Revisiting Pacific High School

A hide-away-in-the-making


“We were all living together. The artificial distinctions that had for so long separated students and staff were blurring. Each morning we staggered into breakfast together. When the sanitation in the kitchen screwed up, we all had the runs together.” [1]

Pacific High School was among the many experimental and alternative schools that flourished in the US during the 60ies. Founded in 1961 with only one professor and a handful of students, at first the institution was nomadic and had no fixed campus.


The school’s early development was marked by troubles and improvisations as it struggled to pay its bills, to attract new students and to establish its educational philosophy - which promoted freedom, self-empowerment and condemned hierarchy. It was only in 1965 that the school was finally offered an empty piece of land in the Santa Cruz Mountains region (US). To turn the place into a proper school, it was decided that each afternoon would be dedicated to the construction of in-common facilities, while mornings would be devoted to classes (attendance though depended on the students’ will). The school’s physical and social structure slowly took shape as everyone worked to “restore to the center of experience, experience itself” [1], thus learning by doing.

When, in 1966, money started to lack and Pacific High School was on the verge of closing down, something peculiar happened: “Someone got an idea: we’ll become a boarding school” and build in-common “ephemeral boarding facilities”[2].


And which architectures could be more convenient to fulfil the communal living dream of the students and professors than domes?

Lloyd Khan - an experienced carpenter, dome designer and member of the counterculture magazine Whole Earth Catalog’s team - was thus called “on the hot dry summer 1969, with the mission to house 50 students and a dozen or so teachers.” [2]

Inspired by Richard Buckminster Fuller, Khan, together with its team and the school’s students - all aged between 15 and 16 - built a total of 12 domes. Experimenting with a large variety of materials - from fiberglass to aluminium and even nitrogen inflated pillows - the construction process, to which some could refer as bricolage, was documented and compiled in two books : Domebook One (1970) and Domebook Two (1971).


But experimentation doesn’t always mean success... And it was the same Lloyd Khan who, when he visited again the school in 1973, witnessed the failure of the dream he had been so strongly promoting two years earlier.

In his two articles “Revisiting Pacific High School” and “Smart but not wise” he shared his desillusion and remorse when looking at the patched up, neglected and partially destroyed domes standing before him. His critics ranged from the necessity to allow a more direct participation of the students - rather than beginning from an abstract mathematical concept - to the necessity of choosing long lasting and low cost materials instead of transparent ones such as plastic, which, he notes, “doesn’t age with grace”. He concluded “We now realise that they will be no wondrous new solution to housing, [and] that our work, though perhaps smart, was by no means wise. (...) we have discovered that there is far more to learn from wisdom of the past.” [2]

Images: Members of the boarding school taking a bath; Students eating together; Students helping with the construction of an ephemeral building - all images from the book: Michael S. Kaye, The Teacher from the sea: The Story of Pacific High School, Links Press, 1972; Dome at Pacific High School, image cover of Lloyd Khan's Domebook 2 published in 1971;

[1] Michael S. Kaye, The Teacher from the sea: The Story of Pacific High School, Links Press, 1972 in;
[2] Lloyd Khan, “Pacific High School Revisited”, Shelter, Shelter Publication, 1973, p. 119;
Lloyd Khan, “Smart but not wise”, Shelter, Shelter Publication,1973; Lloyd Khan, “Fried Domes”, Bolnias (California), Shelter Publication, 1974; Hsiao-yun Chu, Roberto G. Trujillo, New Views on R. Buckminster Fuller, Stanford University Press, 2009; 

Published: 11 Jan. 2017

#Pioneers #Education #PacificHighSchool #DomesStory #InCommonFacilities #Failure #LearningByDoing #EachOneTeachOne

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