Preserving a Prototype: Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House
James Ashby, Restoration CoordinatorHenry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village, Dearborn, Michigan
In World War 2 R. Buckminster Fuller’s expertise in the field of lightweight demountable housing was enlisted by the U.S. government. It led to the famous 1946 “Wichita” house, a full-size family dwelling weighing only 4 tons that was designed to be assembled on wartime bomber production lines. The prototype “Wichita” is the most important prefabricated house design of the 20th century, and certainly the greatest lost opportunity of the years of post-war building recovery.(1)
The conservation and restoration of Fuller’s Dymaxion (Wichita) House at the Henry Ford Museum challenges our notion of historic preservation today, just as the design of the Dymaxion House challenged the notion of “home” in 1945. When revealed to the public at the end of World War II, the image of the Dymaxion House was startlingly fresh: the lightweight metal building was essentially a cylinder, just over one thousand square feet in area, with a domed roof enclosing a single volume. Hung from a central mast, its “double wire-wheel”(2) structure relied on tension as the main structural principle. At the top, a wide aerodynamic sheet metal ventilator was designed to rotate or lift and alter the internal environment depending on weather conditions. Designed to facilitate transport, erection, and dismantling, the majority of the components weighed less than ten pounds each. The house was named for its properties: dynamic, maximum, and tension.(3)
For the conservation team responsible for treating this historic artifact, the challenges are considerable. The house was more of a prototype, a work-in-progress, or a model home rather than a completed building. It had been displaced from its site several times and existed in a disassembled state.(4) The house was constructed of modern materials and non-architectural materials that, fifty years later, were in varying degrees of deterioration and degradation. Finally, the goal was to exhibit the Dymaxion House in 2001 in a museum that receives over one million visitors a year. This paper discusses some of the key challenges faced by conservators at the Henry Ford Museum.(5)
The Incomplete Building
As the Dymaxion House has existed in various forms since 1945, determining the goal of the historic preservation work was a particular challenge. The conservation and reassembly of the building components is based on scholarly research from primary sources, mainly Fuller’s personal archive: the “Chronofile.”(6) However, the claims made by Fuller and others of the extraordinary features and attributes of the house have further complicated the interpretation of the Dymaxion House. The analysis of the archival materials and the examination of the house components themselves have revealed that the design development was cut short.(7) The house existed as a prototype or model home, rather than a mass production commodity. The engineering drawings prepared by Fuller Houses Inc. demonstrate that the design was developing rapidly between 1944 and 1946. There are drawings of multiple versions of the same component, some just months apart, which illustrate the rapid development of the design. The photographs taken at the Barwise factory and at the rural Danbury site reveal the subtle improvements from one prototype to the next. The correspondence sent by Fuller Houses Inc. to its suppliers reveals the urgency of the search for materials for the prototypes and for reliable sources for mass production.8Furthermore, amidst the museum’s collection of house components, there are parts of various Dymaxion house prototypes. The analysis of the collection of over 3,600 major parts revealed that, while there were extra parts, there were also parts missing, parts made obsolete, and parts that had been subsequently altered.
Some of the significance of the house is attributed to its authorship by R. Buckminster Fuller. While homeowner William Graham built his house in 1948 from Fuller’s prototypes, the “Wichita House” lacked the sophistication of the prototypes and it disappointed Fuller(9) (Figure 1). The museum chose the goal of its reassembly to be to the 1945-1946 period when the building is most closely associated with Buckminster Fuller. When considering each of the two prototypes from that period, we understand that the second prototype built outdoors was constructed mainly for testing purposes. As the first prototype was fitted with interior fixtures and furniture and thus the most complete, the museum has chosen to reassemble the collection of Dymaxion parts as closely as possible to the first prototype, the one constructed indoors. Yet as with virtually all such projects, the very act of conservation changes the original in some way. While the goal of the conservation and reassembly will be the 1945 indoor prototype, there was an ethical dilemma regarding the missing components. Even if the parts in the collection could be distinguished from one prototype or the next (which in many cases is not possible), analysis revealed that an assemblage consisting of only parts from one prototype would achieve neither structural independence nor aesthetic integrity. Rather than constructing a partial house, parts from the second prototype are installed where required to achieve a “whole” Dymaxion House. In addition to components from the first prototype, the house restored at the Henry Ford Museum will contain components from the second later prototype, parts from the Grahams’ Wichita House, and new components fabricated by the museum. This combination of parts poses both a challenge to interpreting the building and an opportunity to reveal the evolution of the design and the subsequent history of the house(s).
