The drawing above illustrates two bedrooms, one in the Dymaxion House and one in a typical, balloon-framed, American house.
In some ways the images are inverted—one drawn from a two-point perspective where walls converge outward, and the other with a one-point perspective, walls converging inward. Ironically, in the Dymaxion House, the focal point becomes the mechanical systems and the environment simply a backdrop, while in the stick-framed room the focus is on the view outside.
Though these images were intended to illustrate the contrast between a transparent house and opaque one, their similarities and ironies shine through. The framing of these drawings is inspired by Mies Van Der Rohe’s interior perspectives, while the setting is intended to play off of Rem Koolhaas’s Flagrant Délit (Caught in the Act), 1975.
Transparency: A Fictional Liberation

In the 1950’s, the United States underwent a dramatic shift toward a new national mindset that embraced technology, completely transforming the American family lifestyle. At the end of World War II, new technologies and mass-manufacturing techniques developed for warfare were adopted across companies, craftsmen, and engineers alike. With a spike in mass-production, ample supply not only democratized products like automobiles and homes, but also increased demands for copious consumption creating new norms of domestic necessities.
Atop this wave of unprecedented trade, housing developments boomed across the nation as millions of soldiers returned home from war and the promise of the single-family home became a ubiquitous object of desire for the American middle class. Around this time, several architects experimented with model homes designed for efficient production and wide distribution. Some of these projects included the Case Study Houses by architects such as Richard Neutra and Charles and Ray Eames, who set out to design and build homes made entirely of pre-manufactured materials.1 Other architects, such as Alison and Peter Smithson, embraced new technology with their project House of the Future, a home that would automate housework and have the technological means to broadcast images and sounds around the world.2
Architectural critic and writer, Reyner Banham, took technological advances in architecture in a different direction, proposing radical projects such as the “Environment Bubble” in his widely-known essay, A Home is not a House. The “Environment Bubble” was a transparent home inflated by air-conditioning and determined entirely by mechanical systems. The ideas brought about in Banham’s work reflect a rethinking of architecture as a means to create a “fit environment for human activities.” In a situation where the “hardware” of a building becomes subservient to the “software” of activity, “architecture,” as the composition of space and material, becomes more and more invisible as mechanical services are dramatized to determine the very building itself.3

Alison and Peter Smithson, House of the Future (London: Daily Mail Ideal Home Exhibition, 1956)   |   Reyner Banham, A Home is not a House (Art in America #2, 1965)

Dymaxion House
Nearly thirty years preceding Banham’s Environment Bubble, Buckminster Fuller began to explore similar notions of house and home. While Banham’s proposals were perhaps more of an ideological criticism, Fuller’s work is neither critique nor ironic. The Dymaxion House, a prototypical single-family home engineered for maximum efficiency and performance, was intended to be mass produced and distributed to families across the nation, solving the post-war housing crisis and setting a new precedent for contemporary living.4 Fuller believed that by adopting the efficient and cost-effective mass-production methods used for the automobile, he could design a house that would be as affordable, efficient, and readily available as a car.5 The Dymaxion House design featured a central aluminum core in which all floors, walls, and roof were suspended. This central core also housed all the mechanical equipment “including elevators, air conditioning, bathroom units, waste disposal, laundry, and cooking appliances.” The house was clad with double-panel vacuum-glazed walls, creating an aerodynamic shield that would create a continuum of energy transfers within the home.6
The Dymaxion House was not only emblematic of an entire ethos of mass-manufactured, standardized building, but also a pioneer in a way of thinking about architecture as a dynamic system of performance independent of material and scale. Fuller termed this approach as “4D” design, a way of introducing the fourth dimension of time as a crucial parameter in architecture. In a way, Fuller paved the path for a post-modern doctrine, which architects like Reyner Banham subscribed to, that attempted to liberate architecture from aesthetic form by prioritizing human experience, functionality, and environment. Fuller thought of housing as “not only a local ecological control for an individual or a family, but also an entire system of elements and forces, distances and movements, that must converge and connect in order to construct that particular local event of being housed.” It was about an understanding of a systematic architype at all scales simultaneously. Architectural historian, Michael Hays, states, “Fuller’s projects, even in their infancy, were already global…the direction of thinking is from inside out: that is, from the local event to the system which it is embedded.”7​​​​​​​

