The New Alchemy Institute: Eco Pioneers

It’s 50 years since the New Alchemy Institute created its ‘living machine’ – a research project of organic farming, renewable energy and sustainable architecture

In 1982, Richard Buckminster Fuller visited the New Alchemy Institute, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts, to open a new geodesic dome. Frail of body but still sharp of mind, the 87-year-old architect was something of a countercultural guru by this stage, thanks to his “spaceship Earth” philosophy and his forward-looking designs, not least the dome.

Lightweight, efficient, simple to construct and futuristic, domes became a hippy cliche in the 70s, but the New Alchemists’ dome was a little different. Designed by Fuller’s disciple Jay Baldwin, it was the first “pillow dome”: made of triangular panels of transparent plastic inflated with argon gas, which improved its insulation properties (the same technology is behind Cornwall’s Eden Project).

Inside the pillow dome was a miniature forest of plants, tropical fish ponds and a ripening fig tree. Fuller nodded with approval. “He said, ‘She’s beautiful,’” recalls Nancy Jack Todd, co-founder of the New Alchemy Institute (NAI), along with her husband John. “He turned around and said to John with this happy smile: ‘This is what I’ve always wanted to see: my architecture with your biology.’ He called the work we were doing ‘the hope of the world’.”

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