By Craig Martin

Craig Martin is a writer and lecturer based in London.
March 2003.

Originality is the basis of creativity. Ownership the embodiment of socio-economic stability. Invention the mark of progress. The trinity of these modes of thought underpins nearly all contemporary cultural work; authenticity seems proven by them. If these premises are accepted, to reject their seal of authority is to castrate the very notion of creativity. What are we left with in the aftermath of this rejection? Not, I would claim, with a maledictory loss, but a blessed gain: at this juncture we encounter N55’s corpus.

What follows is an investigation into the implications of "disinvention" in N55’s practice, through their reuse of the octet truss. I posit "disinvention" as a challenge to the dominance of invention and novelty. With works such as "SNAIL SHELL SYSTEM" and "DYNAMIC CHAIR" the group have developed new systems of production and knowledge, but crucially do not declare intellectual ownership over them, so negating our ingrained admiration of invention. Essentially, their reuse of the octet truss as the underlying structural frame in certain projects is employed out of pragmatic necessity, and as a challenge to the concept of innovation; the trinity. Moreover, its "recycling" functions as a critique of authenticity, originality and intellectual ownership. Similarly, the circulation of their work is not generated through traditional forms of reception (the compression of this trinity), but is motivated by collectivist goals, notably the suppression of copyright. A new lexicon of usage erupts. My overall supposition is simple: that the whole N55 project, by way of the octet truss, is concerned with ends rather than origins.
Since the mid-1990s N55 have utilised the octet truss space lattice as a governing device in a number of different projects. It is the armature or base (in the Marxist sense) that provides the foundation for construction. As has been well documented, the dominant figure associated with this spatial form is R. Buckminster Fuller. Its most famous application is his geodesic dome. Aside from the aesthetic, the octet truss is one of the strongest structures known to man. This came out of Fuller’s research into the packing together of spheres. If one takes three spheres and rests them on a table, drawing a vector line from the centre point of each sphere a vector triangle is seen. Add a fourth sphere, sitting in the centre of the three spheres, and one again draws vector lines between the centres, a three-dimensional vector triangle occurs. This is the basic form which generates the octet truss. The point at which the spheres touch was described by Fuller as "the kissing point of spheres". The name of the octet truss comes from the combination of octahedrons and tetrahedrons.
In the structural relationship between these two shapes an inherently strong spatial matrix is produced. Although initially unaware of it, Fuller was following in the footsteps of Alexander Graham Bell, who had already "invented" the octet truss in 1902-3. Bell developed this process of omni-triangulation through his work on strengthening kites to allow them to carry people. For Fuller and Bell the octet truss existed both as geometrical model and engineering solution, as building block and construction system. When asked whether he had known of Bell’s whilst working on his own octet truss Fuller stated: "I did not. I was astonished to learn about it later. It is the way nature behaves, so we both discovered nature. It isn’t something you invent. You discover."1 He speaks of nature because the octet truss is a reflection of the way certain gaseous atoms pack together: a fundamental structure to nature. Discovery then, as opposed to invention.

N55 stake no claim to invention nor originality in their use of the octet truss. They positively discard the notion of technologically driven novelty. This and the suggested alternate modes of production and economy has rendered the application of the octet truss, and Fuller’s work as a whole, negligible.2 A photograph (circa 1907) of Bell with one of his spatial configurations bears a salient resemblance to the "FLOATING PLATFORM" and many other N55 structures. He appears like a man out of his time. Theirs is not simple homage but a damned necessity. The efficiency of this structure is utilised for precisely this fact.

Alexander Graham Bell, in his search for lightweight structures for flight, discovered the octahedron-tetrahedron complex (the octet truss) in 1903, and used it for constructions such as kites, a windbreak and an observation tower.

Obsolescence is at the root of this. Innovation is perceived as a crucial predicate of how our culture measures worth, tested by a lack of "recognising" above all else. Perceived difference being the engine of importance and development. Within contemporary art and especially design the appearance of difference counts. But appearance is all that it amounts too. Since the heyday of American industrial design built-in obsolescence has been responsible for a multitude of novelty forms, driven by stylistic quirks over fundamental improvements. Obsolescence is key to the contemporary economic equation of waste as growth, literal stockpiling. Obsolescence teases us by superficially shifting the cultural landscape. To jettison the need for novelty, as N55 do by using the octet truss, is to work with a structure that remains unsurpassed in engineering terms. They rebut obsolescence.

