Tour Schedule: 
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art, College of Charleston, SC
Fall 2012

For more information, please contact Katie McCampbell: MccampbellKG@cofc.edu

Pulse Dome Project: Art & Design by Don ZanFagna

This exhibition presents paintings, drawings, sketchbooks, and 3-D models by Don ZanFagna that explicate the futuristic and metaphoric concept of “growing” your own house. Conceived in the 1970s, he imagined a home created, constructed, and maintained by all-organic processes and in perfect harmony with nature. ZanFagna is an artist, architect, and designer whose lifework not only defies established categories but challenges rote notions of the role of the artist in society. The advent of this exhibition has uncovered a vast trove of related writings, drawings, photographs, artworks, collages, models, and ephemera that the artist created over his long work life.

ZanFagna traveled the world researching standing stones, Mayan ziggurats, and various ecological systems, always in pursuit of underlying intrinsic structural concepts that might be adapted by humans to create habitats informed by these “invisible” or unknown processes. He pored over books, manuscripts, proceedings of conferences, and investigations detailed by Nature, NASA, and the popular press as he sought to uncover anything that might illuminate some aspect of his quarry on the art-human-ecology-technology continuum.

ZanFagna proved to be a restless innovator and inventor. His notebooks, journals, and early works overflow with remarkably prescient descriptions of such things as the development of the personal computer and the Kindle—“all the world’s books in the palm of your hand”—in an exhibition at the Whitney Museum of American Art, in 1971. He also anticipated large-scale use of solar panel technologies and the use of biological processes, algae and ethanol, to generate energy.

Through a remarkable journey of discovery, chronicled indozens of densely illustrated and annotated sketchbooks, DonZanFagna became obsessed with the idea of designing a formof sustainable architecture that was in harmony with natural processes—a structure he called the Pulse Dome. From roughly1971 through 1995, he researched world indigenous structures,insect architecture, wombs, and such natural forms as caves,tunnels, and volcanoes to learn what had been done already andwhat was still likely to be accomplished by others in relation tosustainable human architecture. Among other lines of inquiry, he explored Palladio’s notebooks, an amalgam of many other architects’ notes, to try to unlock the secrets of the Egyptians’sacred geometric harmonies.

Deeply influenced by the writings and activities of Buckminster Fuller, ZanFagna was captivated by Fuller’s geodesic dome. Drawn more to the underlying physics and mathematics behind the tensile strength of the dome itself, ZanFagna began an earnest investigation into other ways in which these archetypal geometries are revealed and might be put to use. Much of the work in another of his series, “21st Century,” involved detailed pen and ink studies and three-dimensional tetrahedral models that explore the correspondence between geometric structure and nature’s symmetry.

In the 1970s, a counterculture ethos was sweeping the country, as many other designers and architects took up projects similar to Pulse Dome. What sets ZanFagna’s ideas apart is that he was just as interested in posing the difficult questions to the field as he was in providing solutions. In this sense, his provocations became something of an irritant—in the same way a grain of sand in an oyster creates a pearl—and laid the groundwork for his future.

He saw simultaneously, the metaphoric, historic, biologic representation of an image/idea. An example of this is what he called “the dome of psychic resonance—a diagrammatic architecture” that supposes the intriguing idea that one’s own breathing might be part of the generating process to “grow your own house.” ZanFagna is a provocateur, yet his considerable plans, models, and prototypes derive from a rigorous, disciplined scholarship.

The Pulse Dome Project was a cry in the dark, a proclamation to all people, especially those charged with shaping our built environment, to grasp the reality that our current system is at odds with nature—and therefore unsustainable. While this position is the accepted orthodoxy today, at the time ZanFagna was making these statements he was not following a trend, he was helping to establish one.

The Pulse Dome Project remains as a testament to one man’s attempt to apprehend a comprehensive solution to one of humanity’s most vexing problems—sustainable shelter.

Mark Sloan
Director and Senior Curator
Halsey Institute of Contemporary Art
College of Charleston
School of the Arts

The exhibition and publication Pulse Dome Project: Art & Design by Don ZanFagna has been made possible by generous grants from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and The Bishop Family Foundation.

Don ZanFagna:

Directed by Christopher Hanson and Aaron Neu
Original Soundtrack: Bill Carson
Executive Producer: Mark Sloan

Don ZanFagna’s notebooks provide an intimate look into the artist’s mind. Because the notebooks are somewhat fragile, they could not be handled by the general public. Instead, we commissioned videographers Christopher Hanson and Aaron Neu to provide a “fly-through” of ZanFagna’s notebooks in the form of a video. An original musical score by Bill Carson accompanies the visuals.

Following ZanFagna’s lead, Bill Carson did research into the Mesoamerican (Mayan) calendar system. He based his musical compositions on the overlapping cycles contained within this calendric system (embedding a 20 note melody over a 13 beat bass line, for example). The result is, predictably, hypnotic.


Born in Saunderstown, Rhode Island, in 1929, Don ZanFagna has a degree in art, architecture, and design from the University of Michigan and a MFA in painting from the University of Southern California. During the Korean War, he served as a fighter pilot. Following his discharge, he received a Fulbright/Italian Government Grant for study in Italy, in 1956–57. In the late 1960s, after relocating from California to New York, ZanFagna chose to remove himself from the commercial art world. He was more interested in the research and process of his art than its promotion or sale. In the 1970s and ‘80s, he was the chair of the art department at Rutgers University. The following decade, he was Visiting Eco-Architecture Professor at Pratt Institute. Now in his eighties, ZanFagna, with Joyce, his wife of fifty-five years, has retired near Charleston, South Carolina.

Community Partners 2017