Buckminster Fuller, Standard of Living Package model, (1949)   |   Anne Hewlett Fuller, Dymaxion House with Dymaxion Car (1934)

It is difficult to poke holes in the Dymaxion House agenda. Fuller was utterly successful in designing a model home that was cost-effective, technologically advanced, extremely efficient, and easily distributed and recycled. Despite the efforts he made branding a “Standard of Living Package” and continually experimenting with marketing strategies for the 4D homes, the Dymaxion House prototype never caught on.8 Instead, the balloon framed Levittown house cropped up by the millions in suburbs across the nation. The “failure” of Fuller’s domestic vision cannot be attributed to practicality or feasibility, nor can its adaptability into the American political and economic framework be blamed. In order to understand why the Dymaxion House never normalized, we have to understand the cultural and psychological baggage that comes with the reality of living in a transparent home.

Buckminster Fuller, Comparison of Lightful Tower and Traditional Home (1927)   |   Photograph of Levittown (ca. 1959)

In architectural discourse, the word “transparency” has taken on multiple meanings. The dictionary definition implies a literal surface quality that allows the transmission of light through a material such as glass or clear plastics. In the 1960’s, post-modern architects Colin Rowe and Robert Slutzky developed further inflictions of the term, introducing a phenomenal kind of transparency into the discourse, a way of discerning the legibility or registration of abstractions in a building’s design.9 Though this idea of legibility became a prominent driving force in post-modern architectural practice and theory, the concept has latently existed throughout all of architectural history. Architects, Todd Gannon and Andrew Zago, argue that if architecture can be considered a field of cultural production as it is constantly informing and responding to its local societies, then, “like all social groups, it develops unique vocabularies to articulate shared ambitions…and, perhaps most importantly, to signal an individual’s membership in that group.”10 Therefore, while architecture is a field preoccupied with producing novel compositions of space and program, it also produces social symbols and meanings latent in its physical form. Architect Peter Eisenman claimed, “architecture’s elements – walls, roofs, floors, et cetera – are always already legible signs associated with shelter, structure or use.”11
From the modern era to today, architects have been preoccupied with overcoming these pre-existing associations to reach a higher understanding and perception beyond architecture’s symbolic meaning. Modernists began this pursuit by redirecting attention away from representational clichés through a stripping-down of symbolic ornament, leaving architecture’s most unique and irreducible qualities. Some post-modernists have taken an opposite approach in attempt to achieve the same goal, turning toward a vocabulary of legible historical types as way to use an existing language to compose a new prose of ideas.12 Additionally, another post-modern contingent, perhaps one that Buckminster Fuller belonged to, believed that to overcome the detriments of architectural symbolism, to reach phenomenal transparency, was through literal transparency itself.
For Fuller, literal transparency not only meant liberation from legible symbolism, but also a liberation from the concreteness, specificity, and static nature of buildings as we knew them. The gravity of this belief in the antirepresentational performance as architecture is evident in Fuller’s claim that, “the great aesthetic which will inaugurate the twenty-first century will be the utterly invisible quality of intellectual integrity.”13
The Megastructure