As the Dymaxion House has existed at various locations, the relationship between the house and its site is an intriguing issue. The building is part of the cultural history of Wichita, Kansas, and a product of its thriving aircraft industry during the Second World War. Following the 1991 announcement of the acquisition of the Dymaxion House by the Henry Ford Museum, there was concern expressed in the local media about the loss of the Wichita House, an architectural icon. However, the debate also recognized the altered form the house took under the Grahams’ stewardship and the vulnerability of the house on its isolated six hundred-acre estate in rural Kansas.(10)
Currently, preservation orthodoxy suggests that a building’s site is an important attribute contributing to its authenticity.(11) It is recognized that by today’s standards Henry Ford’s notion of collecting buildings from various parts of the world to create Greenfield Village is rather unsettling. However, modernity embraced mobility and structures such as the Dymaxion House were designed for multiple sites. As the Dymaxion House was intended to be demountable and shipped anywhere in its own packing cylinder, one might argue that the physical context is of minimal significance. As the site of the Dymaxion House is indeterminate, theoretically the building retains its integrity no matter where it is located. The relationship between a structure and its site is one aspect where buildings from the modern era are challenging us to find new ways to evaluate historic structures from the recent past.(12)
While one may accept the notion that the Dymaxion House exists independently of a site, there is the issue of whether it belongs indoors or outdoors. Regarding long term preservation of the original building fabric, choosing to locate the prototype outdoors would have posed problems due to vulnerability to further deterioration. Fuller combined dissimilar metals for expediency during the prototyping phase and had no intention that the prototype would be exposed to the weather for many years. The advanced corrosion of components of the Graham’s Wichita House demonstrated the fragility of the prototype in an outdoor environment. Merely placing an aluminum object indoors reduces its corrosion rate by a factor of one thousand.(13) As the Dymaxion House shares many similarities with aircraft, and as aviation collections are often exhibited indoors to provide favorable environmental conditions, there exist precedents for exhibiting the structure indoors.
Regarding the interpretation of the house based on historical accuracy, archival documents demonstrate that the two prototypes from late 1945 and early 1946 are the versions of the Dymaxion House most closely associated with the designer Fuller. Of these two prototypes, it is the first one that was most fully developed. It was built indoors, furnished as a model home, and professional models posed for photographs that were published in Life, Fortune, and other magazines. One could argue that the location of the Dymaxion House inside the Henry Ford Museum as an exhibit is a sympathetic interpretation of Fuller’s most complete original prototype displayed inside the factory in Wichita. The decision to conserve and restore the building at an indoor site provides both favorable environmental conditions for the longevity of the historic artifact and an opportunity for an accurate and appropriate interpretation of the building.
The building materials are either very specific to the construction industry at the end of World War II or they are aviation materials used in architectural applications. As such, these aged modern materials pose challenges for conservators. The materials include aluminum alloys, plastics, plywood, chromoly steel, stainless steel, and naugehyde among others. Due to age, exposure to environmental conditions, and abandonment of the house prior to its acquisition by the Henry Ford Museum, the deterioration of many of the materials was considerable (Figure 2).
The most common material in the Dymaxion House, and the one that posed the greatest conservation challenge, is aluminum. The aluminum-copper alloys(14) are those typically used in World War II aircraft. The lightweight material was used in every possible application: the “deck” (floor structure), “carlins” (purlins), “gores” (roof panels), “skin” (walls), the “ventilator” (cupola), and even the closets. The alloy has a 4 percent copper content and was developed to provide increased strength. However, the addition of copper is at the expense of corrosion resistance. Many of the aluminum alloy components in the Dymaxion House are clad with a layer of pure aluminum. This cladding technique is the process of plating the alloy with a layer of pure aluminum in order to decrease corrosion susceptibility. There were a variety of fabrication techniques: rolled products, extrusions, and die-stamped pieces. The condition of the various aluminum parts ranged from excellent to poor. The corrosion included galvanic corrosion,(15) filiform corrosion,(16) and severe exfoliation corrosion.(17)
The museum with the assistance of its external consultants identified the aluminum alloys and the corrosion products using a variety of analytical techniques. For analysis of the surface corrosion products, x-ray diffraction proved particularly helpful. The results of the x-ray diffraction (XRD) analysis were consistent with the corrosion of aluminum under ambient conditions: oxidation and hydration products were present, with traces of materials that had been introduced from the environment of the Kansas site.(18)
Further analysis of the corrosion samples was executed using scanning electron microscopy and energy dispersive spectrometry. Elemental analysis of the uncorroded alloy of the samples was consistent with their identification as Alclad 2014 and Alclad 2024. Aluminum trihydroxides were identified as the principal corrosion products on all the samples, indicating that the primary corrosion process was the interaction of aluminum with both water and oxygen.(19)
