Article from the Halsey Gallery in Charleston, SC regarding the Pulse Dome Series
Don ZanFagna is an artist, architect, and designer whose lifework both defies established categories and challenges rote notions of the role of the artist in society. Now in his eighties, ZanFagna retired near Charleston, South Carolina. His family, at present, is uncovering a vast trove of writings, drawings, photographs, artworks, collages, models, and ephemera that the artist amassed over his long work life, much of which will be seen in this exhibition.
Born in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, in 1929, Don ZanFagna holds a degree in art, architecture, and design from the University of Michigan, and a master of fine arts in painting from the University of Southern California. During the Korean War, he served as a fighter pilot. After the war, he received a Fulbright/Italian Government Grant for study in Italy, in 1956–57. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he held the chair of the art department at Rutgers University. The following decade, he was visiting Eco-Architecture Professor at Pratt Institute, in Brooklyn, New York. His works have been shown in the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum of American Art, and in nearly two hundred exhibitions nationally and internationally. In the late 1960s, after relocating from California to New York, ZanFagna removed himself from the commercial art world. He was more interested in the research and process of his art than its promotion or sale.
Through a remarkable journey of discovery, chronicled in dozens of densely illustrated and annotated sketchbooks, ZanFagna became obsessed with the idea of designing a form of sustainable architecture that was in harmony with natural processes—a structure he called the Pulse Dome. From roughly 1971 through 1995, he researched world indigenous architectures, insect architecture, wombs, and such natural forms as caves, tunnels, and volcanoes, along with other structures, to learn what had been done already and what was still likely to be accomplished by others in relation to sustainable human architecture. Among other lines of inquiry, he investigated Palladio’s notebooks (which were, as we now know, an amalgam of many other architects’ notes) to try to unlock the secrets of the Egyptians’ sacred geometric harmonies.
ZanFagna proved to be a restless innovator and inventor. His notebooks, journals, and early works overflow with remarkably prescient descriptions of such things as the development of the personal computer, the Kindle (“all the world’s books in the palm of your hand”—in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1971, for instance), as well as solar-panel technologies and the use of biological processes to generate energy (algae, ethanol). He was a featured speaker at the first Earth Day, in 1970, along with Ralph Nader and Margaret Mead. He founded his own Infra/Ultra in 1967–68, which was based on a “very specific understanding of selected aspects of science, art, and nature; that invisible patterns are rapidly presenting us with a range and depth of information that makes it essential for our future and which is leading us to deeper and newer understanding of NATURE and ourselves. Indeed, yesterday’s ‘magic’ is today’s science.”
In 1970, ZanFagna formed a company called CEASE: Center for Ecological Action to Save the Environment. CEASE processed more than three thousand requests for environmental assistance in five years. Those clients included individuals, small citizens’ groups, schools, companies, institutions, as well as federal, state, and local government agencies.
“We need new global linkages of people, pataphysical frequencies and free exchange . . . alterations in information controls, NEW art, NEW architecture—a whole-life sensory and structural release from fifteen thousand years of psychophysical and environmental deadweight!”
ZanFagna is a provocateur, yet his considerable plans, models, and prototypes derive from a rigorous, disciplined scholarship. He traveled the world researching standing stones, Mayan ziggurats, and various ecological systems in search of underlying structures that might be adapted by humans to create habitats informed by these “invisible” or unknown processes. He pored over books, manuscripts, proceedings of conferences, and the popular press as he sought to uncover anything that might illuminate some aspect of his quarry on the art-human-ecology-technology continuum.
It is difficult to isolate ZanFagna’s Pulse Dome Project from his many other avenues of research. He was deeply involved in a body of work he called the Cyborg Series (1974–93), which overlaps the Pulse Dome considerably, but the thrust of the Cyborg Series was to awaken viewers to the possible dangers that might lurk in our futures if we allow computers to become too close. The Pulse Dome Project was a cry in the dark, a proclamation to all people, especially those charged with shaping our built environment, to wake up to the reality that our current system is at odds with nature—and therefore unsustainable. This position is the accepted orthodoxy today, but when ZanFagna was making these statements, he was not following a trend, he was helping to establish one.
Deeply influenced by the writings and activities of Buckminster Fuller (the two men corresponded for a brief period), ZanFagna was captivated by Fuller’s geodesic dome—first erected on the campus of Black Mountain College in the summer of 1949 (it quickly collapsed, but went on to win favor with the U.S. Army, which commissioned hundreds of domes for its use). Although the dome as a structure has been around for millennia, the geodesic dome’s original design is credited to Walther Bauersfeld, a German engineer who employed a dome for the first planetarium, in 1923. Fuller popularized it, and the structures became something of a fad. ZanFagna was more impressed with the underlying physics and mathematics behind the tensile strength of the dome itself, (the tetradhedron and Helical Geometry), and began an earnest investigation into other ways in which these archetypal geometries are revealed and could be put to use. Much of ZanFagna’s 21st century work involved detailed pen and ink studies and three-dimensional tetrahedral models that explore the correspondence between geometric structure and nature’s symmetry.
Appearing in 1968 (through 1974), the first Whole Earth Catalogue, founded by Stewart Brand, sought “to make a variety of tools accessible to newly dispersed counterculture communities, back-to-the-land households, and innovators in the fields of technology, design, and architecture, and to create a community meeting-place in print.” This ethos was indeed sweeping the country, as many other designers and architects took up projects similar to Pulse Dome. What sets ZanFagna’s ideas apart is that he was as interested in posing the difficult questions to the field as he was in providing solutions. He presented his ideas on art and ecology to a national conference of the College Art Association, in St. Louis, in 1968. In this sense, his provocations became something of an irritant—in the same way a grain of sand in an oyster creates a pearl—and laid the groundwork for his future.
– From the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art’s upcoming exhibition Pulse Dome Project: Art and Design by Don Zanfagna