Domebuilder's Blues


Smart, But Not Wise

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Smart But Not Wise
Further Thoughts on Domebook 2, Plastics, and Whiteman Technology
by Lloyd Kahn

“He looked upon us as sophisticated children – smart but not wise.”

Saxton T. Pope
(said of Ishi)

This article was prepared a year after publication of Domebook 2, reflecting then, as now, our changing views and evolution of thoughts on shelter.

George Santayana

”Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

— George Santayana

Metaphorically, our work on domes now appears to us to have been smart: mathematics, computers, new materials, plastics. Yet reevaluation of our actual building experiments, publications, and feedback from others leads us to emphasize that there continue to be many unsolved problems with dome homes. Difficulties in making the curved shapes livable, short lives of modern materials, and as-yet-unsolved detail and weatherproofing problems.

We now realize that there will be no wondrous new solution to housing, that our work, though perhaps smart, was by no means wise. In the past year, we have discovered that there is far more to learn from wisdom of the past: from structures shaped by imagination, not mathematics, and built of materials appearing naturally on the earth, than from any further extension of whiteman technoplastic prowess.

In May, 1972, about a year after we published Domebook 2, I received an invitation to participate in a conference at MIT Responsive Housebuilding Technology. Out of curiosity I decided to go, not thinking too much about the fact that I’d been invited as the editor of the Domebook, and that since that time I’d more or less given up on domes and was disillusioned with new materials and high technology as applied to building. I decided to bring along slides and videotapes of house building in Northern California: shacks, driftwood buildings, interviews with real builders, and on video, the contrast between a crane dropping in a prefab and 25 men picking up and moving a small building: Machine vs. human energy.

So my son Peter and I took off for Cambridge. Our first helicopter ride, from Sausalito, smelly exhaust, a dreadful machine, to the SF airport. Then in a 747, five hours to cross the country! The huge jet was not 1/5th full, a terrible waste of fuel. When I went into the bathroom, the finely built one piece aluminum washbasin and toilet stand gave me an insight into Buckminster Fuller’s ideas of housing. Since Bucky has been constantly traveling now for many years, he spends an enormous amount of time in planes. He has always loved machines and metal (see the Phantom Captain chapter in Nine Chains to the Moon) and his fascination with air flight and aerospace technology lead him to dig aluminum efficiency such as the 747 in-flight bathroom Bucky and many others (see Le Corbusier: Towards a New Architecture) think of houses as machines. Probably because machines were just beginning to demonstrate their remarkable clanking capabilities when Bucky and Le Corbusier were at impressionable ages, their image is of houses being mass-produced, standardized, and now computerized. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Robot Architect

The conference turned out to contain some ideas of architecture which made me gasp. Even though MIT has published some excellent books on native structures, the dominant theme (ironically) of Responsive Housebuilding Technology was computerized plastic flash. Right around the corner from the conference room there was a large computer being worked on by students, staff and others. It’s in its own suite of rooms, with homey looking exposed wires running between machines, plexiglas panels so you can see the electronic wizardry, and rock and roll on the radio.

The computer is called “The Architecture Machine” and its creators seek to build an intelligent machine, one that they can have a dialogue with. Robot architect. It took me few days to figure out what the machine could do, and was being trained to do, but here it is, and realize dear reader, that this is architecture at a leading American university, and that the project is well funded, and well respected:

Meet the robot architect and its functions (with code names):

SEEK is a mechanical device hooked into the computer that will pick up, stack and rearrange cubical blocks on command from the computer. In a museum exhibition two years ago, the machine, which can handle 300 cubes, and a colony of 60 hamsters were put together. The idea was to have the computer stack the blocks in a way the hamsters liked. The hamsters tended to knock over the blocks, running in and out (looking for their natural environment, but this was overlooked by the researchers) and SEEK was to figure out which way the hamsters liked the blocks stacked, and arrange them in that manner. Apparently what happened was the hamsters didn’t like any way the machine stacked blocks, they didn’t like the blocks, they didn’t like being in the museum, and they just knocked blocks over. But the idea of it all, in the words of one of the computer team ” …If this idea was carried out in a peopled world, perhaps a giant SEEK could sense the behavior and actions of its people and provide a responsive, useful and friendly living space, better than what now exists …

GREET is a doorway device of photocells which will recognize whoever passes through the doorway. Work is now in progress “testing the machine for ways of recognizing height, weight, stride, foot size, i.e. relatively constant characteristics.” A series of photocells will sense the silhouette of passers-through the door and will compare it with a dictionary of well-known silhouettes and say “Hello Richard,” or whatever, as you pass through. The voice part of the computer is called SPEAKEASY.