Concern about true change may account for the wholesale rejection of many of Fuller’s ideas. Philosophically he called for a complete refutation of established modes of thought. Flowing out of his early days as a naval officer he perceived the world as a fluid, oceanic entity, not as a land-based, static mass. In his 1944 essay "Fluid Geography" Fuller noted that, "Inertia, unchallenged, promotes careless philosophy. Every day the seafarer is exposed to three times the necessitous experience, for even when off watch he is still in a dynamic environment."3 It is telling that the "N55 SPACEFRAME", in which the group reside, is moored on the "FLOATING PLATFORM" in Copenhagen harbour, with their most recent project being a boat design. Undulation as experimentation.

Hillel Schwartz in his analysis of the culture of the copy that we live in, talks of the rupture with originality that copying elicits. Crucially for our understanding of N55’s salvaging or "copying" of the octet truss in their work, Schwartz differentiates between two forms of copying.4 Firstly, copying as appropriation and secondly, copying as reenactment. He then injects arrows to spatialize the functional aspect of copying: copying>as>appropriation and copying<>as<>reenactment. For Schwartz the use of a skeletal analogy feeds the argument: "Copying<>as<>reenactment follows close upon anatomy; copying>as>appropriation surveys the empyrean."5 So we have copying as replaying, using the structure of the original, and copying as an act of theft, staking claim to the origin. The first honest, the arrows determining a feedback link to the original. The latter godlike in its assertion of a false truth, the arrows pointing one way, disguising the historical reliance. N55 are sincere. Their practice elaborates on the octet truss of Fuller and Bell, the arrows shifting back and forth, charting the conceptual linkage. Like plagiarism, the empyreal version suggests a repetition of the original in order to posit the origin: to aver originality. I would go further than Schwartz and refer to N55’s use of the octet truss as a form of copying<>as<>enactment (removing the prefix ‘re’ unveils the latent usage). Using and adapting this design to instigate its true functional potential in the face of the imposed obsolescence on Fuller and Bell’s octet truss. Enacting the octet truss as a sign of basic efficiency. It tends toward functional ends or applications and not a conquering of the origin.
The discovery of origin is a central thesis in modern thought. It legitimates action through historical necessity and inevitability. But what if we think about ends instead? The octet truss as building block in N55’s work is utilised as end rather than origin. As outlined above the structure of the octet truss is used because of its inherent efficiency, but this is also where discussion of Functionalism in their practice can move beyond the stricture of art historical agglutination. Discovery of ends as opposed to origin is where the octet truss actually becomes productive in the true sense of the word. By enacting the octet truss, using the geometrical formula and adapting it, without conferring some right to its origin, N55 are engaged with the discovery of ends. They put it to work. Michel Tournier’s book Friday, is a reworking of Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Gilles Deleuze has charted the divergence between Defoe’s and Tournier’s work as the difference between search for origin and search for end, respectively:

"Tournier’s Robinson is opposed to Defoe’s in virtue of three strictly related characteristics: he is related to ends and goals rather than to origins; he is sexual; and these ends represent a fantastic deviation from our world, under the influence of a transformed sexuality, rather than an economic reproduction of our world, under the impact of a continuous effort."6

Like Tournier before them, N55 through their affinity to Bell and Fuller, search out ends and functions, instead of focusing on origins. "A text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination."7

We can consider N55’s critique of our preliminary threesome in a further way. The octet truss is celebrated, alongside its strength, for its modular and tessellated nature. Modularity is often associated with radicalism; one may think of the plug-in architecture of Archigram; or the "new domestic landscape" of Italian design in the 1960s. It seems to imply extension as movement, or a freedom of development through spatial play, rather than the fixity of normative construction. Indefinite addition as infinite choice. Of course, there is no choice apart from addition or removal. Such growth I would claim is actually predicated on extension as economic fulfilment. Modular design in this sense is the logical extension of capitalist economics - augmented consumption masquerading as improved choice. Within the N55 body the modularity of the octet truss is harnessed in a different way, taking the radicalism of it further than Bell and Fuller initially could have. On the one hand N55 rethink modularity; not only through space, but through time. This is the kissing point - where Bell, Bucky Fuller and N55 meet. On the other they conceive of modularity not simply as addition but as a creative modularity that depends on extension and development by the user. The real potential for modular building is at the point of reception, and not production. Rather than simply playing with the unitary pattern, the participants in N55’s work are encouraged to amplify the possible functions of the various projects. This is done in two principal ways; firstly through the distribution of print and online instruction manuals; and secondly, by a lack of patent on the projects themselves. Post-Structuralist in its remit, the manuals and the anti-copyright ideology propagate an open field. Open in the very status the user is given. As Barthes put it in "The Death of the Author":

