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Richard Kallweit, Drop City Collage (from left, Kallweit, Clark Richert, John Curl, Gene Bernofsky, Jill Curl, Carol DiJulio with children) 20 x 20 dark-room print

Two graduates from the University of Kansas, the artist Clark Richert and film-maker Gene Bernofsky, were sitting in the University of Colorado’s auditorium, Boulder, CO, listening to the legendary architect Buckminster Fuller speak in 1965. They had followed ‘cosmic forces’ to this place, heard about it from a farmer back in Kansas who told them of the structural merits of Fuller’s geodesic domes. (1) At the end of his talk, they accosted Bucky to tell him about their idea to ‘drop’ dome homes on newly-acquired land in Southern Colorado. Bernofsky and Richert called themselves ‘droppers’ because they made ‘drop art’: this included, but was not limited to, holding and letting go of objects from the fourth floor of their apartment in Lawrence, Kansas. The mischievous duo watched and marvelled at the reactions of passers-by:  this was their art, and the concrete floor the gallery.

The bespectacled Black Mountain speaker probably smiled as he advised the two men to build their structures strong enough to withstand the snow. (2) For snow might fall lightly, but soon enough it packages into heavy bricks that threaten to destroy even the strongest of roofs. Maternally, or perhaps with the instinct of a birdlike architect, who designs and builds his nest from the shape of his own body, Fuller worried about the dome’s potential inhabitants. He imagined its structure transformed into an igloo, without the structural capability.  During the same lecture, Fuller had waxed lyrical about social housing and the lack thereof in America during the mid-sixties. This was a time of social and political tumult: one of the most crimson sanguine wars was being fought and screened on newly colourful televisions across the nation, and throughout the western world. For perhaps the first time, men were being sent far from home to destroy other homes and shelters while otherwise non-violent people could spectate from the comfort of their living room. The nineteen-sixties were also interwoven with feelings of division and political impotency. First, second and third worlds merged into factions of East and West, previously Orient and Occult; and the Civil Rights Movement propelled forward, not without difficulty or  resistance, eventually gaining a small fraction of the legislative recognition it deserves and is still owed. There were steps made, but other feet wavered on the threshold of progress. Throughout it all, the universal desire for a home, somewhere to permanently reside and live, was prevalent and remains unresolved even today. 

Fuller saw his ‘good dome’ as the ‘ultimate shelter for humans around the world’ and planned to airlift and deliver ready-made geodesic homes across the country. (3) His wider plan was to drop them all over the globe, simultaneously resolving worldwide division and issues of scarcity. This came as the result of a prediction that modern home construction would collapse in the face of expanding world population. The innovative architect saw homelessness as the root of political conflict whereas ‘mass-produced, self-contained, surplus-energy producing geodesic dome homes’ would bring prosperity and peace. (4) Gene Bernofsky, too, had conceived of a new way of life: one year prior to Fuller’s lecture, he and his wife Joann Bernofsky boarded a freighter ship to North Africa with the intention of building a breakaway society. These efforts, though, were thwarted by the lack of adequate materials: nails, shipped from China to Marrakesh, bent and curled on impact with Bernofsky’s hammer.  Gene and Joann planned to build their city ‘from the ground up’ so ventured back to the U.S and reached out to Richert upon their return.

Far above ground, the resultant Drop City is best known for its aerial views: the characteristically bright colours and metallic panels were sourced from the tops of cars using abandoned axes that they found. The dome-builders used anything they could get their hands on: beer tops as nails, shoes for hammers. Droppers traded quarters for  parts and Trinidad locals were both grateful and amused at the newly established waste disposal system. Much earlier, in 1950, Friedrick Kiesler’s ‘Endless House’ was a similar exo-spectacle. The Austrian-American architect’s house was never built, so viewers and admirers had no choice but to stand on the outside, looking in. Despite this exclusion, interiors are a key to understanding or following the artist’s philosophical narrative. ‘Inside the endless house’, a book published just before the artist’s death in 1966, hails Kiesler’s attention to internal structures. The artist worked with a set of self-termed principles described as ‘Correalism’, or the philosophical science of exposing reality beyond matter. Through a synthesis of correlation and realism, Kiesler suggests that everything is connected and unexplained. The house that never ends is supposed to underline this point as light enters to envelop and illuminate its residents, and thus exposes the importance of internal space. In its breadth, the light creates a sense of totality within a room-shaped house. 

Conversely, internal views of Drop City domes are rare by virtue of each structure’s exterior magnificence. Kiesler’s work forces the viewer to imagine what it would be like to live inside an endless house; but, they were not, nor would never be, granted admittance. To be indoors is to experience inclusion. As artists, makers and builders of every kind, droppers defined themselves against the world they had constructed. Their city was an endless playground. Photographs depict city men as ape-like children who use geodesic structures like climbing frames, and their focus draws attention to the city’s sky-line, rather than the contents of each dropped object.

There are but a handful of photos that document the inside of at least one of these domes. For instance, I’m looking at a contact sheet that shows a Utopian village — or what looks like the warm core of an intellectual bee hive. Excepting the criss-cross ceiling, and the concavity of the room, the resembles a typically wholesome domestic sphere: there’s a room composed of tables, chairs, floor-boards, book-shelves, and a fridge. I imagine the sound of its buzz. Residents of Drop City were resistant to the national press who glamorised and advertised their small refuge: in 1969, one dropper told the author Richard Fairfield, ‘Life came down here, did an article which put us on every tourist map in the country and didn’t even send us a print’. (5) Indeed, more than thirty years later, Bernofsky suggested that the ‘myth’ of Drop City was perhaps larger than the surface area it occupied (6). With this in mind, it’s hard to decipher what this place stood for.

As Lloyd Khan’s Domebook declared in 1972, Drop City was a self-proclaimed mess: a place with conflicting definitions and converging points of interest. (7) After five years, the land was sold and the droppers dispersed. Despite their best efforts to build and live in a new world, the old one worked its way back into the conscious field of this ex-Goat Pasture in Southern Colorado. It was time to fly the nest.

Notes

  1. Mark Matthews, Droppers, America’s First Commune, Drop City (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, Oklahoma, 2010), p. 83-5.
  2. Ibid., p. 88-90.
  3. Ibid., p. 64.
  4. Ibid., p.87-90.
  5. Richard Fairfield, Utopia, U.S.A (Alternatives Foundation, 1972), p.197.
  6. Mark Matthews, Droppers, America’s First Commune, Drop City (University of Oklahoma Press: Norman, Oklahoma, 2010), p. 50-2.
  7. Lloyd Khan, ‘Drop City’ in Domebook 2 (Pacific Domes: Bolinas, CA, 1971), p. 92.

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