HUNCH is a project whereby the computer will be able to understand sketches. In this way the architect can feed his rough sketches in to the machine and the scribblings will be made into perfect curves or angles and speed up the design process.

There are other things the machine can do, like a three-TV screen unit which can display multi-images of the same scene from different points of view. But that is just a quick layman’s view of it.

Now, also hanging around at MIT are pneumatic structure designers. Air buildings have been used at fairs, exhibitions, ice rinks, and now the technology is well enough along so that architects are able to construct them. Artists started out several years ago with polyethylene, and some designers made nice enough looking structures so that now plastic manufacturers, schools, etc. are interested. They appeal to the consumer-oriented US public, as they are even newer than domes, and are flashier media architecture.

This computer/airbuilding/plastics thing that seemed to be on so many of these architects’ minds jarred me, as it seemed roughly parallel with a logical extension of some assumptions I’d made 3-4 years earlier on the idea of housebuilding technology. The assumption, encouraged for a time in my mind by Bucky Fuller, was that we will have to depend upon new technologies, new materials, new designs to solve the housing crisis on an overpopulated earth.

Some scant background: Looking for new solutions to making family sized houses led me into building and helping others with a good number of geodesic domes, We were inspired, we had a vision, and we were in a hurry — we had people waiting for a roof over their heads. We tried every material we could get cheap enough wood, plywood, cardboard, sheet metal, aluminum; fiberglass/Veetra cloth/ polypropylene/all manner of horrid chemical-caulks/vinyl/polyethylene/plexiglas/Lexan/ABS plastic/steel and on and on.

At this time I was intrigued with the space program, video, computer art, the Moog synthesizer — and I decided we would try any hi-tech application we could get our hands on. 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.

In all this work, we tried just about any plastic we could obtain. What I found out is that compared to the publicity by oil/chemical/plastic industry, plastics are going to have a very limited application in housing of the future.

While plastics have certain limited building applications (such as plastic sewer pipe, which an amateur can assemble), it is highly unlikely that the use of oil/chemical derived materials will ever be of significant use as structural or cladding construction, for these reasons:

Plastics Have Short Lives

First, there are practical disadvantages to the use of plastics in building. They are extremely expensive compared to conventional building materials. This has caused me to think that the cost of a material is roughly proportionate to the ecological damage done to the earth in removing and refining it. To find, for example, a plastic material that will resist sunlight without cracking is extremely difficult, or expensive, or both. There are virtually no plastics developed that are cheap and durable enough to cover buildings on any scale. I recently went back to look over the 17 domes we built at Pacific High School, so these observations are based on experience plastic foam gets easily damaged if not coated with something hard, and to coat it with something hard is expensive; it gets knicked and gouged very soon. It also turns an ugly oily brown color if not painted.

Polyurethane foam is said not to burn by foam salesmen, and it is true that it doesn’t catch fire easily. But it is also true that once it does catch fire, it explodes like gasoline and releases poisonous cyanide gas. I’ve concluded that foam is strictly an insulation material, and even then to be avoided if possible due to cost, fire danger, pollution in its manufacture, and Poison danger to the applicator.

We used vinyl for windows and in some cases to cover entire domes. After living and working with it for a few years I have become repelled by the material. It-never loses its objectionable smell, it attracts and collects dust and although at first you think it is clear, after a while you realize that you are looking at trees and stars through a film of chemically rearranged oil. Vinyl continually loses molecules from its plasticizer, which accounts for the film you see on auto windshields — from vinyl seat covers. In Viet Nam some GI’s died from blood transfusions from vinyl bottles. This molecular migration probably also works subtly on your nervous system.

Fiberglass does a lot of things other plastics can’t, but I don’t like to work with it smells, has itchy glass fibers. Though it looks O.K. on surfboards, it is hard, shiny, unattractive to me as a building surface. We had some spectacularly bad results trusting in caulks. Of course our 16-year old workmanship at Pacific High School was not that accurate, but even with super fitting, we were trusting too much in claims of manufacturers and salesmen. After working with every possible kind of plastic clear or semi-clear window material, I’ve rediscovered glass. It is true that plexiglas doesn’t break and is easier to cut, but it scratches easily and permanently, attracts dust and dirt, and just never has the sparkling clear, image-transmitting capabilities of glass.

