It’s late September in one of the white classrooms at the Clemson Architecture Center in Charleston’s Franklin Street building, and 10 students are trying to grow a house.
As part of professor and architect David Pastre’s design-build studio class, the pupils have been split into three groups. Each has been tasked with creating a Pulse Dome, a self-sustaining structure originally devised in the 1960s and ’70s by current Mt. Pleasant resident Don ZanFagna. The construction is intended to be assembled in Marion Square, the city’s most public venue.
A trained artist with an MFA from the University of Southern California, ZanFagna chaired the art department at Rutgers University and taught eco-architecture at the Pratt Institute as a visiting professor. He was an early adopter of the eco-consciousness movement, although he probably wouldn’t be impressed with LEED certification — the Pulse Domes would nurture crops, produce energy, not just use the “right kind” of materials. ZanFagna called his conception artecotecture or Infra-Ultra (a term he phrased meaning “inside-outside”), and for years he compiled notes, sketches, and collages in hundreds of notebooks probing the idea of creating unorthodox, self-reliant buildings. ZanFagna wanted to grow houses.
ZanFagna focused on both early human architecture and animal architecture, wondering why we make buildings out of concrete, steel, and glass, when older, more natural methods were so successful. He explored holes and mounds and the way the natural patterns of the earth and how a structure or dwelling might most comfortably rest within that environment. He wondered if we could reconsider our materials and start over, instating a wholesale reversal of everything we know about modern architecture.
These theories may be onerous for students of modern architecture to tackle at their first review. Seated in the front row of the room are the CAC’s professors — Pastre and Ray Huff, the school’s founder and director — as well as some other local architects and creatives. Particularly interested in the designs are Mark Sloan, the executive director of the Halsey Institute for Contemporary Art, his research assistant Kirsten Moran, and Allison Williamson, the curator of the Don ZanFagna Foundation. As the ones who have commissioned the Pulse Dome project, they have the most at stake.
The first plan, a dirt dome using soil dug up from Marion Square itself, directly references the Infra-Ultra notion. The next group proposes the most radical idea of the day, a dome built out of water (and very, very thin plastic). And the final project utilizes piezoelectrics, a technique that would create energy from the pressures of human movement on its floor. The structure would utilize this energy to light itself up at night, a glowing advertisement for the Halsey.
And though the professionals may be doing it in an honorable and practical way, they are tearing the students’ ideas apart. The earth dome seems promising, but it’s not very sexy — Huff describes it as “primitive.” The water dome is certainly the most elaborate idea of the afternoon. Pastre calls it a trick, since the plan itself is less a structure and more a cluster of statues. And the piezoelectrics, while flashy, are expensive.
From the critiques, it seems like a combination of the plans might be the best idea, but not one single project stands out as the best. The students have a ways to go. But there’s a good reason they may be so far from the mark: They’re attempting to fabricate the vision of a man who never intended his vision to be fabricated — his ideas were theoretical and actually almost impossible to construct when he devised them in the mid-20th century. He’s also a man who, because of the effects of age on his mind, cannot provide explicit guidance.
The students’ assignment is just one part of Pulse Dome Project: Art & Design by Don ZanFagna, and it will be built in the weeks following the art exhibition’s opening at the Halsey. Curated by Sloan, with the help of the Don ZanFagna Foundation, the gallery show is composed of more than 100 framed drawings and collages created by ZanFagna, as well as the lone 3-D model Pulse Dome that the artist built. It closes with “Bio-Logical Architecture: Past, Present, and Future,” a symposium that will feature eco-art-architecture writer Linda Weintraub and William Katavolos, an architect, designer, and student of ZanFagna.
While ZanFagna’s fervent thoughts may have been revolutionary when he originated them, in the 21st century, his hypotheses are no longer so far-fetched. “He was a futurist,” Williamson says. “He was exploring concepts back in the ’60s that are being addressed today and that people are just starting to explore, and I think that’ll come out, that he was trying to get people’s attention 20-30 years ago on these matters and was trying to make a difference and change the way we look at things, change the architectural world.”
