“Spacy Spheres and Funky Shacks”: The Otherworlds of 1971’s ‘Domebook 2’

Exhibit / December 12, 2019

Object NameDomebook 2 
Maker and Year: Pacific Domes, 1971 (Lloyd Kahn, editor)
Object Type: Building publication
Image Source: Archive.org
Description (Michael Grasso):

“The thing about zomes is,” Riggs with a desperate grin, “is they can act as doorways to other dimensions. The F-105s, the coyotes, the scorpions and snakes, the desert heat, none of that bothers me. I can leave whenever I want.” He motioned with his head. “All I have to do is step through that door over there, and I’m safe.”

Can I look?” said Doc.

“Better not. It’s not for everybody, and if it’s not for you, it can be dangerous.”

Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

In the spring of 1971, it seemed everyone on the fringes of mainstream society in North America was trying to build geodesic domes: soaring gridwork domes made of plastic and steel, of wood, of concrete. Inspired by technocratic engineer-turned-counterculture guru and geodesic dome evangelist R. Buckminster Fuller, hundreds of back-to-the-land hippies sought to use his elementary architectural example of solid geometry as the basis for their homes and gathering places. One of the many venues that helped dome aficionados figure out how to build their own domed spaces was a guidebook assembled by a group of students and facilitators at a freeform California high school. Inspired by their own experimentation with building geodesic structures, and directly assisted by the runaway success of Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog, these dome-builders and educators released a pair of “Domebooks” in 1970 and 1971 for sale to the general public. While Domebook One was more of a straight-ahead how-to construction guide, Domebook 2 acted as a clearinghouse for correspondence from a panoply of counterculture builders, along with material specifics on dome-building, ruminations on the geometry behind geodesics, a lengthy interview with Fuller, and a plethora of intriguing diversions illuminating the state of the counterculture in the early 1970s.

Buckminster Fuller’s conception (and subsequent U.S. patenting) of the geodesic dome does owe quite a bit to German engineers and architects of the interwar period, but during Fuller’s tenure immediately following World War II at the renowned experimental Black Mountain College near Asheville, North California, he struck upon the idea of building domed structures around regularly repeating three-dimensional geodesic frameworks. They would be strong and cheap, ideal for quickly assembling structures with a minimum of materials. Postwar developments in lightweight construction materials, such as aluminum and petrochemically-derived plastics, would provide the ideal building blocks for geodesic structures, just as they were already being used everywhere from suburban homes to designer furnishings. The U.S. government, specifically the defense establishment, immediately saw the value of these domes for structures that needed to withstand difficult climactic conditions, including radomes on the U.S. Air Force’s Distant Early Warning Line built in the Canadian arctic. Fuller’s patented domes were therefore fully integrated into the U.S. military-industrial complex prior to their adoption by the counterculture. Fuller’s emergence as an unlikely countercultural guru culminated with the release of his seminal 1969 Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, but his eccentric futurist visions had intrigued independent thinkers throughout the 1960s. Fuller’s own life was full of such contradictions: a man born into old Yankee WASP privilege, his own lifelong nonconformist ethos and mystical epiphany in 1927 were always at the heart of his humanitarian inventiveness and intellectual creativity.

The Domebooks themselves emerge, just as the geodesic dome did at Black Mountain did a quarter-century earlier, from the lengthy tradition of American experimental schooling arguably begun with the work of John Dewey in the late 19th century. Domebook 2 tells the tale of Pacific High School, a “free school” founded in 1961 in Palo Alto and designed to center the students’ experiences over formal instruction, hierarchies, or explicit supervision from adults. Field work was common at Pacific, as well as trips abroad. By 1965, the school had received 40 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains, which the students first commuted to and eventually decided to live on, sharing responsibilities for food, shelter, and maintenance. Inspired by the domes that were popping up in locations like Big Sur (the location of countercultural retreat Esalen) thanks to dome-builders like Lloyd Kahn, the students tried their hands at dome construction. Like many of the student-directed experiences at Pacific High School, the domes met with frequent failures, but by the time of the first Domebook‘s release, more than a half-dozen domes made from different kinds of building materials with differing levels of success were standing on the grounds of the school.

Domebook 2 differs from the marginally more staid Domebook One in its patchwork ‘zine-like appearance; while both Domebooks used Stewart Brand’s Whole Earth Catalog publishing facilities (and Domebook One definitely apes the Catalog in its sleeker modernist visual design in spots), Domebook 2 has a much more homemade feel to it, with whimsical cartoons, sometimes-baffling asides, imaginatively-designed photograph inserts, and hand-drawn subject headers all over the document. The purely mathematical and practical portions of Domebook 2—illustrations of geodesic shapes, listings of angle calculations for various dome structures, and the like—possess that very peculiar aesthetic combination of hard technocratic science and near-mystic wonder that some have called “hippie modernism.” In explaining the five Platonic solids, Domebook 2 offers images of microscopic plankton that adhere to the geometry of said solids, showing that Fuller’s designs adhere to the ancient esoteric maxim of “as above, so below.” Domebook 2 is definitely meant to inculcate a geodesic “state of mind” in the reader; before building a dome, Domebook 2 advises every prospective dome-builder to get their hands on modeling materials and physically build a model of their desired dome: “Don’t try to build a dome without first making and studying models.” One can easily imagine even a dilettante with no interest in building their own domed home simply buying the Domebook to stare at the endlessly repeating geometries within; Domebook 2 even outright states that making a geodesic sphere model will allow you to “trip out on the different patterns.”