The glass dome as an envelope containing systems and structures became a ubiquitous theme in Fuller’s projects that continually grew in size throughout his career. It is a common misconception that Fuller was a man preoccupied with enclosing spaces with structure, while in fact, the dome was simply a means towards a creation of environment. “The geometry of the cuboctahedron is the structure that vectors moving outward from the center in lines of force flows temporarily enter into…It can also be a dome, but the dome is understood not as simply a stable cover, but as a cosmic machine, plugged into and traversed by the forces of the universe.”14
In the 1960’s, Fuller’s work coincided with a larger post-modern movement of the megastructure. Of a similar vein, the megastructure was “an attempt to enact, through built form, the complex relationships of life conceived along the lines of a new technological model.”15 It was a utopia enabled purely by scale and uniformity. In many ways the megastructure was a reaction to a modernist approach to planning, which artificially divided the city into four functional zones of work, living, recreation, and transportation. By the 1960’s, architects were already disenchanted by this approach as it reduced the city into a bureaucratic machine, “a huge factory bereft of the ingredients that made the city a vital and complex organism.”16 Visionary architects of the megastructure, such as Team X, Superstudio, Kenzo Tange, Cedric Price, and perhaps Fuller, believed that by creating a space so massive, flexible, and aesthetically unobtrusive, they could achieve a kind of transparency that would create a place unhindered by the social and technological constraints of the past.17
In the 1970’s the idea of the megastructure died rather suddenly. Perhaps coinciding with a disenchantment of technology and the political atmosphere due to events like the Vietnam War, visionary architecture was criticized for its obsession with technology and consumerism and also for its failure to create anything more than just an image.18 The idea of architecture as a heroic way of problem-solving had completely dissipated. This disenchantment is illustrated by architect and critic, Manifredo Tafuri, who states,
If, today, architecture is not able to call anyone to freedom, if its won freedom is illusory, if all its petitions sink in a quagmire of ‘images’ at best amusing, there is no reason why one should not take up a position of determined contestation towards architecture itself, as well as towards the general context that conditions existence.19
Tafuri goes on to say that in place of the megastructure as “an anxious effort to restructure the urban system, there is a disenchanted acceptance of reality, bordering on extreme cynicism.”20
At this point, architecture has failed to release itself from the shackles of legible cultural symbolism through both modernist abstraction and post-modernist invisibility, be it a glass dome or a meandering monolith of mirror. According the Reyner Banham, the reason we haven’t fully realized an unhindered, purely functional, and thus invisible system of architecture is due to human fault. He states that “the monument” as such as the Levittown house, must only still exist due to a “profound sense of insecurity, a persistent inability to rid [ourselves] of those habits of mind [we] left Europe to escape. In the open-fronted society, with its social and personal mobility, its interchangeability of components and personnel, its gadgetry and almost universal expendability, the persistence of architecture-as-monumental-space must appear as evidence of the sentimentality of the tough.”21 Though harsh, Banham begins to get to an important point that perhaps archaic and nostalgic ways are still chosen over more logical and efficient technologies simply because people need a world full of legible, opaque symbols that can be easily read in order to make sense of the world and our place in it.

Buckminster Fuller and Shoji Sadao, Dome Over Manhattan (1960)   |   Superstudio, Continuous Monument (1969)