Optical metallographic analysis revealed that the samples of sheet metal consisted of small equiaxed grains that had limited the corrosion to the surface of these metals. In contrast, the samples from the extruded sections were found to consist of large, elongated grains. Corrosion along these grain boundaries had resulted in extensive exfoliation corrosion. While the corrosion in all of the samples was driven by similar chemical processes, the microstructure resulted in the corrosion manifesting itself in different forms.(20)
However as these particular alloys are “age-hardening,” that is their properties alter over time, further analysis was required. It was necessary to determine the actual properties of the aged parts. Electrical conductivity across the surface is a good indicator of age hardening, and the test is inexpensive and easily performed on site. Conductivity can be used to determine the temper of the aluminum, and in turn, temper may be used to estimate critical properties such as strength and corrosion resistance. The tests determined that the aluminum, likely due to its prolonged exposure to the sun, had in many instances aged beyond its original temper. Many pieces had a considerable loss of strength and were extremely susceptible to corrosion.(21)
Just as Fuller drew from the aviation world for his design of the Dymaxion House, the conservation of the prototype draws from the analytical tools and treatments developed by the aviation industry. Heat treating is the process by which an aluminum alloy is elevated to a high temperature, thereby changing its microstructure to improve performance. In heat treating these alloys, it is possible to move the copper ions away from grain boundaries, thus decreasing the opportunities for intergranular corrosion.(22) From the perspective of museum conservation, the heat treatment is considered irreversible as it causes subtle changes in the metallographic structure of the alloy. Although it may be considered irreversible, it is possible to change the structure of the alloy to its prior condition by inducing futher metallograpic changed by subsequent heat changes. In May 2000, the Henry Ford Museum commenced heat treating aluminum parts of the Dymaxion House(23) (Figure 3). It is understood that this was the first time the treatment was used by museum conservators to diminish opportunities for further deterioration of historic aluminum artifacts.
The analytical tools and treatments developed for the conservation of the aluminum of the Dymaxion House may have direct implications for the conservation of other objects. These may include World War II aircraft collections or buildings constructed of the same materials such as Britain’s AIROH (Air Industries Research Organisation for Housing) houses. As an example of one of the challenges faced by conservators, the conservation of the aluminum of the Dymaxion House demonstrates the search for tools and treatments that lie outside the current boundaries of conservation science.
“Art history finds it difficult to deal with a design like the Dymaxion house, which never really existed but is nonetheless a landmark in technological evolution”(24) (Figure 6). While this may suggest that the Dymaxion House is anomalous, it is really among a family of structures and artifacts from the modern era. It shares similarities (either physical or thematic) with house museums, model homes, exhibition pavilions, temporary structures, test models, aviation artifacts, and even Airstream trailers. Just as the Dymaxion House challenged the notion of “home” in the 1940s, the work at the Henry Ford Museum challenges preservation orthodoxy today. The conservation and restoration of the Dymaxion House at the museum raises important philosophical and technical issues, and these may have implications for the identification, evaluation, and conservation of other structures of the modern era.
1. Martin Pawley, Buckminster Fuller (London: Taplinger Publishing Company, 1990), 13–14.
2. Fuller’s 4D House of 1928 was described in this way: “The house is essentially a wire wheel turned on its side, with the hub extended to become the mast,” in Robert W. Marks, The Dymaxion World of Buckminster Fuller (New York: Reinhold Publishing Corporation, 1960), 85.
3. “Waldo Warren, one of Field’s marketing men, thought Fuller’s terms confusing [sic] unexciting and combined the words dynamic, maximum, and tension into the acronym Dymaxion,” in Christian W. Overland, The Dymaxion Dwelling Machine: R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dream of Mass Produced Housing (M.A. thesis, State University of New York at Oneonta, N.Y., 1998).
4. The Henry Ford Museum & Greenfield Village acquired the Dymaxion house (known as the Wichita House) and spare parts from the Graham family in 1991, and following documentation, it was disassembled and moved from Andover, Kansas, to Dearborn, Michigan in 1992.
5. The acquisition of the house, initial research, and documentation are discussed by Christian W. Overland in “Research and Restoration of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Dwelling Machine (a work in progress)” in Deborah Slaton and Rebecca A. Schiffer, eds. Preserving the Recent Past. (Washington, D.C.: Historic Preservation Education Foundation, 1995).
6. The Chronofile is located in the archives of the Buckminster Fuller Institute recently acquired by Stanford University at Palo Alto, California, and at the time of writing is in storage and inaccessible to researchers.
7. “We estimated that the house needed at least another year of development, “ Jay Baldwin, BuckyWorks: Buckminster Fuller’s Ideas for Today (New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 1996), 56.
8. “I am sorry to tell you that failure to follow through on their promises by members of your company has caused the first crick in the back of our enterprise . . . . this kind of service can well spell disaster to us,” in Letter from R. Buckminster Fuller to Mr. David Reynolds of Reynolds Metals Co., 13 July 1945.
9. On the subject of the Graham house, Fuller is quoted as follows: “His architectural additions and modifications in effect . . . forever grounded this aeroplane” in Marks, 133.