That variety of building materials evident in the Pacific High School projects was multiplied greatly in the photos and written contributions by the far-flung correspondents to Domebook 2. Each of these small groups of dome-builders—some of them families, others communes, some eccentric wealthy individuals, professional conferences, and even a few universities—had their own unique challenges in building and maintaining geodesic dome structures. The Pacific High School “campus” located in the woodlands of Northern California was situated in a temperate, if wet, climate. But within the pages of Domebook 2, builders from all across North America, from the frozen plains of Alberta to the deserts of New Mexico to the high mountains of Colorado to the snowy backwoods of Vermont, explain their own unique local challenges to dome-building, from temperature variations to precipitation to the incursions of porcupines. Correspondents to Domebook 2 accentuate the wisdom to be found in native populations and traditions—“for practical as well as spiritual reasons,” as one correspondent from New Hampshire says in a letter—such as using hand-split cedar shake shingling in the Pacific Northwest. Disagreements among the contributors on whether to use organic renewable building materials like wood or non-renewables like metal, concrete, or products of the “petroleum sucked from the earth” like plastic and foam insulation occasionally get heated; recommendations for how many Douglas fir seedling plantings would pay Mother Earth back for one’s dome are included in one sidebar. Tales of recycling and outright scavenging materials abound in the letters: “Use as little ‘money’ as possible. Recycle waste as much as possible. Manufacture our own parts as much as possible. Keep it clean as much as possible.” A Digger-like group that recycles urban waste for building and living materials goes further, cannibalizing old condemned structures; as they say, “The only growing resource is trash.”

Which brings us to the social and political aspects of the various dome projects seen in Domebook 2. The majority of these experimental builders, like Pacific High, reject many of the traditions of conventional mid-century American society. Dropping out and living by their self-professed ethos, many of the builders not only calculate the costs to Earth for their building materials but try to ditch the “square” mentality entirely in the process of building: “The most important thing we learned building this dome is that women baking bread while ‘dudes’ build domes is sexist bullshit,” says one of the Red Rockers commune in Colorado. “We dig science and futuristic stuff,” say the Red Rockers about their 60-foot wide central dome. “We wanted our home to have a structural bias against individualism and for communism; we like doing big things together.” But the pages of Domebook 2 are full of references to authority figures among the “straight” world who seek to take away the autonomy of dome-builders, usually through the use of building inspectors. The Pacific team itself tells of difficulties with the local authorities as they attempt to be open with the building inspectors and thus manage to remain “half-way within the law”: “Through maneuvers over the months, some good human beings in Santa Cruz county department, we somehow become semi-legal.” Several of the commune groups also cite intense police interest in their communities and, given that many of these letters were written in the previous year (1970), the spectre of the state-sanctioned violence at Kent State hovers over the many submissions to Domebook editors. One particularly hair-raising account depicts county inspectors in Topanga, California siccing police helicopters on a dome-building community; comparisons to the war in Southeast Asia are naturally made. And occasionally, the geodesic dome’s established place in the military-industrial complex peeks through the overall handcrafted and hippie vibe of Domebook 2; many of the tables, calculations, and illustrations that help a dome-builder figure out the geometry of a geodesic dome are present in Domebook 2 thanks to the computer-aided calculations of a NASA researcher named Joseph Clinton.

Probably the most poignant thing about Domebook 2 is what’s made clear by so many of the stories from the field: that ultimately the domes aren’t really keeping their inhabitants all that warm and dry. “Probably the main reason there are not more dome homes,” says the “Sealing” section of Domebook 2, “is the problem of leakage.” The Domebook writers even admit that their next book will cease focusing on domes and their cousins, zomes, and instead fall under the more general banner of “Shelter.” The lack of a Domebook 3 would end up removing a major venue for dome-builders and inhabitants to socially network about repairing and maintaining their structures. But among all the letters and photos, and throughout all the narrative streams, what shines through is that the domes themselves are helping people imagine a different future, one that looks and feels radically different from the North American suburbia that most of these young builders grew up in, a world of people taking charge of their own housing and electing to form their own communities. Whatever mundane problems that rain and snow and cops and building inspectors might present to the dome-builders, that vision of “other dimensions” on the other side of the zome doorway, of a new path forward that “trips out on the different patterns,” of a possibility for living outside what seemed like an omnipresent and oppressive system, remains.

5 thoughts on ““Spacy Spheres and Funky Shacks”: The Otherworlds of 1971’s ‘Domebook 2’

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