. By the time of the opening ceremonies, a school teacher from northern California and friends had assembled all but four of the fiberglass components of her 20-foot bone-white, skeletal Fly's Eye. The structure was completed the following morning.


The entire 3-day format reflected the made-for-television culture of southern California, complete with TV-style talk show host and musical numbers. Likewise, the conference venue, facilities spread out all over greater San Diego, bespoke of this culture's reliance on the automobile. We would have been helpless to follow the giant icosahedral globe, inflated and lighted at the various main events, without our rented Japanese minivan.

However, given the premise of using a whole city for a campus, one had to admit that GENI had done an excellent job of matching facilities to events. Bucky for Kids, the Dymaxion Car, and the Design Science movies were all free and open to the public at Balboa Park, where high tech domes, Spanish-style palisades, and a gigantic balboa tree blended beautifully. The Saturday night concert on Shelter Island added to the upscale milieu which made Fuller seem fashionable, even mainstream. How could we doubt our own reality as a cresting wave of design science sophistication, ready to make the world work for everyone? GENI had successfully posed the question.


In the nine chairs on stage, from left to right, sat some of the stars in the Fullerian constellation:

  • Harold Kroto, codiscoverer of buckminsterfullerene
  • Amy Edmondson, author of A Fuller Explanation
  • Walter Hickle, futuristic former governor of Alaska
  • Clark Anthony, anchor for KNSD TV, our emcee for the evening
  • Peter Meisen, founder of GENI, organizer for the conference
  • Kiyoshi Kuromiya, long-time collaborator with Fuller
  • Don Richter, founder of Temcor, the dome-building company
  • Medard Gabel, the head of WGI

Interspersed with clips from the coming film attractions, and Bucky impersonations by Bill Perkins, whose most convincing moment was as a silhouetted Fuller emerging from the mists of the backlit dome, was some fairly free-wheeling discussion. The cracks in the conceptual superstructure were immediately obvious.

The kick-off question was about how politics doesn't seem to be working, and Fuller's strategies to effect change outside of politics. What did our speakers think was the problem with politics and how effectively did Fuller demonstrate an alternative? What followed was a lot of input from Hickle about how only global government can protect us from the rapacity of the private sector. Speaking as a former governor of Alaska, where much of the resources are held by the state, he didn't see how we could protect the ocean floors and other vast areas of the world "held in common" if we didn't accept the need for regulatory bodies. Amidst his remarks were lots of endorsements for US-style democracy.

Richter defended the private sector as the place where human initiative was most effectively translated into real world artifacts, thereby creating a government-versus-private-sector tension as comfortably familiar as any debate on the MacNeil-Lehrer news hour. All of this raised the hackles of certain hecklers in the audience who were unable to contain their disappointment over hearing Fuller repackaged in mass-market, USA Today terms. Two individuals rose to their feet, shouting and shaking their fists.

The emcee was doing his professional best to stick to the script, reminding us in a reasonable tone that we had the whole weekend to challenge the speakers with our own viewpoints, when suddenly a gentleman in a suit and armed with a briefcase strode up on stage, glowering at the audience, shouting how time was running out and Bucky's critical path program had to happen NOW ("we know!" someone shouted back), at which point he showered us with a thick wad of purple pamphlets. His mustache looked pasted on and at first I thought this was another impersonation of somebody, but by the second showering of pamphlets, I realized this was another deviation from the script -- more heartfelt intensity expressing itself in curious ways.

Kiyoshi appeared the most amused by these disruptions and his subsequent remarks about Fuller's subversiveness were calculated to assure the hecklers that all hope was not lost.

Amy, who was suffering from severe sleep depravation, but not showing it, pointed out that Fuller's faith in intuition as a primary source of unanticipated scientific results was perfectly illustrated in the story behind the discovery of buckminsterfullerene, and turned it over to Kroto.

Kroto used the opportunity to effectively stump for more funding for basic scientific research. He kept expressing wonderment that the USA would disembowel Bell Labs, its most prestigious and effective basic research facility, and that AT&T would then squander the same money on advertising aimed at fighting MCI and Sprint for long distance customers. If this was "free market capitalism" at work, then it spelled death for basic research, and lower living standards for all of us.

Peter Meisen also took on the question of funding, and how humans seemed quick to rally around the flag in war time but couldn't seem to get it together when the situation was equally critical, but when war was not the answer. When he used the Gulf War as an example of when the world took a stand, drew a line in the sand, and said "no way" to Saddam, he sounded a little too stridently Bush-like to many ears, and more shouting from the audience ensued. Kroto picked up the ball and put the right spin on it: we still inculcate nationalism in our children, even when we have trouble teaching them anything worthwhile, and nationalism is destructive. This was more what the audience needed to hear.

All of a sudden, the stage was filled with dancing girls made up to look like teenagers, holding triangular pieces of the Dymaxion Map and carrying on like cheerleaders to John Denver's bright little calypso tune about the World Game. Medard looked especially uncomfortable during this interlude, much to the amusement of his partner in the audience, Chuck Dingée. Kroto moved his chair to watch from the wings.

The grand finale came with the introduction of Allegra Fuller Snyder, who received a standing ovation as she walked into the limelight. She apologized for reading a prepared speech but explained it would be more from the heart if she didn't have to make it up on the spot -- something she unavoidably found herself doing later that weekend anyway, before a different audience (see Part II of this write-up).

Allegra wanted us to share a sense of our potential to create synergy as a network. By combining the talents and energies of all the people in this room, with those of our colleagues and associates unable to attend, we had what it takes to make Fuller's dreams come true. And this is what Bucky had most hoped and longed for, Allegra emphasized, not necessarily to be remembered, honored and celebrated as an historical figure, as a subject of monuments and memorials, but to be used and accessed as the impetus for a lasting transformation in the global affairs of humanity. The way to celebrate Fuller was to end death by starvation, solve critical energy problems, give humanity the tools to survive and flourish sustainably, indefinitely.

Allegra went on to recite an impressive litany of names and their ongoing contributions to the work. Robert Gray was mentioned, and myself, whose collaboration with Richard Hawkins illustrated the ground-breaking potential of the internet to facilitate design science projects, with design teams scattered geographically, but bonded conceptually via these exciting new artifact-enabled capabilities. This theme of the internet and design science was echoed throughout the conference, and the Richard Hawkins ClockTet synergetics animation made its way to Balboa Park, where it showed between films as the cartoon.

Allegra received a glass tetrahedral sculpture to another standing ovation, and we watched Bucky on video talking about his lifelong dedication to omnihumanity, with echoes forward to the closing ceremonies two nights later, at another university. Conferees then swarmed on stage to meet the stars, and around the Dymaxion birthday cake which had to be moved to the foyer at the last minute because of the no food rule in the auditorium. On stage, I met Tony deVarco for the first time, outbound managing director of BFI, and Bonnie Goldstein, BFI's first (we hope not last) professional archivist, also outbound with her husband Tony, and their beautiful new baby boy, about the same age as our little girl.

I started making other contacts that evening, and continued to do so throughout the weekend. This was, of course, a major point of the whole symposium, to give us opportunities to rub shoulders and swap stories and ideas -- and to pass the babies around.



  • BFI : Buckminster Fuller Institute
  • GENI: Global Energy Network International
  • UCSD: University of California, San Diego

Photo scanning and touch-up by David Fabik [df]

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