Alec Nevala-Lee grew up in the San Francisco Bay area with an interest in futurist and designer Buckminster Fuller. As an adult living in Oak Park, the 2019 Hugo and Locus Awards finalist says that devoting his most recent book to Fuller is a dream project.
The biography, “Inventor of the Future: The Visionary Life of Buckminster Fuller,” makes its debut on Aug. 2 and provides new insight into Fuller while also drawing parallels between Fuller and some of today’s visionaries.
Nevala-Lee says that Fuller’s focus on telling people what the future would be like intersects with his own interest in science fiction, which he explored in his previous book “Astounding: John W. Campbell, Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, L. Ron Hubbard, and the Golden Age of Science Fiction.”
In addition to his curiosity about Fuller, Nevala-Lee says another motivation in writing about Fuller was the fact that there had never been an in-depth biography focused on Fuller’s whole life. Stanford University has a large archive on Fuller, and Nevala-Lee dove into research, spending three years to create the book.
During his research, Nevala-Lee found his own perceptions of Fuller changing. He notes that much of the previous record on Fuller was provided by Fuller, who was not a reliable source.
“He’s a much more complex figure than he has been represented before,” said Nevala-Lee, who calls Fuller a mythmaker. “Before starting the book, my picture of him was uncritical — that he was kind of a benign genius. This is an image he created.”
Nevala-Lee goes on to say that a good analogy is to liken Fuller to Steve Jobs if Jobs had been born in 1895. He notes that society and media are much more critical of public figures now. Given the era, Fuller was able to make claims that became accepted as fact over time.
“The myth takes over the reality,” Nevala-Lee said. “I find these kinds of people interesting.”
Born in 1895, Fuller was the fifth generation of his family to attend Harvard, and Nevala-Lee posits that this privileged background made it easier for Fuller to take the risks that would define his life.
After college, Fuller entered the housing trade but was frustrated by the time constraints and bureaucracy inherent in the construction industry.
In the 1920s he had the idea to mass-produce housing by making home-building an industrialized process. During this period, he conceived his ideas for a Dymaxion Car and the Dymaxion Wichita House, which was an autonomous, self-sustaining single-family dwelling that would be composed of prefabricated elements, could be mass-produced and shipped around the world.
It wasn’t until the late 1940s that Fuller’s idea for a geodesic dome finally earned him potential commercial success. Ford Motor Company built the first commercial dome, and the design was used for Disney’s Epcot Center as well as many military installations across the country.
Fuller finally achieved the notoriety he sought, and Nevala-Lee says through this, he became an influencer of his time. Labelling himself a futurist garnered more attention to his work.
Fuller popularized the terms “synergy” and “Spaceship Earth.” Late in life, he was the world president of Mensa, appeared on the cover of Time and was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom.
Through it all, Nevala-Lee says, Fuller’s personal life was “messy.” Married for 60 years, Fuller had numerous affairs with young proteges.
“These patterns repeated themselves three or four times. He was a charismatic guy with magnetic charm,” Nevala-Lee. “A big part of the book is untangling all the threads.”
Nevala-Lee says that Fuller saved all of his letters and these, along with thousands of documents in the Stanford archives, gave him a lot to work with.
In addition, he says that tackling the project when he did was crucial because he was able to write the book when people who knew Fuller personally were still alive to share memories of him.
“There was a moment in time when this book was possible,” Nevala-Lee said.
Author event at Oak Park Library
One of Buckminster Fuller’s many celebrity encounters was with Frank Lloyd Wright. The two met in the 1930s. According to Alec Nevala-Lee, author of the new Fuller biography “Inventor of the Future,” Fuller saw Wright as a role model due to the famous architect’s “huge cultural footprint.” Fuller sought Wright out.
“Their relationship was very deliberate,” Nevala-Lee said. “Fuller claimed that Wright would ask him for engineering advice. There were two big egos at play here.”
On Saturday, Aug. 13 at 11 a.m., Nevala-Lee will be discussing his book with Sarah Holian of the Frank Lloyd Wright Trust in the Veterans Room of the Oak Park Public Library, 834 Lake St.
To register to attend the event, visit oakpark.librarycalendar.com/event/author-visit-alec-nevala-lee