R. Buckminster Fuller is well known for a variety of ideas, inventions, and curious tales. One of particular interest, and minimal publicity, is his involvement with and influence upon CHARAS, the Lower East Side community group. CHARAS (an acronym for its founders Chino, Humberto, Angelo, Roy, Anthony, and Sal) came about in the late 60’s in the wake of a 5 hour lecture delivered by Fuller to The Real Great Society (RGS) in an empty loft on East 7th Street.
A member of RGS, a collective attempt to transform a community suffering from the plagues of poverty, drug abuse, and crime into the much talked about “Great Society”, contacted Fuller in 1968 after hearing about his ideas of improving the human condition and radical housing. Despite his age (72 years old), upbringing (New England WASP), and appearance (black suit, thick black-framed glasses, and large hearing aids) Fuller was able to relate very well with the group through his vision of a world of change, equality, and opportunity.
CHARAS were the ones that took to Fuller’s ideas the most. They reached out to him again in 1969, and soon got involved with dome-building projects. The geodesic dome was a manifestation of Fuller’s ideas about humanity’s survival and “doing more with less.” Fuller sent an assistant of his, Michael Ben-Eli, to introduce CHARAS to geodesic math, and guide them along in their building projects.
The process of teaching and learning spherical trigonometry was difficult at first, but they persisted for a full year with no money or regular meeting space. They began to build models, reached out to organizations, and secured a grant from the NY State Council on the Arts. While their first ferro-cement dome (built from cardboard and covered with cement) was constructed on a development site in East Harlem, as a sponsored installation tackling issues of urban space diversity, their eventual focus was the construction of two 20-foot diameter domes on a plot of land at South and Jefferson Streets in the Lower East Side. The process became a huge project for the neighborhood, bringing in many outsiders and media, including the New York Times and CBS, to witness the construction.
There were many setbacks to the cardboard structures due to high winds and extensive rainfalls, but both domes remained fully assembled and covered in plastic sheets, awaiting cement covering, come Fall of 1971. It was at this point that one of the domes was destroyed by the fire department, when an unknown person had entered the dome to escape the rain, started a small fire to stay warm, and eventually filled the entire structure with massive amounts of smoke. Nevertheless CHARAS continued on the remaining dome, covering it tightly with a plastic lining, chicken wire, and eventually concrete. The dome, with its hard concrete exterior and open window sections, was complete just in time to coincide with Fuller’s next trip to New York City.
On January 15, 1972 Buckminster Fuller, along with his wife and secretary, came to visit the dome on South street. He greeted CHARAS members and Michael with great enthusiasm and joy insisting that everyone, including neighborhood children and even his cab driver, take a group photo in front of the structure.