In Delirious New York, architect Rem Koolhaas attempts to unpack how Manhattan, a project with no single architect or blueprint, became, in a way, a successful realization of the megastructure, or rather an agglomeration of megastructures. Koolhaas uses the globe (not far off from the dome) as a representation of an extreme of Manhattan’s formal vocabulary, stating, “The globe is, mathematically, the form that encloses the maximum interior volume with the least external skin. It has a promiscuous capacity to absorb objects, people, iconographies, symbolisms; it relates them through the mere fact of their coexistence in its interior.”22 Koolhaas speculates that perhaps the reason Manhattan has been able to produce such an ambitious environment, “a world totally fabricated by man,” is because for this fantasy to be realized, it could never be openly stated.23 He unpacks this theory through a psychological concept conceived by Salvador Dalí, the Paranoid-Critical Method, or PCM. PCM was Dalí’s explanation for how ideas become realities. This requires a sequence of two consecutive but discrete operations:
1. The synthetic reproduction of the paranoiac’s way of seeing the world in a new light – with its rich harvest of unsuspected correspondences, analogies and patterns; and
2. The compression of these gaseous speculations to a critical point where they achieve the density of fact: the critical part of the method consists of the fabrication of objectifying “souvenirs” of the paranoid tourism, of concrete evidence that brings the “discoveries” of those excursions back to the rest of mankind, ideally in forms as obvious and undeniable as snapshots.
Koolhaas claims that architecture is ultimately a form of PC activity, considering that architecture is the “imposition on the world of structures it never asked for and that existed previously only as clouds of conjectures in the minds of their creators.”25 This thus implies that architecture, in order to do its work as architecture, must be made of and belong to the physical world. Koolhaas states,
Le Corbusier’s favorite method of [translating vision into reality] is reinforced concrete…Infinitely malleable at first, then suddenly hard as rock…by recording [his vision] in a medium that cannot lie, that postulate is made critical – objectified, made undeniable, put into the real world where it can become active.26
The reality of Manhattan, however, will never be able to reach the mythical point at which it becomes a world of visions completely fabricated by man. This is perhaps because we cannot have a world that is either entirely a fictional visionary nor a world that is entirely left to nature. “The Metropolis is an addictive machine, from which there is no escape…Through its pervasiveness, its existence has become like the Nature it has replaced: taken for granted, almost invisible, certainly indescribable.”27

Perhaps Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House was too transparent. A vision that in order to be realized needed to belong to a world that had the capacity to function invisibly. Today we strive to make everything streamlined, simplified, faster, thinner, almost unnoticeable. We are constantly navigating our world through technology and only notice the existence of these tools when the wifi is down or the air conditioning broken. Though these systems of mechanics, telecommunications, internet, et cetera, strive toward invisibility, and though these technologies certainly have an impact on architecture and its discourse, perhaps architecture should be striving for something else. It is true that we need transparency as a way to look beyond the existing and redirect our focus toward novel abstract achievements, to forward think. However, simultaneously we must have opacity – a lens that illuminates our world so that we can truly see it, truly asset it, and develop an ever-evolving consciousness, so that it never renders invisible, unnoticed, or forgotten.
1   Jennifer Baum Lagdameo, A Look at 10 Iconic Case Study Houses in California (Dwell Magazine, 2017).
2   Sabine Von Fischer, “The Sound of the Future” 1956: House of the Future (CCA, 2010).
3   Nigel Whitely, “The Expanded Field: Fit Environments for Human Activities” Reyner Banham: Historian of the Immediate Future (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2002), 189.
4   Michael K. Hays, Buckminster Fuller: Starting with the Universe (New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 2009), 2.
5   Hays, 5.
6   Hays, 3.
7   Hays, 2.
8   Hays, 5.
9   Todd Gannon and Andrew Zago, “Tabloid Transparency: Looking Through Types, Legibility, Abstraction and the Discipline of Architecture” The Routledge Companion for Architecture, Design and Practice, ed by M. Kanaani and D. Kopec (London: Routledge, 2016), 22.
10   Gannon, 22.
11   Gannon, 26.
12   Gannon, 26.
13   Hays, 18.
14   Hays, 12-13.
15   Sarah Deyoung, “Memories of the Urban Future: The Rise and Fall of the Megastructure” The Changing of the Avant-Garde: Visionary Architectural Drawings from the Howard Gilman Collection, ed. Terence Riley (New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 2002), 26.
16   Deyoung, 25.
17   Deyoung, 25.
18   Deyoung, 24.
19   Deyoung, 30-31.
20   Deyoung, 31.
21   Reyner Banham, “A Home is not a House” Art in America (1965), 79.
22   Rem Koolhaas, Delirious New York: A Retroactive Manifesto for Manhattan (New York: The Monacelli Press, 1994), 27.
23   Koolhaas, 10.
24   Koolhaas, 238.
25   Koolhaas, 246.
26   Koolhaas, 241, 249.
27   Koolhaas, 293.
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