Museum of Contemporary Art
Through June 21

“We prefer our prophets to be noble,” said Blair Kamin in the Chicago Tribune, but Buckminster Fuller “was a bit of a kook.” The architect and futurist who devised and popularized the geodesic dome was also a prescient environmentalist, “seeing the world as a single ecological entity with limited resources” and designing projects with an eye toward “obtaining maximum impact from minimal materials.” This exhibition dedicated to the “nutty uncle” of American architecture was originally shown at New York’s Whitney Museum. Now on display in Chicago, where Fuller spent many of the formative years of his career, it’s been expanded to an enormous and “captivating” collection of more than 300 photographs, drawings, and models.

Many of Fuller’s best ideas “are only now hitting the mainstream, some 25 years after his death,” said Karrie Jacobs in Art in America. He was fascinated by the idea of prefabricated housing that could be cheaply constructed just about anywhere. As early as the 1920s, he devised his revolutionary Dymaxion House, a hexagonal module suspended from a mast, which would have first been lowered into the ground via zeppelin. Later, Fuller dreamed up the Dymaxion Car, “a teardrop-shaped, three-wheeled vehicle of the sort that Flash Gordon might have driven.” Neither was ever successfully mass-produced, as Fuller had hoped. At this exhibition, most of Fuller’s “futuristic schemes” are given suggestive form in “wonderful renderings in richly colored gouache or watercolor” by his wife, Anne. An emphasis on modularity and ecological sensitivity reminds us that Fuller was a farsighted thinker and “powerful salesman for big ideas,” even if his “greatest success was never as a designer of practical things.”

You can say that again, said Michael J. Lewis in The Wall Street Journal. Most of Fuller’s most famous creations were “woefully impractical—the three-wheeled Dymaxion Car rolled over at its demonstration, killing the driver.” But if his out-there ideas were bad business concepts, “they were also exhilarating emblems of possibility, teaching younger architects and designers that formal conventions were nothing more than imaginary lines to be crossed at will.” Fuller ultimately had more in common with figures like Timothy Leary and Abbie Hoffman than he did with Frank Lloyd Wright. Not really an architect or an engineer, Fuller primarily was “a vivid example of the inventor/salesman/messiah type that America seems to produce every generation or so.”