Bucky Fuller & the Ericksens

by Jonathan Wright

In the 1960s and ‘70s, Bob and Joan Root Ericksen, co-founders and directors of the Sun Foundation, worked on numerous projects with Buckminster Fuller. They met him in 1967 while living in the Pacific Northwest, when they attended one of his lectures at a nearby university. The next year, they moved to Illinois to teach in the Chicago City College system, where they remained for five years. During that time, they traveled on several occasions to Fuller’s home base in Carbondale to connect with him on various projects.

The Ericksens put Fuller’s concepts to work in their classes and community work in Chicago. “Both Bob and I grew up surrounded by nature, and when we went back to teach in our communities, we saw that the natural habitat and green areas that we had experienced as children were gone,” recounted Joan. “Our students came from two very underserved communities—the steel mill areas and the Cabrini Green area—and they were under assault environmentally. We had students that came to class who would bleed from the lungs because of the fumes and pollution from industrial sites.

“We found that many of our students lived in a concrete world…so we started to clean up the vacant lots and designed geodesic playground equipment using Buckminster Fuller’s designs. We saw that he had a lot of answers for the serious issues of education, the environment, and the misuse of the earth’s finite resources. The old answers weren’t working—and he had new answers for problems that we were facing, as a culture and as a world.”

Bucky Meets the Young Lords
In 1968, the country was in turmoil, with political assassinations, protests against the Vietnam War, and riots in the streets in hundreds of cities. In this context, the Ericksens arranged for Fuller to come to Chicago to meet with members of the Young Lords, a neighborhood group that had evolved from a street gang into human rights activists for Latinos and the poor, setting up a community child-care center, health clinic and breakfast program.

“A lot of our students had really lost hope and were starting to talk about revolution,” said Joan. “They wanted to help their community, but they needed the resources. So we thought it was a perfect match to bring Fuller together with the Young Lords, who were working in the community that he once lived in. We thought that he had a lot of really solid ideas for giving people hope and the tools to recreate our world in a much more positive light.”

They also invited the late writer Studs Terkel, who described the occasion in a 1983 letter to The Futurist magazine. “A bitter wintry Sunday in Chicago. At the People’s Church, the Young Lords’ headquarters, there was no heat. Everybody was in overcoats. Everybody: the audience—primarily community people, Puerto Ricans, hippies and one or two ‘Respectables’—and the speaker.

“Picture this: The stubby, crew-cut-gray guest speaker, striding back and forth on the stage, overcoat buttoned up, shooting out polysyllables at an astonishingly attentive audience. Did that gentle young Puerto Rican mother, nursing her baby, understand? Did the angry young guy, whose family was ‘urbanly-renewed’ six times in two years, understand? And how. For Bucky, in his own language, Fullerese, was addressing their lives and dreams and visions. And they dug it. It turned out to be a lovely afternoon.”

The unlikely pairing resonated all the way to New York City. In a 2006 interview, Puerto Rican activist Luz Rodriguez recalled, “Because of Buckminster Fuller’s influence, there was a lot of talk…that we had to think about alternative ways of living outside of this drug-infested Lower East Side—that this was not the end of our universe. There was a lot of sharing about…sustainable building of homes, and that was the dream—that we were going to be building ‘green’ homes.”

Of her mentors, she recalled that Fuller was “instrumental in turning their lives around from using the organizational structure they had as gang members and transforming it to community service. I benefited from all of that. Even though I didn’t know who he was, I knew how to build a geodesic dome. My so-called gang member mentors were doing the math formulas to build domes and educate the community about alternative forms of living, sustainability and ecology, smack in the ghetto of the Lower East Side.”

The World Game
In the 1960s, at Southern Illinois University, Buckminster Fuller proposed a concept called the “World Game.” Essentially, it was a role-playing game in which players representing different regions of the world negotiated to resolve conflicts and allocate resources. It was intended to facilitate a comprehensive, global approach to problem-solving and demonstrate the need for cooperation among nations. The first World Game was played in 1969.

Inspired, Bob and Joan Ericksen brought the World Game to Chicago. They got in touch with Fuller, who sent one of his assistants to demonstrate. In April 1970, more than 500 people packed a large auditorium to take part. “The purpose of this occasion,” wrote Bob and Joan, “was to expose neighboring universities, colleges and community organizations to the World Game as a method of solving world problems and making the world work successfully for all human beings.”

The World Game was prototyped by various universities and by NASA in the 1970s, and still exists in various permutations today. Long before the emergence of the Internet and supercomputing power, Fuller himself envisioned that the game would eventually become a giant computer simulation. Numerous groups are currently working to adapt Fuller’s concept to today’s world. Visit worldgame.org for one example.

The Four Little Pigs
On one of their visits to Carbondale, the Ericksens talked to Fuller about their idea for a book to explain his work to children. After Bucky gave his blessing, they wrote, illustrated and produced The Four Little Pigs, a take on the fairy tale of the three little pigs, published in 1970. In this version, the fourth pig learns from the others’ mistakes and applies design concepts learned from nature to construct his home. Sure enough, the fourth pig constructs a sturdy geodesic dome after he learns how to do more with less.

“We never published it beyond the 45 copies, because we got busy, and he got busy,” explained Joan. “We are now in the process of revising it and looking towards getting it published.”

The Sun Foundation
Naturally, Buckminster Fuller was one of the inspirations for the birth of the Sun Foundation. “We could no longer just be artists or educators—we had to get out there and do the work,” Joan recalled. “We knew the problems of the environment were very serious, and many children would grow up disconnected from nature and never have the opportunity to live a full life. Bucky was one of our major mentors and inspired us to go forward on a much larger scale.”

Employing his keen interest in low-cost housing, Bob Ericksen calculated the math, and with the help of many others, built a geodesic dome out of a waterproof plywood material on Joan’s mother’s farm in Washburn in 1972. “It was a prototype—we had to see if it worked,” explained Bob. “We had it in our mind that we would build a wood dome that could be a shelter, home, office or workspace, but we didn’t know that we were going to move down here at the time.”

After completing one successful project with a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, the Ericksens were encouraged to expand their concept, which led them to start the Sun Foundation in 1973. They moved to Washburn in 1974 and lived in the geodesic dome for five years. Though they no longer live there, the dome still stands today and serves as the foundation’s headquarters. a&s