San Quentin State Prison, California’s only male-inmate death row, has a reputation for having contained some of the most fearsome murderers to make headlines, up to and including Charles Manson. But some non-serial-killing cultural figures have also passed through it gates: country singer-songwriter Merle Haggard, for car theft and armed robbery in his youth; actor Danny Trejo, who did a few years in the sixties; jazz saxophonist Art Pepper, who served two sentences there in that decade; and Neal Cassady, the inspiration for Dean Moriarty in Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, locked up for marijuana possession in 1958. The following year would see the construction, up north at the University of Oregon, of the very first full-sphere “continuous tension-discontinuous compression” geodesic dome. What on Earth could link these these two structures, one brutally utilitarian with a name that spooks even hardened outlaws, and the other a technologically forward-thinking, utopian attempt at architecturally bringing about a better world?
The connection comes in the form of Buckminster Fuller himself, the architect, inventor, writer, and much else besides responsible for the design of the geodesic dome. (He also invented the Dymaxion Car, Dymaxion House, Dymaxion Map… and the list goes on.) He came to San Quentin that same year, not as an inmate — one imagines him as far too busy spinning off new theories or keeping the Dymaxion Chronofile to so much as consider committing a crime — but as a lecturer. Described as “a talk given to inmates on general semantics,” Fuller’s address, which you can hear above, starting around the 20:30 minute mark, takes on an even more general breadth of subjects than that, including his own biography and the experiences that originated the ideas that drove him to live his life as “an experiment to find what a single individual can contribute to changing the world and benefiting all humanity.” Through that concern with humanity, he could relate to prisoners just as well as he could to anyone else. “There are no throw-away resources,” he says at one point, “and no throw-away people.” At over three hours long, the lecture gets into some detail, but if you want a still more thorough look into Fuller’s mind, consider following it up with the 42-hour Everything I Know.
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, language, Asia, and men’s style. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.