Secondly, here are some personal aesthetic discoveries I’ve made in spending a few years around various plastic materials (I’d lived previously with more conventional materials such as wood, concrete, glass, brick, etc.) I’ve found that the less molecular rearranging a material has undergone, the better it feels to be around. Wood, rock, adobe as compared with polyurethane foam and polycarbonate resin windows.

Oil or Wood

It occurred to me lately that there is a profound difference between the way wood and rock are produced, and the way plastic foam and flexible vinyl windows are manufactured. Consider that a tree is rendered into “building material” by the sun, with a beautiful arrangement of minerals, water, and air into a good smelling, strong, durable building material. Moreover, trees look good as they grow, they help purify air, provide shade, nuts to squirrels, and colors and textures on the landscape. And wood is the only building material we can regenerate. On the other hand, most plastics are derived by pumping nonrenewable oil from the earth, burning/ refining/ mixing it, with noxious fumes and poison in the rivers and ocean, etc. Of course, saw mills and lumber companies rip stuff up with gasoline motors and saws, and smoke fumes, but it-strikes me that the entire process of wood growing and cutting is preferable to the plastics production process. What is called for is tree-respecting forest management.

However, there are obviously many people who feel comfortable with items such as Tang, pink plastic hair curlers and the disposable dishes on airplanes. Discover your ideals as you take your choice.

I tend to feel uncomfortable around any oil-derived or highly processed plastic material. Polyurethane foam seem as if it would be better than the others, but it, too, turns out to be ugly.

In addition to the practical and aesthetic disadvantages I’ve found in plastics there is the idea that one is dealing with Dow, and the oil industry — that is the people Nixon worked for.

I’m still not afraid to use plastics, I just have a far more realistic picture of what they can do. It turns out, after several years of varied experimentation that plastics can’t stand the weather, or if they can they’re extremely expensive.

The foam builder tells us foam can be shredded up into mulch. Sure, I reply, it’s a good mulch, but it stays in the soil, and after you keep mulching with it, your soil becomes more and more plastic and less and less dirt. Pretty soon you can raise plastic flowers!

After the MIT conference, Peter and I drove out to Cape Cod, spent Friday night in an old inn. It was a beautifully built 100 year old wood building with an elliptical spiral staircase said to have been built by an itinerant carpenter who built three such staircases on the cape. Next to the inn was a large barn which was being converted into an art gallery. I had a drink with the owner in the inn’s small bar and we started talking about buildings. I asked about the barn, and he said, “Do you want to see it tonight?” “Sure.”

We walked into the large building in the darkness, and then he switched on the lights. It was about the most dramatic way to see a beautiful old building, the sudden blaze of lights revealed a 100 year old mortise and tenon structure. There were about four loft-levels, and at the top was a hexagonal cupola. The inn’s owner sensed something was going on with me in the barn, so he went back to the inn, telling me to stay there as long as I liked. I climbed up all the ladders, up all the stairs, looking at the joinery (wooden pegs.) Then up into the little cupola room which was above the roof line, smoked a joint, sat and looked out over miles of countryside in moonlight. To the north, the water. Sitting there, 50 feet high, supported by hundred year old wooden structure, the futuristic plastic building notions seemed strange indeed.

Machine Birth

The pilgrims actually landed in Provincetown, before Plymouth. One of the first things they did, according to folks in Provincetown, was to steal the Indians’ corn crop. I wish I knew more history. Where did this western technology start? Was it due to metals? Machines? Electricity? Resources? What started this thing that led to death of American Indians, much wildlife and forest, massive alteration of air, water and topography? What was the spirit that invaded this continent, machined its way to the Pacific Coast, then eventually got a stranglehold on most of the planet?

I sent an early draft of this writing to Bob Easton; here s part of his reply:

  1. Science: got started by people studying the stars and biology for healing purposes. Certain principles of mechanics grew out of observing nature: stars, trees, animals. Leonardo. Newton. Etc.

  2. The New World: Stories of fabulous riches in the East moved western man to explore and hoard — the development of consolidated power by the developing “nations” of Europe created this awareness of the Roman experience, of super abundance, superpower — lust for more riches, hoarding, super tribes competing for dominance by the ultimate in power display — the greatest accumulation of useless gems, gold. Ferdinand and Isabella. Henry VIII. The new world exploration breeds technology, better equipment to transport. Worship of material objects creates subsystem of technique necessary to masturbate this outrageous lust.

