RIP

Remembering Jay Baldwin, experimental geodesic dome champion

Architecture Comment National
Remembering Jay Baldwin, experimental geodesic dome champion. The “Om Dome” at Pacific High School in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, circa 1969. (Jack Fulton)
Remembering Jay Baldwin, experimental geodesic dome champion. The “Om Dome” at Pacific High School in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains, circa 1969. (Jack Fulton)

May 12, 2013
Penngrove, California

Drive north through Marin County, past Petaluma on Route 101, exit onto Railroad Avenue and right onto Old Redwood Highway. Small farm lots, old barns and sheds, prickle hedges and honeysuckle. “It’s not a commune,” says Jay Baldwin, coming out to greet us, but it is a shining hill that rises to the west from Penngrove Valley with seven tiers of chicken coops restored by old hippies and student squatters.

Jay and his wife, Liz Fial, have been here longer than anyone else, since 1963. “Is it possible?” he asks himself, counting backward on the fingers of one hand. “Same year that Kennedy got shot, two months earlier,” he says, describing how he moved out from Michigan, driving 2,370 miles from Ann Arbor, through Denver, breaking down outside of Salt Lake City, while carrying all of his worldly possessions in the back of a ‘56 Chevy.

(Alastair Gordon)

Their domesticated coop has a low sloping ceiling, but it’s attached to a larger barn where Jay stores all of his experiments. Old wood planks are nailed vertically, board and batten, weathered and dark, as if oiled and smoked for years over a slow-burn fire. There’s a configuration of short two-by-fours beveled and nailed onto one wall in a radiating asterisk shape with elk antlers hanging from the center, sacred animal vibe, wild roses and ancient Ford, rusted out.

Jay and Liz did all the work themselves, and they manage to live on $8,000 a year, happy and fine and low-impact. We eat a lunch of fresh berries, homegrown lettuce, cucumbers, cheese, and lemonade, while Baldwin tells me about his association with Buckminster Fuller, how he first met him in Ann Arbor, after one of Bucky’s all-night, epic lectures that started at 7 p.m. and went till dawn the next morning. They met up again in the fall of 1969 when Bucky came to visit Pacific High School, a free-form hippie school in the Santa Cruz Mountains where Baldwin and his fellow dome-head, Lloyd Kahn, were teaching students how to build domes. Together, they fabricated as many as 17 different versions of Bucky’s geodesic prototype, and one of the most experimental variations was Baldwin’s “Pillow Dome” that was made from clear vinyl pillows inflated with hydrogen. (The vinyl pillows were fabricated by a company in San Francisco that made inflatable female dolls for porn shops.) Bucky liked it so much that he lay down and took an hour-long nap inside the 20-foot-diameter structure. When he awoke, he asked Baldwin to build one on the Fuller family island in Maine. Baldwin said yes, if Bucky would pay for all the material expenses.

The first Pillow Dome at Pacific High School, circa 1968. The inflated skin was fabricated by a company in San Francisco that also manufactured blow-up sex dolls. (Jack Fulton)

“He said OK and wrote us a check,” Baldwin says, who prefabricated all the parts at his barn in Penngrove and then packed them into the back of his trusty ’67 Citroën DS wagon and drove from California all the way to Camden, Maine—about 3,300 miles—only stopping in Carbondale, Illinois, to help a friend make a ferroconcrete sailboat. “We were on Bear Island for about a week, living in one of the old barns,” recalled Baldwin. “There was an ancient pool table in there, and we shot pool by candlelight on the greatly slanted table, a challenge. It all went well, though Kathleen [Whitacre] and I were held in obvious low esteem by the New Englanders, probably because we weren’t married.”

Jay Baldwin (sitting in background) and Kathleen Whitacre inside the first Pillow Dome at Pacific High School, circa 1968. (Jack Fulton)

August 27, 2013
Bear Island, Maine

A few months after seeing Baldwin at his house in Penngrove, I make it out to Bear Island, Bucky’s wind-swept, family island in Penobscot Bay, and although I know that one of Baldwin’s domes might still be lying in ruin, somewhere on the island, I’m taken aback when I see it there because I didn’t think it would be positioned so prominently on that first foggy march up from the harbor, up the hill, just past the Eating House, on the way to the Big House, emerging like a specter from a wafting plume of mist, silvery white against a backdrop of deep pine-tree shadows. I’m stunned by its simple, geometric beauty, an unexpected surprise, a hidden gem, and I hold back from looking too closely on this, my first pass, because I want to save it for later when I will return, alone and with my camera, to inspect the structure from all possible angles, inside and out.

The Pillow Done on Bear Island today. (Alastair Gordon)

This is what I do an hour after my arrival, because I don’t want to lose the milky light and mysterious veils of mist, but by the time I return to the site, the light has dissolved into a dull pewter matte and the wind has kicked up to blow all the fog away.

Once he’d transported all the parts from the mainland to the island on a lobster boat, Baldwin assembled the Pillow Dome on an old tennis court using three-fourths-inch EMT electrical tubing “because it’s galvanized inside and out,” and filled each opening with a 15-milliliter triangular pillow.

Bioshelter under construction, New Alchemy Institute, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, circa 1978. (Courtesy New Alchemy)

It took them about a week to complete the dome, only because of so many distractions, including Bucky himself, who would frequently come by to check on their progress and talk for hours, or insist that they go sailing for the rest of the day.

Late one evening, everyone sat beneath the struts of the unfinished dome and waited for a lunar eclipse, but when Fuller’s sister rushed down from the Big House to announce its arrival and said: “Brother, the eclipse is coming up from the bottom!” Fuller snapped back: “The moon doesn’t have any UP, stupid!”

Everyone laughed except for Baldwin who felt bad about making Bucky’s sister the brunt of the joke.

I walk around the ruins of the Pillow Dome. The vinyl “pillows” disintegrated a long time ago, but the thing itself, the main structure, the galvanized geodesic skeleton, struts, connectors, and bolts, are in surprisingly good shape considering it’s a 43-year-old artifact left to endure the salt air and brutal winters of coastal Maine. Even the star-shaped skylight at the top of the dome is still intact, and you can see how it was hinged around the edges so that the top panels could be flipped open for ventilation.

There’s no sense of a roof pressing down, or of walls closing in. It is more of a floating, bubble-like sensation, and reminds me of Fuller’s enormous “Biosphere” that I visited the years before, in Montreal. It felt like a future that hadn’t happened yet, or at the least, a future that hadn’t been fully digested. The tetrahedral poetics of the geosphere, now black and naked, stripped clean of its original acrylic shell, manifested itself as an alternate sky—if that makes any sense—and there was something about looking through its prism-like veil that made the oddly pixelated horizon seem infinitely small.

After his experiment on Bear Island, Baldwin worked with John Todd of the New Alchemy Institute on Cape Cod, and together they fabricated a larger version of the Pillow Dome, skinned with Tefzel, an ETFE fluoropolymer resin made by DuPont.

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