Now in his 80s, ZanFagna’s art career is resurging, with the Foundation curating shows in Aspen and Tampa. Decades after he left a commercial career behind, ZanFagna and his pulse domes are finally getting noticed — even if his own family had no idea about his unprecedented fixation.
Within 10 minutes of meeting, Everett White and his Uncle Don were at a table, drawing together. He was unlike anyone else in White’s family and anyone else the 6-year-old had ever met. “Right away I could tell he knew things that the average person didn’t,” White says. “Right away he started teaching me.”
Eventually, ZanFagna and his wife Joyce moved to Illinois, where White and his family were living, along with all of ZanFagna’s packaged pieces, taped up and well wrapped in black plastic, in which they would remain despite their new home. The ZanFagnas migrated frequently, and each time, the moving trucks were always packed full of boxes and trunks and big canvases. It never made sense to unload the work, so White had little knowledge of the full extent of his uncle’s collection.
As White got older, he got more curious about his uncle’s concealed stockpile. “I used to have nights where I would go to his house, even in high school, and I’d go there on the weekends and we’d start talking,” White says. “I’d put my bags down, have a cup of coffee. We’d start talking at six in the evening and it would be six in the morning before we stopped. And a lot of it was listening.” Since much of his work was out of sight, ZanFagna used slides to show his nephew what he’d been up to. This included many of the pieces he created during the few years he worked as a gallery artist in California; they were ultimately sold and never seen by the family again. Since ZanFagna was an educator, he knew how to make a compelling presentation. White would go home with his own ideas and inspiration and execute them during the week.
Eventually, the ZanFagnas settled in Atlanta for 15 years. Now an adult with his own wife, Joanna, White wanted to get closer to his uncle again. They started to consider cities on the South Carolina coast, and ZanFagna had always recommended Charleston, which he’d traveled through years ago; he told White that even if you couldn’t tell at first glance, there was a lot of culture and art there. The Whites found a home on Sullivan’s Island, and soon the ZanFagnas prepared for their own move to Mt. Pleasant.
A week before White was supposed to drive to Atlanta and help pack up yet another truck full of ZanFagna’s stuff, he noticed that the little pink house next to Poe’s Tavern was up for lease. He thought it would be a great place for a gallery — and a great place to show ZanFagna’s work. As he prepared to open the White Gallery, all of the boxes that had been squirreled away for so many years were finally available to him.
“I always knew he had good work looking at the slides, but he did a lot of work on paper,” White says. “You could have a box that’s not very large and there could be 200, 300, 400 pieces in there. We had no idea until we started opening the packages that there was so much work that spanned such a range of ideas and concepts and concerns and research.” This was White’s first true introduction to his uncle’s career. It was almost overwhelming, and there’s still a lot that White hasn’t gotten around to. “It was just like opening up a treasure trove.”
During a visit to the gallery, Allison Williamson saw a few of ZanFagna’s pieces. After talking with the family, she became fascinated with the artist’s life story, and when she saw some of his pieces, she noticed museum tags from the ’50s and ’60s. “Once I started, it just became an obsession,” she says. “I knew I had to work on it, and I knew I wanted to be involved.”
The Pulse Domes were just one part of what ZanFagna was working on. White says that, like many artists, his uncle always had 100 things going on at once, both mentally and physically. “I don’t know how much was left or where he got his energy from, but I certainly can’t accomplish half of what he did in a day,” he says.
White was inspired, and is inspired, by Uncle Don’s ideas, and he thinks that inspiration should be shared. “I remember back when he was teaching — Aunt Jo told me, because he would never really brag about himself — but just how effective he was on teaching and getting through to people and teaching his students how to really see and to really think for themselves,” he says. “These Pulse Domes are lessons that should still be learned.”
Mark Sloan was not impressed when he first saw Don ZanFagna’s work. The Halsey’s executive director, who’s become known for shining a light in otherwise dark corners of the art world, was contacted by Allison Williamson early on in her partnership with the family. “For better or worse, I have garnered the reputation over the years of helping protect snowflakes to present the work of the oddly overlooked,” he admits, citing past Halsey artists Aldwyth and Aggie Zed as examples. Williamson was just breaking the surface of ZanFagna’s work, sorting through his decades and decades worth of pieces chronologically in an effort to catalog them. She sent Sloan a handful of PDFs from the earliest years, none of which captured the curator’s attention. He passed, for the time being.
