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Dymaxion House Exhibit, Dearborn, MI, Henry Ford Museum

The Industry Industry Missed

For those of you well briefed in the history of Architecture, the above title may sound like a meme, which it is, and not my invention. Let’s check a search engine, here in November, 2019.

That’s right, we get in a time machine and travel back to July 1932, and Fortune Magazine is featuring Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House. The article is by Archibald MacLeish and the full title is: The Industry Industry Missed: The Mass-Production Housing Industry.

What was revolutionary about the Dymaxion House, aside from its plush Airstream-like design, its yurtish shape, was how you might finance it, more like a smartphone that you lease and return. Ownership turns out to be too onerous if you’re not the homesteading type. You would prefer to hop from one yurt-like house-on-a-pole to another, while a crew of maintenance people (you might be one of them in some chapters), services the units for the parent company, like a Hilton or one of those.

Clearly the Wall Street computers did not see the missed opportunity, as why not take advantage of the freeway system (Eisenhower Era) and deliver mobile homes to their mobile home park hookups? Haul away and replace. Florida and California would absorb the retirees on factory pensions. The house-on-a-pole idea could be shelved, with others free to fork and branch based on this now obscure repository, which includes the recently rebuilt prototype, for the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.

The criticism from architects was peas-in-a-pod factory-made units would take away the creativity and expressiveness of their profession, leading to dreary repetition. Fuller was branded a technocrat and avatar of a dull gray uniformism, something for “creatives” to rebel against.

Lets remember that in the 1930s, the personal computer industry was far ahead, as was the “media room” in many a suburban castle. People huddled as a family with their electronics. The small studio apartment, or dorm room, might not have a full kitchen. Why replicate that over and over when you might rotate you chefs through a facility outfitted to serve at least hundreds if not thousands?

The middle class ranch style home suburban lifestyle is wasteful in that consumerism insists we all have our own copy of everything, and pay full price for it. Digital sharing is an anathema and if neighbors could share their lawn mowers and weed whackers around on thumb drives… the world as we know it would end. That many neighbors resort to hiring a roving grounds crew that services many properties with the same tools, is a step towards greater efficiency. That being said, we want the in-dwellers (those dwelling within a given unit) to have customization capabilities.

Are architects really the bottle-neck then? Your job, as an engineer, is to devize a free-standing work pod, like a cubicle, but for placing in the Great Outdoors. A suite of pods in a given landscape might share kitchen and bathroom facilities. Picture a college campus.

Think of a summer retreat camp, with cabins, but these pods contain sensitive electronics and are not made from leaky wood. You’ve got the whole aerospace industry behind you, because we understand we won’t get to Mars if we don’t upgrade our living standards.

In Portland, Oregon we have something called Outdoor School. Every public school student is guaranteed a clear view of the Milky Way galaxy, for real, not in a picture book, as a part of the curriculum. That’s a romantic way of putting it maybe. Now imagine extending this commitment to all public schools in Chicago. We might need a lot of villages, most of them with high turnover as different groups book their outdoor experiences, which aren’t necessarily “vacations”. There’s work to be done in them thar hills!

So in conclusion, I think if Fuller had lived through the full computer revolution (including the free open source chapter, ongoing), he would have been encouraging the computer industry to take the lead in designing something smarter than just an I/O device for ordering pizza (a voice recognizing, talking pillar), or a driverless people mover. Design us something we might live and work in, and not a prison cell either. We’re re-unifying with nature, in communities, per Education Automation, a book about freeing the scholar to return to her / his / their studies.

The GIS stuff has been brilliant, I’ll be the first to admit. But when do we get to really take advantage of it, as electric ATV riders in the great outback? Because that’s where we work.

The urban cube dweller fantasizes about Foo-camp this and Bar-camp that, always camp, but almost always in some office tower. I started sharing this vision in the 1990s.

I’m not saying these ideas all fell on deaf ears.

The issues have had more to do with the configuration of university departments and the many professional turfdoms. When it comes to sheltering vast numbers of refugees and sanctuary seekers, who gets to do that? Some see a hopeless basket case situation whereas others see an industry in the making.

Ship designers don’t call themselves “architects” either, necessarily. We don’t need to wait for big name architecture firms to show us our Asylum City (another meme my more dedicated readers already know about).

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