The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller

One Stop Arts magazine

Sam Green & Yo La Tengo’s live performance & film at The Barbican.

The first building of the first phase of the enormous chunk of London which is the Barbican Centre was a small brutalist block. It housed a fire station, a coroner's, offices, a mortuary, flats and public walkways weaved through the middle. It was a unique piece of architecture, a genuinely collaborative and mixed-use space which was the testing ground the architects explored further over the rest of the Barbican complex. It was called Milton Court and was demolished in 2008 to make way for a massive and generic glass tower within the base of which sits a new concert hall “Milton Court”, named after that which it destroyed in its creation.

Buckminster Fuller was a post-war American architect whose main legacy is the geodesic dome - a sphere engineered from triangles, incredibly strong, logical and beautiful. It is a design which has since been used across the world in engineering and design, it even inspired the naming of carbon molecules which resemble it's form and were named Fullerenes and Buckyballs. The most famous of all his constructions was the gigantic Biosphèreat Montreal Expo in 1967 which housed a multi-use building layered on pilotis with walkways and a monorail running through.

There is something interesting in Sam Green's intent to rework the construct of documentary by turning it into a live event. Certainly having live music brings some of the magic of early silent cinema into the space, the film and sound as performance rather than flat representation. Green's narration also helped emphasise the 'liveness' – spoken without notes and nicely acknowledging the impact of Buckminster Fuller upon English architects.

It's worth making a comparison to the recent documentary From the Sea to the Land and Beyondwhich set archive film footage of the seascape and Britain's relationship to it against a score by the band British Sea Power. The director, Penny Woolcock, was also dismantling the documentary convention and re-imagining it and its relationship to music, which like this was also performed to live screenings.

The noticeable difference was that the sea study had no narration and as such offered a poetic rendering of place to sound. Sam Green dismantled the elements of documentary only to reassemble them into the normal structure – narration relating to documenting images on screen with an aural background. Even the approach – Green stuck to a rigid biographical and chronological order – meant there was little scope for poetry and the audience to infer onto the work.

Further, Green didn't seem interested in delving deeply into the subject area. Buckminster Fuller is a man who put his hand to architecture, products, vehicles and theorism, he was president of MENSA and was a futurologist who deeply considered our relationship to the earth and its resources in such a profound way that it is still useful to look back to his writings. Yet Green only hinted at any profundity, instead defaulting back to the quirky glib humour every time there was an opportunity to penetrate. I think anyone in the audience who went into the show not knowing who Buckminster Fuller was would have gone away thinking he was an American crackpot version of our Heath Robinson. Which is a real shame.

What of the music? After all a lot of the attendees would have been enticed by the promise of a Yo La Tengo concert. It was nice. Just nice. I saw no real connection between their music and the either the subject or visuals, except on one occasion when sweeping archive footage rose through the levels of the Expo sphere accompanied by a crescendo of rattling cymbals and rumbling bass. The rest was largely just wallpaper, beautiful and delicate wallpaper, but music rather than a score. Again, in contrast to British Sea Power's composition for From the Sea to the Land and Beyond, which rolled with the tidal surges and took one right into the waters, this was a real disappointment. A score which related to the visuals and perhaps was influenced by the dreaming, logic and scope of the protagonist’s thinking would have been far more interesting.

And, what of Milton Court, the brutalist hulk demolished under the pretence of 'ugliness' in order to make way for ubiquitous glass and steel? It was the similarity between Fuller's Biosphereat Montreal '67 (minus the huge translucent dome) and the original Milton Court which led me to ponder. That a piece of architectural history, and an important one at that, can not only be physically removed but also distorted in memory through the repossession of its name lends one to think how important the role of documenting and recording is. Whether the director takes a biographical or poetic approach, what is paramount is that the essence and truth of the subject is getting across otherwise the memory and future knowledge will be distorted or completely lost. Sure, Green's approach only dealt with truth but it was so shallow in its consideration of Buckminster Fuller that as a piece of documentation it renders an incredibly profound and interesting subject rather disposable and whimsical.