  3. Slavery: The human slave was considered a machine by Romans, Greeks. European man in his exploitation of the New World riches could condone slavery abroad — possibly the church in its traditions dating back to Roman days would not allow slavery within Europe. The slave “machine” was profitable because it bred, needed cheap fuel, basically looked after itself, wasn’t paid; is the “robot” of the futurists …

  4. Slavery Ends: Outrage over conditions slaves are subjected to is voiced by humanists and artists of the 16th and 17th centuries — a new class — people who have moved thru the arrogance of accumulated objects into new levels of consciousness. These people bring tremendous pressure on the merchant/power/military class first in England, then the US, because they are of a higher class within the social hierarchy of the society…the children of the leaders (Dickens, Swift.) The pressure builds to end slavery — panic — the old order must change. The newly growing technical class is pressed by merchant leaders — possibly unconsciously — or perhaps independent innovators within the merchant class rise to meet the challenge — certainly within the circles of power and technique the fears were voiced. The biology scientist becomes the gross engineer.

  5. The Answer: Watt develops the artificial heart, the steam engine, and the others all follow: machines analogous to the rest of the body, including the greatest of all, electricity, the machine equivalent to the life force itself. The answer is the mechanical/electrical slave, the great source of wealth that western man created all by himself. No other culture developed this. China’s war lords made gunpowder, etc., but is nothing compared to the incredible competitiveness of the fierce western white tribes. The new idea pioneered in America is now every man can have slaves — cars, labor saving devices, etc., plus the power high gotten off using power tools — the same high gotten off using slaves, basic to the small human ego, which is so susceptible to extending its range of influence and power.

  6. However, the consumer-people of the western world are but children soon to be cast out of the warm cradle, because the monster slave has begun to die off: the young of today are instinctively cutting off its regeneration. The costs of using its services will soon begin a very rapid rise because of scarcity. The cost of gasoline, electricity, plastics will rise so they can only be bought by the industrialists to maintain their power. As the unions hoard the skilled jobs and knowledge, their power and wealth will die with them. As the medical professions develop more artificial drugs, the viruses will continue to grow more sophisticated to overcome those drugs and will kill off those who contact those germs/ viruses; since viruses only attack dead cells within the body, the ill-fed people/consumers will be susceptible to disease.

The next main stream culture will be made of the artists and humanists of today’s subculture. Why? There may be no alternative. It appears now that the ultimate tool of the techno-fantasy people, the computer, says to turn itself off. (See World Dynamics, by Jay W. Forrester, Wright-Allen Press, 1971.)

Why not listen to Bernard Maybeck who wrote:

”The artist suspects it is not the object nor the likeness of the object he is working for, but a particle of life behind the visible. Here he comes face to face with the real things of life; no assistance can be given him; he cannot hire a boy in gold buttons to open the door to the Muse (our italics), nor a clerk or accountant to do the drudgery. He is alone with his problem and drifts away from superficial portrayals. After this he strives to find the spiritual meaning of things …

Above quote from booklet: The Palace of Fine Arts and Lagoon, by Bernard Maybeck, Paul Elder, 1915; quoted in Five California Architects by Esther McCov. Reinhold Publishing, 1960.


Now back to MIT. The computer people at MIT and the air building people have collaborated in various architectural visions. Example: an air building controlled by computer which recognizes people when they come in; and when say 60 people get into the building, the computer unrolls and blows up another plastic section to accommodate more people. The occupants have control over windows, for example — they can make windows appear or disappear. Computer allows occupants to change shape of building at will. “Hal, will you set the table for eight tonight?”

Another idea that’s been around for a while, that came up at MIT: architect draws on cathode tube with magnetic pencil; design for a foam house is fed into computer. Computer operates a foam truck with barrels of foam, boom, and extruding device. The truck boom manipulates around, extruding walls of the house. The house is built with no human hands touching it.

Wait! at this point, the last day of the conference, I started yelling. (Sym van der Ryn had been arguing with them earlier.)

”This is an architectural conference, there are no people here, just professionals playing academic futuristic games. No women, kids, men here to react to your ideas, academic insularity. Moreover, you designers, especially the ones with artistic abilities, are making plastics and a totally impractical and weird shelter outlook appear seductively appealing to those folks who are always looking for something new and flashy. Spacy air buildings are deceptive, that’s all. No one is ever going to really live that way, but it’s good media. The same thing I learned with domes, they photograph well.”

