Buckminster Fuller at the Whitney

If I’ve said it once I’ve said it a hundred times, I’m never disappointed in a trip to the Whitney. There’s always something there surprising, interesting or just wonderful. Saturday we travelled in to Manhattan to see the current exhibit, “Buckminster Fuller: Starting With The Universe.”

I only wish we’d budgeted about twice the time we did; there’s a lot of reading involved, including excerpts from his journals, magazine articles and rich explanations of the work displayed. I was particularly captivated by the Tetrascroll, a long essay on, well, everything, written for his daughter. Some of his work is like reading the Dr. Bronner’s soap bottle, only filled with genius instead of weirdness. But I digress.

But only a few pages into it the guard announced the museum was closing in ten minutes, so that was that. I’ll have to ask Santa for it for Christmas.

Among many other wonders, like one of his Dymaxion cars, was the tensegrity mast.

I didn’t get it at first, but staring at it for a minute trying to figure out why this wasn’t just another antenna I saw it.

It’s all about materials that support weight under compression, vs. those that support weight by tension. Standing on top of a column vs. hanging from a rope. Usually to build something tall you need a compressive material; you can’t just stack pieces of string on top of each other. Or can you? Look at the diagram: The solid pieces never touch, they’re just there as armatures to support the wires, which do the work. It looks like a magic trick to me!

Fun fact: when you’re riding a bike, you’re hanging from the spokes. Your weight is transferred through the frame to the hubs of the front and back wheels. How does it get to the road? The spokes are just flimsy wires, they don’t support your weight from the hub downward to the ground. Instead, you’re hanging from the spokes that descend from the top of the wheel’s rim down to the hub. The rest of the spokes on the sides merely stabilize the circular wheel, and the spokes at the bottom do absolutely nothing but wait their turn at the top.

Anyway, here’s a picture of a mast in action as a work of art. Lightweight and airy, Fuller simply stands a cable on its end up to the sky.

Tom McGee has been building web sites since 1995, and blogging here since 2006. Currently a senior developer at Seton Hall University, he's also a freelance web programmer and musician. Contact him if you have the need for a blog, web site, redesign or custom programming!

2 thoughts on “Buckminster Fuller at the Whitney

  1. Great photo, diagram and article. So, just to clarify, is Bucky claiming this as one of his inventions? It’s not.

    I’m reading an article about the masts (hence the Google search and finding this page) and the article states quite clearly, “The tensegrity mast was invented by Kenneth Snelson, who studied with Buckminster Fuller . . . at Black Mountain College, N.C. in 1948.” And “In 1955 he [Fuller] began to call it tensegrity.”

    The quotes are from ‘Kunstverein Hannover’, Kenneth Snelson 1971

    The article containing the quotes is on p 123 of ‘Shelter’, Shelter Publications 1973


  2. I don’t have the catalog from the Whitney show, but this page gives Snelson credit. Snelson’s Wikipedia page says, “Snelson asserts his former professor Buckminster Fuller took credit for Snelson’s discovery of the concept that Fuller named tensegrity.” So the word “tensegrity” was one of Fuller’s neologisms.

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