But as Williamson made her way through ZanFagna’s work, to the sweet spot of the mid-century when the Pulse Domes first began to materialize, she reached out to Sloan again. “I don’t really think he wanted to meet with us,” she laughs. “But then he saw a couple series that really piqued his interest.” Among the oil paintings, sculptures, prints, landscapes, drawings, and portraits, Sloan found the Pulse Domes and a similar cyborg series most compelling. As soon as he saw the original sketchbooks and collages, he was “absolutely knocked out.”
Sloan doesn’t want to oversell ZanFagna, but he does recognize the artist as an early participant in the eco-consciousness movement. “I would even use the word pioneer, in the sense that he was doggedly pursuing this,” he says. “This was not a hobby, this was not a pastime. This was an obsession, clearly an obsession.” And Sloan has a strong fascination with people who are obsessed.
“I always think it’s good when one discovers something,” he says. “I’m certainly not likening this to the opening of Tut’s tomb, but I do feel like I have been given privileged access to a body of work that is richly deserving of a broad audience, and the fact that it has been in a sense hermetically kept for 40 years is rather extraordinary, and so I feel like I am at least opening a time capsule.”
At first, Sloan’s plan for the show was small. Then the tail started to wag the dog, particularly when Sloan narrowed the focus to the Pulse Domes. “As I got more into it, I realized that the Pulse Dome project was in a sense a culmination of all of his research into what he called Infra Ultra, inside outside,” he says. “Here’s how you take one idea that may be kind of an offbeat idea, but tap it apart into its components and look at the things that lead up to that so that you can then get a sense of how these concepts developed.”
Because there was so much material, Sloan had to draw boundaries — for example, ZanFagna’s Micro-Max Pocket System, an early idea for a Kindle-like device that was exhibited at the Whitney, was not included because it did not match the overall theme. Instead, Sloan hopes to create an experience that leads the viewer from beginning to end, along the thread of ZanFagna’s thought pattern, so they can see his exploration of his ideas and where they ended up. Sloan had to take an idiosyncratic cross-sectional view of ZanFagna’s work, but he thinks the Pulse Domes stand on their own. “Maybe the best analogy I can use is it’s like a rag bag,” Sloan says. “You pull on one thing, suddenly you realize it’s connected to six other things.”
The golden era for the Pulse Domes was 1968-1978, when ZanFagna filled up journal after journal. He studied rare books, traveled to Carnac in France to look at its standing stones, and experimented with ice and snow at his home in New Jersey. Terms like “performance plateau” and “event horizon,” catch words that Sloan thinks were meant to add an air of research to what could be considered ramblings, can be found pages away from rubbings of circuit boards. The numbered notebooks weren’t produced in any sort of numerical sequence, and arbitrary letters and markings decorate the pages. ZanFagna’s central thesis: “Is there a hidden force our ancestors knew and used but that we have lost?” He was looking for new ways of thinking, and he wasn’t going to rest until he figured them out.
While planning the show, Sloan marked his favorite pages in the notebooks with yellow sticky notes, and he often has to handle them with gloves. As he says, the books are not fragile, but they are delicate, and they smell like the ’70s. “It’s a little unsettling, to be honest,” Sloan says of going through the notebooks. “This is very private stuff. But in a way, I’ll tell you what I feel is that he has sort of left the bread crumbs for me to follow, me or anyone. So I’m trying to be as true to his vision as I possibly can be and using the clues that he has left behind.”
Sloan went through heaps of these journals, and the gallery exhibit is meant to give a sense of how they look. A short documentary, filmed by Christopher Hanson, will help convey the madness and intricacy of the notebooks. “Really, what I want to demonstrate is how this one guy was more or less possessed by this idea, that he just would not let it go,” Sloan says. “He was working on it constantly. He rarely slept. This was just gnawing at him.”
