In 2018 as part of a collaborative project with Loisaida Inc. and La Plaza Cultural de Armando Perez, Matthew Mottel built two geodesic domes at La Plaza and in the Loisaida Inc. Center courtyard, which served as an interactive art exhibition available to the public. The project invoked the historical legacy of CHARAS, a community organization on the Lower East Side which worked with Buckminster Fuller (July 12, 1895 – July 1, 1983) to build public habitable geodesic domes. Alongside the structures, a documentary screening of CHARAS IS ALIVE ON SPACESHIP EARTH and an installation of archival materials from the original 1970s dome building were on display.
Artist Matthew Mottel became involved in the CHARAS/Fuller legacy through his father, Syeus Mottel. Syeus was a filmmaker and writer, who documented the 1972-1983 dome-building project in his book CHARAS: THE IMPROBABLE DOME BUILDERS. The history was given new life after the book’s re-issue in 2017 by Song Cave Press & Pioneer Works.
Syeus Mottel met the community at CHARAS via Fuller while serving as his “media consultant.” Matthew Mottel writes: “Fuller asked if he [Syeus] would accompany him downtown to meet a group of dome builders. He hopped in the cab, and that was how he crossed into the world of CHARAS.”
CHARAS was an acronym of its founders’ first names: Chino Garcia, Humbero Crespo, Angelo González Jr., Roy Battiste, Anthony Figueroa, and Sal Becker. In the 1970s they were all in their twenties and resided on the Lower East Side.
As Matthew Mottel describes: “New York City then was a collage, some parts dense with newly minted skyscrapers and other parts barren — negative space on a tattered map marked by corruption, lack of funds, and disregard. Large swaths of Manhattan were derelict or abandoned, especially downtown.” In 1968 the CHARAS activists had encountered Fuller speaking at the headquarters of the Puerto Rican community organization called the Real Great Society, where Fuller described his design for the geodesic dome, which he envisioned as a mass-producible, low-cost, low-impact dwelling that could ease the housing shortage in the U.S. and in New York in particular.
The founders of CHARAS had decided to implement Fuller’s ideals, and began to devote themselves to studying solid geometry, spherical trigonometry, and other related subjects with the assistance of Buckminster Fuller and his assistant Michael Ben-Eli.
Syeus Mottel writes, “[Fuller’s] concept of doing more with less was at the root of all his thinking. People didn’t need vast wealth to change the things affecting them. What they needed were skills to make these changes. He was saying their own experiences were wealth (his definition of wealth being energy directed by knowledge) and, therefore, they could learn from each other.”
In 1970, CHARAS began to build temporary domes made of canvas and wood in an open loft space, rented from the city for $5 a month. By fall 1972 they had won a $15,000 from the New York City Council to build more permanent structures. The first permanent dome was built on a parcel of land next to their loft at 303 Cherry Street.
The process of building the domes enhanced the sense of local community forming around CHARAS. Mottel writes that during the dome building “there was also a constant flow of other young men and women who came to hang out or work. To many, who came to the loft, it was an oasis in an otherwise hostile city. Here people talked to each other… At times, the atmosphere seemed to be one of a continuous low-ebb party.” At other times, the group put in “12 to 15 hours of continuous work in impossible weather conditions… and they did it with humor and good “vibes” at all times.”
When the first dome was completed on the vacant lot, “the exhaustion that everyone felt that evening and the next day was mingled with a sense of pride. A dome shelter stood on the lower east side. Business and government had long talked about the feasibility of dome structures for general use. But except for a few prime exceptions, Bucky’s dome structures were still an oddity in the architectural vocabulary. But here on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, a group of ex-gang members, ex-junkies, criminals, and just people had created a moment in history.”
“We were doing experiments on how to build housing fast for our people,” said Chino Garcia in an interview with Matthew Mottel. “CHARAS stood above because [we] took everyone in.”
At the end of “CHARAS: The Improbable Dome Builders,” Syeus writes that through this dome building project: “CHARAS… [gave] others the hope and vision that change is possible. CHARAS has shown that life need not be a series of dead ends. It is important to remember in this instance that the process is more important than the product.”
In 2019, Village Preservation and our allies held a press conference in order to encourage the Landmarks Preservation Commission to finally repair the neglected and deteriorating (and landmarked) former CHARAS headquarters at 605 East 9th Street (more info about the press conference and campaign here). In addition to housing the incredible history of CHARAS, the building had previously been a school designed by the famed architect CBJ Snyder
As our testimony in support of landmark designation of the building read: “P.S. 64’s era of historic and cultural significance is not limited to its early years. Its later incarnation as the Charas/El Bohio Community Center reflects many layers of cultural significance in New York City’s history in the late 20th century — our city’s shifting demographics, the crumbling of the public infrastructure, the incredible cultural flowering in the late 1970s and 1980s of downtown and especially the East Village/Lower East Side, urban homesteading, and the the revolutionary reclamation by many Lower East Side residents and community groups of vacant lots and abandoned buildings, turning what had bene the neighborhood’s greatest liabilities into some of its greatest assets.”
You can listen to our oral history with CHARAS community activist Chino Garcia here, and watch a recording from the 2018 event where we celebrated the oral history and CHARAS’ legacy with a special screening of Matthew Mottel’s documentary Spaceship Earth here.