In 1982, Richard Buckminster Fuller visited the New Alchemy Institute, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to open a new geodesic dome. Frail of body but still sharp of mind, the 87-year-old architect was something of a countercultural guru by this stage, thanks to his “spaceship Earth” philosophy and his forward-looking designs, not least the dome.
Lightweight, efficient, simple to construct and futuristic, domes became a hippy cliche in the 70s, but the New Alchemists’ dome was a little different. Designed by Fuller’s disciple Jay Baldwin, it was the first “pillow dome”: made of triangular panels of transparent plastic inflated with argon gas, which improved its insulation properties.
Inside the pillow dome was a miniature forest of plants, tropical fish ponds and a ripening fig tree. Fuller nodded with approval. “He said, ‘She’s beautiful,’” recalls Nancy Jack Todd, co-founder of the New Alchemy Institute (NAI), along with her husband John. “He turned around and said to John with this happy smile: ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to see: my architecture with your biology.’ He called the work we were doing ‘the hope of the world’.” The New Alchemists’ alternative was a harmonious system of organic farming, renewable energy, sustainable architecture, waste treatment and ecosystem restoration. No pesticides or chemicals, no fossil fuels, no waste, no pollution, low impact, energy efficient. In other words, they were doing 50 years ago what we’re now realising we should have been doing all along.
[In his interview for the article] rather than feeling bleak about the future, John Todd is surprisingly optimistic. He recently published a book called Healing Earth, part-autobiography, part-manual on how to save the world. Its opening line reads: “I am writing this book based on the belief that humanity will soon become involved in a deep and abiding worldwide partnership with nature.” Yes, the planet is in crisis, but rather than what the New Alchemists called “doomwatch science” – monitoring environmental decline – John Todd has always been focused on practical solutions. “The more we weave together the knowledge that’s been accumulated in the last 100 years, the more we can do things that we never dreamed of,” he says. “We don’t have to invent anything; we just have to pay attention to what’s been learned.”
This is an extract from the Observer 30 Sept 2019 regarding the recently published books;
A Safe and Sustainable World: The Promise Of Ecological Design by Nancy Jack Todd
Living Lightly on the Earth: Building an Ark for Prince Edward Island 1974‑76 by Steven Mannell