ZanFagna’s work inspired Sloan to start his own research and collect many of the books the artist referred to in his notebooks. “I honestly think that this material, once it’s out in the world and in circulation, I think it can actually have an effect. It can actually cause people to re-look at some of these ideas that were sort of seen as, I don’t want to say crackpot ideas, but I think they were looked at as sort of part of this zeitgeist, of this counter-culture, dope-smoking, couldn’t-be-really-any-good-because-they-were-high-when-they-did-it sort of thing. My hope would be that once this material is released into the world, people will say ‘Well, you know, here was a guy that was really onto something.'”
A “#1” is spray painted on the outer walls of a blue building at a deadend of Simons Street. It houses an apartment, a construction company, and the workshop for David Pastre’s Clemson Architecture Center design-build studio class. The students spend the first half of the semester in the Franklin Street studio, but after mid-term they’re out on the north end of the peninsula. Inside, they’re huddled around laptops and the 3-D model of what the Pulse Dome has become, which is very different from what it was during the late September review.
Each of the original ideas had their faults. The day after the review, Pastre was told by the city that they would not be allowed to dig up the ground at Marion Square, which took the smartest, most ZanFagna-related concept — the earth dome — out of the running. The water architecture concept was strong, Pastre says, but the presentation and development up to that point wasn’t convincing. And the piezoelectrics, while the most engaging of the three, was much too expensive.
As a result, the class has decided to move in a more literal direction for its Pulse Dome, instead of embracing ZanFagna’s figurative ideas. The new proposal is a bamboo dome, which will be installed over the fountain at the corner of King and Calhoun streets. Concepts from each of the original plans will be incorporated into the new one. Ideally, a bridge will also be constructed within the dome, most likely from other materials, so that visitors will be able to walk through it. Pastre suggested the fixed site; not only does the spot have a closer proximity to the Halsey than a more central location in Marion Square, but there are some poetics that come from being on top of a pool of water, and the material sources make more sense. The costs for this project are much lower than the previous ones, since they’ll be getting most of their bamboo for free.
The structure will be built in pieces out in the yard of #1 and transported to Marion Square, where the dome should be installed in about a day or so near the end of November. Neither Pastre nor the students have much, if any, experience with bamboo, so for now they’re experimenting with bending the material using steam. Over the next few weeks, they’ll spend about 100 combined hours working on the project. Still, before the plan can become a reality, the class needs approval from the city’s Design Review Board, the committee that makes decisions on smaller, temporary projects.
Pastre admits he was hesitant to get involved in the Pulse Dome project. But once he looked through ZanFagna’s lens, it became more exciting. “What’s been the hardest struggle for us from the beginning of this project is that … he sort of worked in metaphors, and his concepts, they weren’t make believe, but his process or what he was doing wasn’t trying to be very analytical about it,” Pastre says. “It was just researching, and from that some great ideas could come. I think the big thing that we learned … was to think in that sort of fashion.”
Outside, students scatter to their cars, heading to a bamboo source on Johns Island that Pastre has tipped them off to. Even if the CAC’s Pulse Dome may not be quite what ZanFagna was hoping for back when the idea consumed him for a decade, as a teacher, ZanFagna could appreciate the role he’s played in shaping these future architects. “As architecture students, I guess we’ve been exposed a lot to sustainable, to LEED certification, that kind of stuff, and he thought about sustainability in a way that wasn’t just adding things to a building to sort of make up for your carbon footprint, but it was actually incorporated into the design and actually dictated the form of the design and the materiality,” student Carrie Goforth says. She brings up something the class read about recently: houses grown from meat, which could produce their own food. It’s not far from ZanFagna’s ideas.
“It’s great when you see young minds grappling with this, but he was a teacher, and I felt because of his role as a teacher, it was important to incorporate some educational aspect to this that would be in a way propagating these ideas,” Sloan says. He wonders if he’s sent the students on a fool’s errand, but he realizes that no one can comprehend the possibilities of the Pulse Domes until someone tries to create them, physically, which ZanFagna never did.
“My hope, my dream would be that these ideas would now land in fertile soil and that contemporary practitioners of designers, architects, urban planners, would use some of these ideas or at least incorporate the essence of it into their current work,” Sloan says. “That would be my dream, and I think that it would be ZanFagna’s as well, judging from the clues he’s left me.”