Meet Me in St. Louis

September 2014

Bucky knew best
The Climatron® greenhouse at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. Image courtesy of the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller.
Looking back can occasionally be the best way to imagine the future. The proposals proffered by the late Bucky Fuller, a keen visionary and somewhat of a misfit in his 20th century context, are proving highly relevant to the issues of today. More interestingly still, many of his insights are still visionary. The current discussion on the future of the St. Louis area involve the cleaning up of the lakes, renewable energy, and the greening of the cities along the lakes and rivers, precisely matching the thoughts had all those decades ago by an architect, systems theorist, author, designer, and inventor called R. Buckminster Fuller.
“Make the world work for 100% of humanity in the shortest possible time, through spontaneous cooperation, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.”
That was the challenge R. Buckminster Fuller laid-out in his visionary Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, and 119 years (and counting) after his birth, that goal has only become more difficult to imagine. The world is a far more crowded place than it was even a few decades ago, and if in response we’ve become more global in outlook, there is a growing sense of the world as a zero-sum game: I win, you lose.
Fuller’s goal was to frame a future that was more open-ended. But to do so required acting – or at least thinking and talking – to a daunting degree as “comprehensive anticipatory design scientists”. In a sense, our own growth has forced us to catch up with Fuller’s ideas about sustainability and collaboration, and the Buckminster Fuller Institute’s most recent project is a good example.
The BFI partnered with Marfa Dialogues, a programme by Ballroom Marfa (Texas), to explore issues of design, climate change, and urbanism in St. Louis, Missouri. St. Louis? It’s a city whose best days were behind it the moment railroads linked the continent 160 years ago. St Louis had riverboats on the Mississippi River but it didn’t have a bridge, so the rails went through Chicago, which became America’s second city. 
However, St. Louis as a location for global focus and the Institute’s involvement makes perfect sense, according to Sarah Skenazy, programme manager at the BFI. The city did not wither, as other mid-western cities have, but has instead gone through a long evolution as a cultural capital and knowledge producer. It sits in a crucial geographic position amid one of the largest inland water systems in the world: the Great Lakes Basin, which directly impacts eight states, and more if the Mississippi’s full course is taken into account. Above all, it was the focus of one of Buckminster Fuller’s visionary development projects in the 1970s.
It’s ironic, above all, that just as we begin to see the urgent need for large-scale thinking, such planning is ever more warily regarded by the government and by the public. But the sheer scale of the Great Lakes means that what happens in its waters ripples across the country. Strewn from the Mississippi River all the way down to St. Louis is a series of man-made interventions, and as big as the lakes are, fish die-offs, lowered lake levels, and growing pollution problems all demonstrate that humans are changing the face of things whether we want to or not. The discussion led by Philip Enquist, the leader of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill’s Global City Design Practice, dealt with the many attempts to plan a future for the area, including efforts led by various regional planners and SOM itself. They proved that even simple ideas now appear futuristic, including the creating of a pan-lake national park area, concentrating on renewable energy, cleaning up the lakes (already well underway, with an improvement in fish populations), and ‘greening’ the cities along the lakes and rivers. 
Which is just what Buckminster Fuller was thinking about when he stood on the East St. Louis riverfront almost 50 years ago. ‹
The model of Old Man River’s City, R. Buckminster Fuller’s design for a residence in East St. Louis, circa 1973. Image courtesy of the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller.
The Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River Region. Image © SeaWiFS Project, NASA / Goddard Space Flight Center and ORBIMAGE.
R. Buckminster Fuller. Image courtesy of the Estate of R. Buckminster Fuller.
This article appeared in DAM46. Order your personal copy.