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One Artist's Quest To Resurrect Steve Baer's Solar-Powered "Zome Homes"

After 10 years of trying, L.A. artist Oscar Tuazon finally got the inventor and architect's permission to reproduce his '60s cult design.

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In the 1960s and '70s, inventor, architect, and solar designer Steve Baer used the concept of unusual geometries—also famously used in Buckminster Fuller's dome structures—to design a cluster of solar-powered zome homes for himself and his wife Holly outside Corrales, New Mexico. Made from heavy sheet metal, like recycled car tops, Baer's zomes are exemplars of the use of passive solar-energy technology in residential design. The house has a certain cult following among architects and environmental advocates—and the Baers' company Zomeworks is still a leader in the solar field—yet the idea behind the zome home took off on a large scale.

Now, L.A.-based artist Oscar Tuazon is giving the zome home a second life as part of an installation on site at Art Basel in Switzerland. His project, Zome Alloy, is a wooden replica of the exterior of the Baers' zome complex in New Mexico. Tuazon's recreation is literally a shell of the former—there are no furnishings, windows or even walls—the emptiness is a way of reinforcing the complex geometries inherent in Baer's design. But he hopes by resurrecting it, Baer's ideas for energy conservation in architecture will resonate at a time when they are still extremely necessary.

It's not the first time that Tuazon has attempted to recreate Baer's experimental architecture. Ten years ago, he traveled to Albuquerque to ask Baer's permission to recreate some of his buildings as a series of models for an art project. Baer refused, saying that he didn't see the point. More recently, Tuazon tried again with an early version of Zome Alloy, and received back a letter with an even harsher retort. "He thought I was fooling around," says Tuazon. "What he’s interested in is developing solar technology and his own geometry for architecture, and doing it in a real way. He saw what I was doing"—building a temporary reproduction—"as not productive."

When Tuazon got the opportunity to show at Art Basel, he tried a third time, and Baer finally agreed. "I proposed to him to rebuild this house, and I really don’t know what wore him down," he says. With Baer's blessing, Tuazon traveled back to Albuquerque to scan the interior of the house, using lasers to take measurements of points throughout complex structure. After making a wireframe model, the Tuazon took it to a manufacturer in Switzerland to have it fabricated and installed at the fair.

Replicating the house for a contemporary audience is important, Tuazon says, because the ideas it puts forth about energy conservation through architecture are still relevant. Furthermore, technology has advanced to the point where building the houses on a mass scale could be much simpler. For example, the process of cutting the wood panels to conform to the complex geometry of the house took Baer three years to do by hand. "We were able to cut it in about two weeks with a CNC machine and have the angles be perfect and precise," says Baer.

The idea behind the project is also to re-introduce people to Baer's ideas, many of which were never actually constructed. Tuazon, who studied architecture and urban planning at Cooper Hewitt, has been fascinated by Baer's work for over a decade. In his work, he prefers to make pieces on an architectural scale that people can walk around inside and experience physically.

The difference with this project than his usual work, Tuazon says, is that this one could eventually have a practical architectural application. Eventually, he hopes to build out a full replica of Baer's home that can actually be lived in. Zome Alloy will also live on beyond Art Basel. "I’ve designed the structure it can be taken apart and reassembled at some later place," he says. "The dream would be to take this thing and build it again as a house. Where people can go and experience this strange and amazing piece of architecture."

For now, Tuazon is eager, and a bit wary, to hear what Baer will think of his project when he attends the opening. "He’s lived in it for 40 years so it must be very uncanny to see it as this abstract but totally accurate one-to-one scale model," he says even-handedly. "It will definitely be a bit strange."

Zome Alloy is being shown in Messeplatz in Basel through June 19. Tuazon will be in conversation with Baer for the opening today.

Photos: Architect Antoine Rocca/Engineers Bollinger + Grohmann/Builders ERNE

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