Connections: Alden and Vada Dow and Buckminster Fuller

It’s difficult to know for certain when Alden B. Dow and Buckminster Fuller first connected, but it must have been well before the letter Fuller sent to Mr. Dow in December 1951. In it he thanked Mr. Dow for his generous pledge of $1000 toward the production of his film, Energetic Geometry. He then proceeded to describe in some detail three proposed designs for a heated military aircraft hangar to be built in the Arctic.

One can almost imagine Mr. Dow’s delight in reading about “tubular aluminum frames with orlon inner skin, glazed Styrofoam triangular building blocks, and polyester-fiberglass laminated diamond-shaped components.” Fuller closed his letter by saying he looked forward to returning to Midland and to meeting the physicists Mr. Dow had mentioned in previous correspondence. He signed it, “Faithfully yours, Bucky Fuller.”

In 1955, both were invited to submit home designs for an experimental housing development in Grand Rapids. Organized by the Homestyle Foundation, its objectives were to study how to better solve home living needs, to combine the talents of outstanding people in the varying professions, and to show the best in available or experimental products. Fuller’s submission of a transparent dome was certainly experimental; Mr. Dow incorporated movable plastic panels throughout his home design.

Among Mr. Dow’s personal papers in the Archives is an original copy of the January 1964 issue of Time magazine with Fuller on the cover. He has underlined and marked the article in many places that describe the ideas and personal qualities they have in common, among them “strong-minded individualism” and an aversion to “traditional molds of thinking.”

The Dows visited the 1967 Montreal Expo where the United States pavilion was a geodesic dome or Biosphere designed by Fuller. It was constructed of three-inch steel tubes welded at the joints and sheathed in a thin acrylic membrane. The volume contained within it was sufficient to fit a seven-story exhibition building featuring American cultural contributions such as spaceships from the Apollo missions and artwork from around the country. An avid movie-maker, Mr. Dow filmed the outside and inside of the dome. The movie, part of the Archives collection, gives one the sense of riding the escalator with him inside of the dome.

While Mr. Dow never attempted a design of his own along the lines of a sphere, he did conceive of and construct a hyperbolic parabola for the roof of a gas station, develop a plan and a scale model of a Circle House, and design a number of built and unbuilt domed structures. The Kalamazoo Nature Center, Interlochen Academy classroom buildings, Hillsdale College Nursery School, and the Laboratory for Macromolecular Science are among his most eye-catching examples.

It was the very first Matrix:Midland festival that finally brought Fuller back to Midland in 1978. He gave an evening lecture on the arts and sciences.

The final piece of correspondence was a poem written by Fuller, “Ever Rethinking the Lord’s Prayer,” his own scientifically-inspired rumination on the Lord’s Prayer. At the end he signed it, “To Alden Dow with affectionate regard, Buckminster Fuller, May 8, 1978.”

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