‘Geodesic Domes.’
Eleanor Gawne,

The recent exhibition at the Design Museum, ‘California: Designing Freedom’, looked at Californian designed objects that embody personal freedom, from the surf board to the iPhone. The exhibits included a full-size geodesic dome that visitors can enter; it reminds one of the remnants of dome structures that you can still see travelling along Route 66 in California. The AA Library holds several publications about making your own dome structure, which came out of the movement for self-built homes in the 1960s and the interest in new technologies and new materials to solve the housing crisis on an overpopulated earth. One of these, Domebook 2, written by Lloyd Kahn and published in 1971, shows how to construct different kinds of dome structures, from cardboard geodesic play-domes to domes made of ferro-concrete. Based on the experience of building 17 domes at an experimental high school, Pacific High School, the Domebook 2 describes itself as ‘an instruction manual for builders and a story book of some new communities in America’. It contains over 100 pages with brief and clear instructions and conversations about inspirations for building shelter out of domes. The book also includes an interview with R. Buckminster Fuller, the driving force behind the dome movement.

Kahn wrote: ‘Our work at Pacific High School, as described in Domebook 2, was exploring materials. We stuck to geodesic geometry as it was simple and gave us a rather neutral framework to work with in each case. Our main work, often missed by people thinking of the dome work in architectural terms, was in the realm of materials. With each material, the builders there tried to create as aesthetically pleasing a space as possible.’

Another book by Lloyd Kahn, Smart but not Wise: Further Thoughts on Domebook 2, Plastics, and Whiteman Technology (1972), published a year after Domebook 2, reflected changing views and an evolution of thoughts on shelter, as well the practical disadvantages of using plastics in building. This pamphlet was a response to attending the MIT Responsive Housebuilding Technology conference, and the Architecture Machine, robot architect and its functions, and pneumatic structures. In Smart but not Wise, Kahn wrote:

‘Walking amidst magnificence of Indian craftsmen with MIT dimly in mind (at the Peabody Museum of the American Indian at Harvard), I realized that there may not be any wondrous new solution to housing at all. That there is far more to learn from wisdom of the past and from materials appearing naturally  on the earth, than from any further extension of whiteman technoplastic prowess.’

The Library copy of Smart but not wise was presented by Tony Gwilliam in 1972. He taught at the AA from c1971-75, and later worked on hoop-shaped apartments and suspension-based structures. At the AA Gwilliam and his unit (Intermediate Unit 6) created a series of remarkable Mantainer units, including a giant portable inflatable dome which he dubbed a ‘suitcase for living’ in 1974-75 (see images in the Photo Library).