Don ZanFagna, Visionary Artist-Engineer-Architect
"Somewhere among standing stones, animal architecture, myths, mounds, holes, miniaturized conceptual systems, conceptual earthworks, conceptual architecture, benign low-energy technology and a bio/endo/exothermic idea of shelter and energy as one, a new art and new architecture + associated value systems will emerge." —Don ZanFagna
Stumbling upon Don ZanFagna's lifework is like falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, only ZanFagna's fantasies are realer than Lewis Carroll's. On Friday, October 19th I went to the Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art (HICA) to the opening reception of Pulse Dome Project: Art & Design by Don ZanFagna. Since then, I haven’t stopped researching ZanFangna. The experience was incredibly moving. It was like being offered a one-time portal into the mind of a visionary artist-engineer-architect — a comprehensivist, as Buckminster Fuller would say. But who is Don ZanFagna and why haven’t I heard of him before?
Mark Sloan, HICA director and curator, says ZanFagna is “equal parts mad scientist, engineer, architect, and visionary.” Charleston Magazine explains:
Don ZanFagna’s resumé seems improbable: West Point cadet, college jock, Boston Red Sox draftee, ditto the Dodgers, ditto San Francisco 49ers and St. Louis Cardinals, Fulbright scholar, fighter pilot, artist, professor, university art department chairman, environmental activist, architect/designer, father, husband, uncle.
ZanFagna lived in New York City in the sixties at the height of the experimental, avant-garde movements and was cohorts with many famous artists and musicians. His work has even been exhibited at the Whitney Museum of American Art. But he soon became uninterested in the marketing and selling of work, choosing instead to focus on research and creation. From the seventies to the eighties, ZanFagna chaired the visual arts department at Rutgers University in New Jersey, teaching and inspiring young artists. Then in the 1990s, he was visiting art professor of eco-architecture at the Pratt Institute in New York.
As much as ZanFagna is a trained artist, architect, and designer, he is also a compulsive thinker and creator. An early adopter of the art and ecology movement interested in the boundaries between natural and artificial, ZanFagna spent decades filling countless sketchbooks with drawings, collages, and writings on ideas of sustainable bio-architecture for ‘growing your own house’ — what he called the Pulse Dome Project. Conceptually, pulse domes are living, sustainable homes built to last for 150 years. In fact, ZanFagna was a guest speaker at the first Earth Day in 1970. (He also communicated with Buckminster Fuller about his ideas on sustainability.) In 1967, ZanFagna founded Infra/Ultra Architectural Design Group for “integrated research in art, architecture, and environmental whole-life futures.” Three years later he established the Center for Ecological Action to Save the Environment (CEASE), which worked on more than three thousand eco/alternative design strategies for schools, institutions, and federal agencies.
ZanFagna and his wife Joanna eventually wound up in Charleston, South Carolina three years ago upon retirement. As the story goes, his family uncovered “a vast trove” of essays, drawings, photographs, collages, sketchbooks, etchings, paintings, and models along with mounds of books with ripped paper notes for quick reference. Journalist Stephanie Hunt describes the discovery process in Charleston Magazine:
There were boxes upon boxes, then more boxes. Crates stacked on crates. Inside were carefully wrapped canvases, delicate collages, various sculptures, Plexiglas installations. Watercolors, pen washes, oils, and charcoals; woodcuts, etchings, lithographs, and trays upon trays of 35 mm slides. Paintings with 1950s museum tags still on them. And journals. Shelves of dated and numbered journals—six decades worth of ideas, sketches, designs, questions, commentary, to-do lists (“measure the Hudson River”), scattered thoughts, scribbled dreams, articulate rants, and gorgeously rendered fantasies.
ZanFangna is prolific yet profound; his work is transparently forward-thinking, looking to the future while responding to the present. For example, he created “micro-max pocket systems” all in small, catalogued plastic boxes — a scanner, electro-bio-agripak 2, bio-silicate duplicator, solar-energized infocomsat interrogator, micro-shelter energizer, and “all the books in the world in the palm of your hand” (see image above) … or in other words, the Kindle or iBooks.
Now in his eighties, he’s finally ready to share his work with galleries and museums. I’m still finding out about Don ZanFagna; so too is the rest of the world. (ZanFagna’s family created a foundation in his name and is slowly scheduling exhibitions across the nation.) The work on display in Pulse Dome Project spans four decades, however it’s a fraction of what’s been “uncovered.” HICA’s exhibit I’m sure is only the tip of the iceberg.
View my photos of the opening reception on Flickr or take a look at Halsey’s photo set on Facebook. There’s also a marvelous 20-minute documentary short called ReDiscovering ZanFagna by Production Design Associates (a company founded by Jeff Nickles who is also member of Team Kaputt).
Credit: Photos by Whitney Dail. Video by HICA.