First posted on 26 November 2012 on http://citythreepointzero.wordpress.com There is a longer discussion of Drop City in Sex and Buildings (London: Reaktion Books, 2013).
When the artist Alex Hartley built a geodesic dome out of scrap metal for his 2011 exhibition at Victoria Miro, he invoked Drop City, an iconic northern Colorado commune of the mid-1960s. Drop City achieved sudden fame in 1965 through the patronage of Buckminster Fuller. Patronage is perhaps too emphatic – Bucky gave the Droppers $500 because they wrote to him. But by 1967 it had become one of the nodes on an international freak network, spoken in the same breath as the UFO Club in London or Haight-Ashbury. It had its own festival (‘Joy’) in June 1967. Even the normally stuffy architecture journals hit on it, big time. Even if hardly anyone actually went, it was, no question, a place to be. For most, Bucky’s dome was best known as a scheme to seal Manhattan from the elements under a structure of truly Biblical proportions, Man’s final triumph over Nature.
Drop City was by contrast staggeringly crude, bodged from wooden props from a nearby mine, and the rooftops of wrecked cars. Salvaging the latter required an axe, a steady nerve, and enormous physical strength. Fortunately, the early Droppers had all three. The images of the complete camp become icons of the sixties scene, and their continuing power rests in the way they refuse time. The dome form connotes futurity, but these domes, the animals wandering about them, and the sheer bleakness of the landscape connote something from the far distant past. It could be far in the future after some apocalypse; or it could be the remnant of some sophisticated civilisation that remained incorrigibly off the grid.
That ambiguity is exactly the sort of thing that appeals to Alex Hartley – so he set about building a dome with his assistant Will, poring over what few fragments there were to say how one might be built. There were a few problems to work out. Preparing for the damp English climate, they inserted a modern weatherproof layer between the wood and the metal. The car tops were a more serious issue. Detroit 60’s metal yielded at last four panels per car, whereas European vehicles produced barely one; and the cutting technique of the original Droppers was beyond even Hartley. The result is remarkably fine however, rather better (I am certain) than the original. The panels fit beautifully and the interior is exceptionally snug. When they’d finished, Hartley lived in the dome for the duration of the exhibition, tending chickens (at least those that survived the predation of the local foxes) and fishing in the pond. When the show finished, Hartley fitted out the dome for use by Occupy London. It didn’t make it to St Paul’s in time, but it did end up in Finsbury Square where it functioned briefly as intended as a public meeting place – before being appropriated as a kind of party zone for the enactment of drug-and-booze-fuelled fantasies.
Removing the dome at the end of Occupy Finsbury, Hartley described it having reached a condition of unspeakable decay. A beanbag had exploded, producing what he described as ‘vomit lucky dip’, an astonishing amalgam of polystyrene beads, used needles, used condoms, a dildo, vomit and human faeces. In this, Hartley’s dome exactly parallels the story of Drop City. The commune’s early history is that of civilisation – a new form of citizenship with all the attendant rights and responsibilities, and a highly developed sexual morality paralleling that of the middle class world outside. After the ’67 Joy Festival, its leaders lost interest, and it quickly degenerated into a neo-Hobbesian state of nature.
The Dome’s back in Devon now, where it was originally made. It emerges from the mud, glistening gently in the sun. It looks fantastic. What happens now? Hartley himself isn’t sure. For planning purposes it’s a de facto yurt, which enables its continued existence, at least for the time being. But it’s much more than that. An imaginative space of the first order, there’s nowhere better to reflect on dreams of utopia. Put it in Parliament Square, I say.