The planet needs nonpolluting energy sources. Solar heat, wind electricity, methane from compost. Revive waterwheels; sawmills in New Hampshire were driven by water power. Put 2/3rds of the staff at MIT on developing clean(er) burning motor vehicles! Create a mind bank with the Architecture Machine and come up with a solution to internal combustion before the Chinese have two cars per family! If successful you will be national heroes upon graduation, and receive free nonpolluting cars the rest of your natural lives.

Architects, use your skills and desirable positions to assist in current housing problems. Help people! You don’t have to find a gigantic new solution to housing. The answer may be in our hands. Whisk Whisk Whisk, the sound of 100,000 Chinese brooms sweeping snow off Peking streets. No snowplows. The excreta of Peking collected and used for fertilizer. No sewage problem.

MIT, architecture schools, have you ever considered that in some cases, designs get about as good as they’re going to get, and then don’t improve for millions of years. Look at our hand! Is there a need to redesign it? Have architects, builders ever considered that our grandparents, but more specially the Indians, built far more sensibly than today’s building industry? And that maybe looking for new structures and new materials isn’t that important right now? that you can’t think about building, or design unless you consider the lifestyle? And that the extravagant use of resources in the US now can’t last, and is in fact maintained at the expense of subjugated, bombed, exploited third world people everywhere?

I was particularly disturbed by the vision of the architect sitting at the cathode tube, drawing his design into the computer, the computer causing the foam truck to build the house. The ultimate in laziness, machine worship. Machine can do anything better than man if we develop machine enough, is the premise. Wrong! It’s going to look horrible — guaranteed — it’s going to cost too much, it’s going to be ecologically unsound, it will only produce environments that machines or machine-like people will want to inhabit.

John Ryckman of Montreal sent us a photo of a Thai man weaving a rainproof head shield with the following comment:

He never heard of “great circle theory” — doesn’t know geodesics from A,B,C, — and thinks Buckminister Fuller is nothing but a smooth-talking evil spirit!

So, there’s a lot of trickery and hype afoot, I ran into a good deal of it and wish to pass along my disillusionments for the edification of those who won’t therefore have to go through the same trial and error (much error!) process.

Buckminster Fuller’s description of man (from chapter, The Phantom Captain, Nine Chains to the Moon): Man?

A self balancing 28-jointed adapter-base biped; an electrochemical reduction plant, integral with segregated stowages of special energy extracts in storage batteries, for subsequent actuation of thousands of hydraulic and pneumatic pumps, with motors attached; 62,000 miles of capillaries; millions of warning signals, railroad and conveyor systems; crushers and cranes …

Hand-Owner-Self Built

Here is a quick summary of some shines I’ve learned about shelter:

  1. Use of human hands is essential, at least in single-house structures. Human energy is produced in a clean manner, compared to oil-burning machines. We are writing for people who want to use hands to build.

  2. It took me a long time to realize the formula:

    Economy/Beauty/Durability: Time

  3. You’ve got to take time to make a good shelter. Manual human energy. For example, used lumber looks better than new lumber, but you’ve got to pull the nails, clean it, work with its irregularities. A rock wall takes far more time to build than a sprayed foam wall.

  4. The best materials are those that come from close by, with the least processing possible. Wood is good in damp climates, which is where trees grow. In the desert where it is hot and you need good insulation there is no wood, but plenty of dirt, adobe. Thatch can be obtained in many places, and the only processing required is cutting it.

  5. Plastics and computers are far overrated in their possible applications to housing.

  6. There is a huge amount of information on building that has almost been lost. We’ll publish what we can, not out of nostalgia but because many of the 100 year old ways of building are more sensible right now. There are 80 year olds who remember how to build, and there are little-known books which we’ll be consulting in transmission of hand-owner-self-built shelter information.

Before I left home, Peter Warshall told me to be sure to see the Peabody Museum of the American Indian at Harvard. So the first day of the conference, and twice thereafter that week, we went over to Harvard, and I was truly staggered. Seeing these things in real life rather than pictures — so unbelievably beautiful! Since I like to work with my hands, I usually look at the way objects are made. Chumash baskets!! All hunting, religious, cooking implements are incredibly crafted, fashioned and ornamented by men and women in touch with the earth and its streams and breezes. Ingenious shelters! At the museum someone has made fine models of Indian villages with cutaways showing how their structures were built. There are even miniature baskets in the model settlements.

Walking amidst magnificence of Indian craftsmen with MIT dimly in mind, 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.

— Relics of the past (Indians)
Visions of the future (MIT),

No contest.
We’ve been losing ground.

See also: