Starting in the late 1960s and continuing through the 1970s, countless waves of young Americans—mostly white, well-educated, and middle-class—left the cities and suburbs and moved, often sight unseen, to the country. Some joined communes, while others preferred single-family life. All of them wanted a more tranquil existence closer to nature—but equally urgently, they wanted to learn how to grow their own food, bake their own bread, and build their own houses.
To city kids whose idea of country living was romanticized by nostalgic summer vacations and pioneers on TV shows, a huge part of the appeal of a physically-demanding "simple" life lay in its extreme contrast to the consumerism and conformity of their 1950s childhoods. What could be more a more perfect way to realize this rebellion than to live in a house that wasn’t shaped like a house? Especially if they could build it themselves? As one member of a radical Southwest commune called the Red Rockers put it, "we wanted to create a structure that didn’t remind us of anything—a new kind of space in which to create new selves."
Most had no construction experience, but they didn’t let that stop them. When my own parents left Cambridge, Massachusetts, and decided to build a house on a northern Vermont hilltop, their total lack of carpentry skills led them to consider a few relatively simple forms: yurt, A-frame, log cabin, and the one that eventually became my childhood home—a geodesic dome.
Buckminster Fuller, the polymath American architect, philosopher, inventor, and writer, patented the design for the geodesic dome in 1954. But it wasn’t for another decade that his vision of dome homes began to be embraced by the young idealistic builders who would make them one of the era’s most iconic architectures.
In fact, this nationwide wave of dome building can be traced directly back to the "go ahead and try it out" approach of a few specific individuals.
In May of 1965, a group of artists moved to a stretch of rocky desert outside of Trinidad, Colorado, to plant the seeds of a new society—and, in the meantime, to live cheaply and simply with their friends, the better to make art. They named their community Drop City. Within just a few years, hundreds and then thousands of similar experiments would spring up around the country, but at the time, Drop City stood alone. It is now widely recognized as the first hippie commune.
One of the commune’s founders, Clark Richert, had recently attended Fuller’s lecture at the 1965 World Affairs conference in Boulder. He, like so many of the other college students who attended Fuller’s lectures, had become enamored with the geodesic form and was eager to try it out himself. The only obstacle was obtaining the formula—it wasn’t until 1966 that Fuller would publish the plans for a simple "sun dome" in Popular Science. The magazine recommended that builders use it as a swimming pool cover.
Richert and his fellow Droppers, Richard Kallweit and Gene and Jo Ann Bernofsky, didn’t let this lack of plans impede them. One day, Richert and Gene Bernofsky spotted a stranger’s geodesic greenhouse and leaped a fence to take measurements, which Richert used to build a model out of drinking straws. With this as their guide, they simply started building.
One of Drop City’s central beliefs was that it was possible and necessary to "live off America’s excesses," a philosophy that encouraged dumpster diving at the local supermarket and creative scrounging to acquire the necessary building materials for their new home. When they asked their neighbors for advice, they learned that local builders favored stucco over layers of tarpaper and chicken wire. After the Droppers realized that the wire and paper weren’t adhering properly to the dome’s sloping facets, Jo Ann Bernofsky hit upon a solution: covering the surface with thousands of bottle caps.
They painted this first dome a space-age silver and moved in. "It was extremely exciting to have pulled it off," Jo Ann recalled years later. "And it was wonderful and magical to be in this space that was totally unlike any space I’d ever been in before."
Thus encouraged, Richert began thinking big. In spring 1966, he began work on a forty-foot "Theater Dome" for use in the group’s many artistic undertakings. News of this project spread to a young Fuller-obsessed inventor named Steve Baer, who decided to drive over from New Mexico and investigate. That visit, Baer’s first of many to Drop City, would turn out to be a major turning point in the history of American architecture.
Baer was immediately inspired by the Droppers’ commitment to using "waste" construction materials and, even more, by their boldness in undertaking mathematically complex architectural forms as total novices. Baer soon added his own design, the "zome," inspired by Fuller’s formula, but more flexible and better suited to combining into large living structures. Drop City eventually totaled 10 buildings in all.
As one visitor described Drop City in 1970: "Angular, unearthly, demented, like gawky igloos in a kaleidoscope…Yellow blue green red pink purple: brazen things just lying up there, coldly geodesic, looming on the little rise way out here in southern Colorado wasteland…like some Buck Rodgers Indian village, like some half-forbidding netherworld where idealistic troglodytes lurk and live in fields of candy-colored toadstools."
One of Baer’s first suggestions was to cover the domes using steel from the tops of junked cars. This combination of environmentalism, frugality, and renegade daring appealed to the Droppers immediately, though the process itself was extremely labor-intensive. Standing on the top of a rusted-out Chevy or Studebaker, they had to chop through the roof with an axe and then swing the blade in a steady motion to slice around the edge. "It was dangerous; razor-sharp axes skittering off the steel, slicing at legs," one Dropper described it. "When you hit one of the roof supports an incredible jolt travels up the axe handle and paralyzes your wrists and hands. Jagged steel edges catching clothing, tearing flesh, hands stiff, clenching, clenching. After chopping for an hour if you try to open your hands the fingers insist on closing themselves into fists again. Blisters, blisters on top of blisters, bone weary."
"Seeing Drop City, especially the mistakes and weak materials, gave me great confidence," Baer reflected later. This collaboration gave rise not only to Baer’s own geodesic-inspired "zome," but also to the first widely-read dome instruction manual—Dome Cookbook. Baer’s eccentric, over-sized, hand-lettered 1968 work was written with daring, unskilled builders in mind as its audience.
Of the many readers the Cookbook inspired, the most influential was the Whole Earth Catalog’s shelter editor, Lloyd Kahn. Kahn got a job teaching at an alternative high school near Santa Cruz and began a dome-building project with his students. Within a few years, this became the school’s central focus; eventually, 17 student-built domes in a huge range of materials sprouted here and there in the woods. Buckminster Fuller himself stopped by for a visit and, age 74, took a quick nap in the inflated-plastic Pillowdome.
Kahn collected and published his students’ notes, plans, and observations, along with letters, photos, and insights from other dome-builders around the country. Domebook 1 was a modest success, but it was 1971’s Domebook 2 that became the biggest seller and a catalyst for what would become a nationwide dome boom.
Of the hundreds of thousands of copies that sold, one of them found its way to a northern Vermont hilltop, and into the hands of my parents.
The simplicity of the design encouraged confidence and innovation, especially with unusual or found materials, and this in turn fostered a rapid trial-and-error learning process for novice builders. For most, the priority remained keeping building costs low. Builders constructed dome frames out of pieced-together 2x4s and lengths of PVC pipe. For the domes' skin, they tried out plywood, sheet metal, tarpaper shingles, and cedar shakes—but also polyethylene plastic sheeting, ferro-cement and spray-on foam. One builder proposed a plan to make one of paper mache; a New York City-based homeless youth collective developed a dome design for low-cost shelter using corrugated cardboard. More recently, domes have taken shape from hay bales and bicycle wheels. Perhaps the most breathtaking use of materials was the artist Caroling's 1974 Wholeo dome—a 14-foot diameter dome covered entirely with psychedelic swirls of stained glass.
My parents’ copy of Domebook 2 was given to them by a man named Jim the Bear, the resident of a local commune and a former inhabitant of Drop City. Jim and his commune mates had spent their whole first summer building a Dropper-style dome. They quickly realized, however, that car tops made a terrible building material in northern Vermont, so the next summer they finished their dome with wood scraps bought in bulk from a local lumberyard.
My parents carefully wrote out the calculations for a 5/8 icosahedron dome, following the instructions in Domebook 2. To my mother, the resulting pile of angle-cut lumber looked like oversize Tinker-toys; even as they began to put it together, my father was skeptical until the very last moment that the flimsy-looking structure would actually bear weight. But the moment they slipped the last bolt into place, the frame went rigid. They climbed up, exhilarated.
Across the country, dome-dwellers began discovering what it meant to make a home in a hand-built sphere. Sound and light behaved eccentrically, bouncing off the round walls and taking the inhabitants by surprise. "Living in a dome opens your fucking mind," one former Dropper wrote, "No corners to hide in. Round like the sky." For space-age inventions, they were surprisingly cozy.
Unless they leaked, which some tended to do. "We would rather live in imperfect domes that we designed and built ourselves and be wet, than live in dry, old-style housing," declared one Pacific High student in the pages of Domebook 1.
Domes’ simplicity and openness made them perfect domiciles for young people trying to reinvent the conventions of nuclear family life. But as counter-culture builders got older and began having children, the appeal of living in spaces without doors or room partitions began to wear thin. Privacy, it turned out, was not an expendable suburban affectation, as many had once believed.
Even Lloyd Kahn became disillusioned: "After four years of living in domes, the excitement of moonlight through overhead windows has worn off," he wrote. Already by the early 1970s, domes had stopped feeling fresh and innovative and had become a hippie cliche.
When Kahn stopped by Drop City in 1972, he was horrified by what he found. Its psychedelic dome-scape had won it Fuller’s first-ever "Dymaxion Award" in 1967, but it had also made the commune famous, just as huge numbers of young people began drifting around the country in search of a counterculture utopia. For many, Drop City became the first stop. By 1970, the year the number of hippie communes began to skyrocket nationwide, Drop City was already so overburdened by endless waves of transients that the original founders had left—"broken-hearted," as Gene Bernofsky put it later. Before long, the commune’s remaining stable population moved on too, abandoning the domes to the use of biker gangs, addicts, teenage runaways, and others with no place else to go; eventually they left as well. When Kahn arrived, he found a "dome ghost town," rapidly disintegrating into the rocky desert terrain.
My family’s dome fared better. Forty years later, its triangular windows have been replaced a few times, but it still doesn’t leak.
One year after their arrival in Vermont, my parents sent a snapshot of themselves in front of their finished dome to Buckminster Fuller at an address they found in the Whole Earth Catalog. They received a polite, typed note in return. "Dear Larry and Judy," it read. "Thanks for the beautiful photo. Warm regards to you and your family."
Under "Faithfully yours," Fuller’s signature is still slightly smudged from where someone tested it with a licked finger to find out for themselves whether or not the dome inventor’s personally-offered wishes were or were not too good to be true.
Editor: Sara Polsky