What happened to the Buckminster Fuller archives in Santa Barbara?

If you’ve spent anytime inside, or even helped build, a geodesic dome, then you have encountered the legacy of architect, inventor, author, and thinker R. Buckminster Fuller.

Buckminster Fuller, 1972-3 tour at UC Santa Barbara. (Dan Lindsay/CC)

From the 1950s to the 1970s, Fuller became one of the most influential futurists of his generation, setting down utopian ideas about a global village, sustainability, and the concept of “Spaceship Earth” that are now very much part of our culture. He’s been called the godfather of environmental awareness, but these days Buckminster Fuller is not the household name it used to be.

“His ideas have been subsumed into the culture at large,” said Santa Barbara scientist and engineer Alan Macy. “He’s just so pervasive.”

Macy, the man behind SBCAST, downtown Santa Barbara’s artist live-work space, and a co-creator of temporary villages and living spaces at Burning Man and closer-to-home festivals like Lucidity, wanted to know more about Fuller.

“I’m curious about the origins and history of the Buckminster Fuller archives in Santa Barbara,” he told KCRW’s Curious Coast.

Macy became aware of Fuller through his sister, an architecture professor who discovered Fuller’s archives were housed here in Santa Barbara, and spent some time going through Fuller’s writings.

“She spent a week there, but she said she could have spent a lot longer,” he said.

The archives aren’t here anymore. To answer Macy’s question —  they’ve finally found a permanent home at Stanford University. But if you spend enough time in Santa Barbara, you might encounter Fuller’s legacy.

Alan Macy asked our Fuller question
An artist and architect himself, Santa Barbara local Alan Macy is hungry to learn more about the pervasive Buckminster Fuller. (Ted Mills/KCRW)

Fuller was a fixture during the late 1960s at UCSB’s College of Creative Studies, which opened in 1967, and was one of its first guest lecturers. On his first visit he stayed for two weeks and talked every night for two hours.

That was a modest length of time. Fuller had been known to sometimes hold court for up to 12 hours, without a break. His subject was always the same: everything that he knew.

“He’d come out and his glasses were so thick that they magnified his eyes. They were giant,” recalled Hank Pitcher, a student who sat in on nearly every lecture. “His hearing was bad, and his voice was a bit hard to understand…He’d press his fingers together, close his eyes, and just talk. It was like going on a spaceship ride. He’d go off on these wild tangents, way out there. You couldn’t imagine where he was going. And then he’d wrap it back around right where he’d started.”

Up to that point, Pitcher had been attending UCSB on a football scholarship.

“I quit the team that night,” he said. “[Fuller’s talk] was a catalyst for me, a tipping point. I realized this was the life I wanted to live.” Hank Pitcher went on to become one of Santa Barbara’s best known painters of surf culture and teaches at the College of Creative Studies.

Fuller’s archives, which were in Santa Barbara from 1994 to 1999,  contain his work and everything he amassed over his 88 years, from receipts and dry cleaning bills to every single letter he wrote. And he replied to every person who wrote him.

The archives included “200 linear feet of material represent(ing) Fuller’s almost 88 years of correspondence” according to “Trimtab: The Bulletin of the Buckminster Fuller Institute.” This correspondence along with everything else, including his daughter’s report cards, were part of a giant scrap book of sorts. Fuller called it the Dymaxion Chronofile. He cross-referenced its contents with 13,500 index cards. The archives also included “over 2,500 original sketches, blueprints, original posters, and working drawings,” 30,000 photos, 25,000 slides, 64,000 feet of film, 1,500 hours of audio tape, 35 file drawers filled with manuscripts, and much more.

Fuller’s home in Carbondale. (Nyttend/CC)

Before his time at UCSB, Fuller had a position at Southern Illinois University Carbondale from 1959 to 1970. That’s where he first started considering his archives and his legacy. According to his contract, Fuller saw SIUC as the archive’s final home

In the introduction to an anthology about Fuller’s work, Associate Professor at San Francisco State University, Hsiao-Yun Chu wrote about the history of the archives, and their long journey to find a permanent home.

He had stipulations: the files would be housed in their rare books collection, assistants would begin to microfiche the contents, and the archives were not to be accessible to the public until after a certain specified date.

By 1965, Chu discovered, SIUC was paying $5,700 a year to keep the archives stored and kept–that’s the equivalent to $44,000 in 2017 money.

When Fuller left SIUC, he took his archives with him.

Chu documents at length Fuller’s frustrations at finding a permanent home for his archives. At one point the University of Rochester was interested. Then he engaged Beverly Hills-based Charles Sachs, a rare manuscripts dealer with a business called the Scriptorium to find a home for the archives. Fuller valued his archives not in dollars, but in the weight of gold.