10. Bob Beardsley, Wichita city preservation planner, is quoted as follows, “It would have been nice for the Dymaxion to have stayed in the Wichita area, but it boils down to money and expertise—and we have neither. Saving the building is more important than anything else,” in B. Tanner, “Futuristic Home to Leave Kansas Prairie for Museum” in Wichita (Kansas) Eagle, 24 January 1992, 6A.
11. Aspects of properties including both buildings and their exterior spaces are discussed in Kay D. Weeks and Anne E. Grimmer, The Secretary of the Interior’s Standards for the Treatment of Historic Properties with Illustrated Guidelines for Preserving, Rehabilitating, Restoring, and Reconstructing Historic Buildings (Washington D.C.: 1996).
12. The Aluminaire house and its independence from its site are discussed in J. Rosa, Albert Frey Architect (New York, Rizzoli, 1990), 28.
13. C. Adams and D. Hallam, “Finishes on Aluminium—A Conservation Perspective”, in David W. Grattan, ed., Saving the Twentieth Century: The Conservation of Modern Materials (Ottawa, Ontario: 1991), 283.
14. The aluminum alloys are identified as 2014 and 2024 in T.D. Burleigh, Procedures for Restoring Aluminum Components of the Dymaxion House (Murraysville, Pennsylvania: Burleigh Corrosion Consultants, 1995).
15. Galvanic or electrochemical corrosion is the basic reaction that characterizes chemical deterioration of aluminum. In electrochemical reactions with most other metals, ions from aluminum go into solution and travel to the more positively charged metal.
16. Also known as vermiform or worm-track corrosion, filiform is a type of crevice corrosion commonly occurring as random nonbranching white tunnels of corrosion products beneath thin surface coatings.
17. Also known as layer or lamellar corrosion, exfoliation corrosion is a type of selective subsurface attack that occurs in tunnels parallel to the surface of the metal and predominantly in relatively thin products with elongated grain structures.
18. Dr. Karen Trentelman, Draft Analytical Report: Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House (Detroit: Conservation Services Laboratory of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 2000).
21. Analysis and recommendations were prepared by Metallurgical Engineer Donna Walker of Climax Research Services, Wixom, Michigan, in 1999 to 2000.
22. Intergranular corrosion is a form of selective attack occurring along grain boundaries, and it usually occurs when a metal is not homogeneous due to alloying or fabrication.
23. Heat treating was executed by B&W Heat Treating (1975) Limited of Kitchener, Ontario.
24. Pawley, 176.
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Articles and Essays
“Built Like an Airplane,” The Beech Log. Wichita, Kansas: Beech Aircraft, 24 August 1945, 6–8.
“The Fuller House,” The Beech Log. Wichita, Kansas: Beech Aircraft, 22 March 1946.
“Dymaxion Depends Upon Precision,” The Beech Log. Wichita, Kansas: Beech Aircraft, 20 August 1945, 6–8.
Fuller Houses Inc. The Fuller House. Wichita, Kansas, March 28, 1946.
“Fuller House” Life, 1 April 1946, 73–74, 76.
“Fuller’s House: It Has a Better Than Even Chance of Upsetting the Building Industry,” Fortune, April 1946, 167–176,179.
Overland, Christian W. “Research and Restoration of Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion Dwelling Machine (a work in progress)” in Slaton, Deborah and Rebecca A. Schiffer, eds. Preserving the Recent Past. Washington, D.C.: Historic Preservation Education Foundation, 1995, IV-33 – IV-45.
Rybczynski, Witold. “A Little House on the Prairie Goes to a Museum” New York Times, New York: 19 April 1992, 34.
“What Became of the Fuller House,” Fortune 37, no. 5 (1948), 168.
Ashby, James. The Conservation of Architectural Aluminium and its Alloys. M.A. dissertation, University of York, York, U.K.: 1998.
Burleigh, T. David. Procedures for Restoring Aluminum Components of the Dymaxion House. Murraysville, Pennsylvania: Burleigh Corrosion Consultants, 1995.
Overland, Christian W. The Dymaxion Dwelling Machine: R. Buckminster Fuller’s Dream of Mass Produced Housing. M.A. thesis, State University of New York at Oneonta, New York, 1998.
Trentelman, Karen. Draft Analytical Report: Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion House. Detroit: Conservation Services Laboratory of the Detroit Institute of the Arts, 2000.
Graham, William. Building of the Graham Home. Color home-movie filmstrip, 1948.
Paramount News. Housing—Definitely the Newest! Distributed by Paramount News Library Archives, Sherman Grinberg Film Libraries Inc., New York: March 1946.
This article originally appeared in Preserving the Recent Past II, published by HPEF and the National Park Service. The conference proceedings are available as a digital download.