PRINT December 2018


Sukhdev Sandhu

The premise of Syeus Mottel’s delightful, disorienting CHARAS: The Improbable Dome Builders (Pioneer Works Press/The Song Cave) is the stuff of retro-futurist fantasy. First published in 1973 and brought back into circulation this year, the book is an account of how Chino Garcia and Angelo Gonzalez Jr., both New York gang leaders, decided to take on the system they believed was killing their communities in the mid-1960s. Ditching their initial plan to organize a mercenary army to invade Cuba, they formed the Real Great Society and, from their headquarters on East Sixth Street, set about supporting small businesses in busted-up areas of the city, creating storefront schools and fixing up homes in urgent need of repair. Then the society organized a lecture by Buckminster Fuller. His talk of “Spaceship Earth” and new designs for living inspired them and their closest associates to start a group called CHARAS, the name an acronym combining the first letter of the first name of every member of the group.Its key project was to build a geodesic dome on a vacant lot on the Lower East Side. Gonzalez spoke of the dome as an “energy force,” and CHARAS succeeded, for a while, in creating a visionary spectacle, an extraordinary work of avant-prole architecture that anticipated many of the questions about art and urban politics more commonly associated with “The Real Estate Show,” an art exhibition that opened in 1979 in an abandoned building on Delancey Street. Vivid documentation by photographer and theater director Mottel has the Lower East Side resembling a set from the 1967 Hammer Sci-fi film Quatermass and the Pit. In 2018, as a big chunk of the neighborhood is being malformed into the banal, suburban Essex Crossing, it’s all the more important to be reminded of a time when New York could incubate genuinely vivid designs for living.

Sukhdev Sandhu directs the Colloquium for Unpopular Culture at New York University.