"Thus is revealed the total existence of writing: a text is made of multiple writings, drawn from many cultures and entering into mutual relations of dialogue, parody, contestation, but there is one place where this multiplicity is focused and that place is the reader, not, as was hitherto said, the author."8

Although now an infamous text, Barthes’ essay charts the necessity of the reader, or user in this case, for developing meaning and application.9
N55’s projects operate by opening out the field of use, giving the audience the opportunity to construct and develop the group’s initial schemes, without having to purchase the rights to it. Again, they seek compound endings, not definition of the origin. These multiple avenues of operation can only work through the loss of copyright, "sharing not buying". The audience is assisted in the development of the schemes by a comprehensive manual for each project, providing details on materials, technical specification, construction, maintenance and component lists. Through the shared, gratis, information of the manuals originality cannot be sought:

"A cast foundation is not necessary but the construction must be fixed. This can be done in various ways. Polyethylene plastic tanks are built into the lowest level in the construction. The tanks are each filled with approx. 90 litres of water, together adding about 3 tons to the total weight of the construction."10

Sharing information is central to the way N55 operate. Just as they develop the octet truss of Fuller and Bell, so the participants in their practice can extend it as they so desire. The work cannot be purchased nor the barricade of intellectual property raised. Discarding the rights to ownership, as N55 do, creates another form of economic exchange, one that is premised on involvement. The N55 project "SHOP" establishes this form of exchange built on shared contribution. Participants can set up their own "shop" where forms of borrowing, giving, receiving take place. Monetary exchange does not figure. Subsuming the strict economic viability of the work means that obsolescence and originality becomes negated. With projects like "DYNAMIC CHAIR", which carries innovative technical advancements, patents have consciously not been put in place. To do this would be to limit the possible manifestations. It would literally close or fix the chair in one position, ergonomically, economically, theoretically. It would suppose the need for our initial triumvirate of authenticity.
The complex relations implicit in the work of N55 are, I would assert, mediated by the negation of originality, invention, and ownership presented by the position of the octet truss as a nuclei in their practice. As a whole the work could be described as "toothed": having an ability to cleave through contemporary capitalistic discourse, as outlined at the start. They are projecting a nascent hiatus in the trinity. Simultaneously there is another type of conceptual glue that holds their practice together, other than originality, invention, ownership: that of disencumbered exchange. Freedom to copy; freedom to extend; freedom to change.

Alexander Graham Bell, kite


1 Buckminster Fuller telephone interview with Dorothy Harley Eber, June 29, 1978, in the Prologue to Dorothy Harber Eber, Genius at Work: Images of Alexander Graham Bell, Viking Press, 1982. Quote taken from (31/3/03)

2 Fuller literally conceived a different formula for thinking the world. He believed that we should think spherically as opposed to the square thought that still dominates to this day.

3 Richard Buckminster Fuller, ‘Fluid Geography’, in The Buckminster Fuller Reader, (Ed. James Meller), London: Pelican Books, 1972, p. 135

4 To say salvaging or ‘copying’ (note inverted commas) is to claim that N55 are adapting and shifting already existing forms of knowledge. They contribute to the pool of free information.

5 Hillel Schwartz, The Culture of the Copy, New York, NY: Zone Books, 1996, p. 229
6 Gilles Deleuze, The Logic of Sense, London: Athlone Press, 1990, p. 303 [my emphasis]

7 Roland Barthes, ‘The Death of the Author’, in Image, Music, Text, (Trans. Stephen Heath) London: Fontana Press, 1977, p. 148

8 Ibid. Similarly Umberto Eco has famously discussed the operation of the open work and the role of the reader, most pertinently in ‘The Poetics of the Open Work’ from 1959. Also see Umberto Eco, ‘Between Author and Text’ in Stefan Collini (Ed.) with Richard Rorty, Jonathan Culler and Christine Brooke-Rose, Interpretation and Overinterpretation, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, pp. 67-88.

9 Taking this further, there are many parallels with contemporary media theory, especially the shared development ethos of systems such as Open Source, or file sharing. It could also be said to operate along the lines of hypertext - Barthes’ contemporary open text.

10 N55, Manual for N55 Spaceframe, Number 24, Copenhagen, July 1999, un-paginated.

Back to manual for DISCUSSIONS

Back to manuals
Back to HOME