“The fact of the matter is,” he wrote to Sachs, “that the value of my archives is always increasing, not decreasing as is the American dollar.”

At that time Fuller valued his archives between $1.5 and $2 million. Sachs couldn’t find a buyer.

“The more the gold price, the more valuable the archives for they prove that the metaphysical ‘know-how’ is more valuable than ‘what,’” Fuller continues. “In due course (maybe half a century), the value of *my* archives–not archives in general–will be far greater than that of tons of gold for I do not have the know-how for humanity to make it here on board Spaceship Earth, here in the universe. Gold cannot buy that!”

When he died in 1983, the Fuller’s archives remained in his offices in Philadelphia. Two years later the family–his daughter Allegra Fuller Snyder and his grandson Jaime Snyder–moved the archives to the Buckminster Fuller Foundation in California and merged into the Buckminster Fuller Institute. The relocation brought the archives closer to the family–Allegra lived in Pacific Palisades at the time–and until 1994, the archives resided in a less than 800 sq. foot office on La Cienega Blvd., attended by a tiny staff and some volunteers.

Buckminster Fuller Institute member Bonnie DeVarco said:

“Although the family’s good intentions were clear, when I came to the BFI in 1989 while a grad student at UCLA, I found much to be in disarray in the four intervening years. A large part of the original collection was in the public office section of the BFI. Many volunteers had open access to what should have been kept protected.”

In 1994, the archive moved to a space at the Riviera business park on Alameda Padre Serra, which includes the Riviera movie theater.

For Santa Barbara moviegoers who know the theater’s foyer well, the archives were up the staircase to the right.

The foyer of the Riviera Theatre building. The entrance to the Buckminster Fuller archives were up these stairs, between 1994 and 1999. (Ted Mills/KCRW)

DeVarco and other members of the board were essential in making the move happen. They found the location in Santa Barbara. And at DeVarco’s request,  included “fire-proofing of the complete area (three rooms) where the collection would reside.”

The Archives celebrated with a 1995 opening party to coincide with the centennial of Fuller’s birth.

From the Trimtab newsletter, 1994. Courtesy Bonnie DeVarco

 

From the Trimtab newsletter, 1994. Courtesy Bonnie DeVarco

Despite the best efforts of its staff and volunteers, in a few years the archives were facing a familiar problem: not enough money and not enough upkeep.

Journalist James Sterngold wrote two stories on the archive in the late ‘90s:

You mounted some stairs, largely dark, wandered down a hall and then opened an innocuous door into an intellectual wonderland. Fuller’s papers, models, tapes, books and other artifacts were strewn from one end of the room to another, only slightly organized. A video of his lecture, “Everything I know,” could be played. It felt like I was opening a time capsule.

All of his work, or most of it, was stored there, most of the papers in file cabinets and boxes, as though he had walked away and just left his work for anyone to chance upon and rummage through. In this box were hand written letters from the 1920s. Hanging over there was a puffed up puffer fish. A turtle shell sat on top of a crate.

It put a visitor in touch with Fuller in a visceral way. You didn’t just read about his many ideas, you could touch them, smell them, gathering dust, alone. It was melancholy. To a large degree, this was like chancing on undiscovered territory because no one had methodically indexed or gone through all the vast contents of the archives. What was I looking at? No one knew for sure. We only had Fuller’s own explanations.

By 1999, the rental and administrative costs were becoming too much and Stanford University finally bought the archives. Fuller’s family got most of the money, and the Buckminster Fuller Estate kept the copyright. The archives now have a nice website.

The offices that once held the Institute at the Riviera building are now currently home to internet sales and marketing company Ontraport. And the space that once held the archives is completely gutted as the renovation of the Riviera Theatre gets underway.

Fuller’s influence lives on in at least two Central Coast geodesic domes. One is located in Ojai. The 2,500 sq. foot home belongs to artists Keith and Fran Puccinelli. (Fran passed away late last year.)

The other is closer to UCSB, located at the west end of Isla Vista on 998 Camino Lindo. It was built in 1972-73 by Michael F. Hoover, a grad student studying Engineering Geology.

The full view of the three story geodesic dome house in Isla Vista. UCSB student Brooke Mackenzie rents a room in the house. (Ted Mills/KCRW)

It’s currently a student residence, with seven sharing the three story structure. Global Studies major Brooke Mackenzie fields curious questions from passersby all the time, and despite the sauna-like conditions during the summer for the upstairs rooms–the home has no insulation–she loves the hippy vibe that connects her to the ‘70s and those Fuller-inspired utopian dreams. Plus there’s the endless puns that her abode provides.

“Dome Sweet Dome,” she said.

Curious Coast is a project made possible by the supporters of KCRW and a grant from Antioch University Santa Barbara.