Sunday, October 27, 2002,; p. 1, 3G


by Steve Schmadeke

Utopian settlement that might have been here languishes in central Florida, where its founder works for enlightenment.

At times it seems possible that Jacque Fresco is a man stranded at the wrong moment in history, that if time and space could be rearranged as easily and logically as chess pieces, he would not be an 86-year-old futurist living in a concrete dome in rural Florida.

This perception stems primarily from his life's work: He is, after all, trying to establish a moneyless society where computers have removed the need for 9-to-5 jobs, allowing people to pursue their own interests, occasionally in circular cities under the sea. Along the way, crime and poverty would be eliminated and stockbrokers, politicians, and attorneys made obsolete. "It's a future in which no one works anymore, but they do things; they're productive, they're not just handed everything they need," Fresco says.

For the past three decades, while their neighbors raised cattle or grew oranges, Fresco and his partner, Roxanne Meadows, a cruise-ship portrait artist turned architectural illustrator, have focused on planetary revolution. In their single-minded pursuit of his Arcadian vision, the two have poured almost all their earnings into the construction of a scaled-down futuristic village of 10 concrete-and-aluminum domes and an inexplicable helicopter landing pad – they get around in a car – that sit like a Hanna Barbera backdrop in the tiny rural town of Venus.

The two call their miniature world The Venus Project.

Of course, there are also times when Fresco doesn't quite fit the picture of a man trapped in the wrong time. It's true that his ideas, with variations in scope, not only have been tried in another era. They owe much to Technocratic thought, a 1930s movement advocating the reform of social structures under the guidance of scientists and engineers and writers like Paul Ehlrich. But there are moments when, between recounting his days as an ardent Technocrat and his disdain for women riding motorcycles, the vision thing fades and what's left is an ordinary 86-year-old man grappling with the modern world.

And it's also true that his system of governance, in which authority is given to the expert in each field - in this case, specially programmed computers – is one that many writers, including Nobel-prize-winner Friedrich Hayek, have shown to be disastrous. But this accounting ignores the reason why those who know Fresco call him one of the last true idealists, with a potent blend of inventiveness and obsession that has enabled him to put form to his dreams, even if only in the middle of sparsely populated central Florida. He's the rare idealist, they say, who has refused to make the normal accommodations with life.

"Once you've seen the man's ideas and buildings, you can1 let go of it," says Harold Cober, a South Daytona man who wrote a book about a world where Fresco's ideas are accepted that "almost got published."

"People say he's a nut," he adds. "You know, he wants to build homes that don't burn down or blow away, he must be crazy." The onion-like domes, while practical, are a bit unorthodox. Though 20-odd years of living in the well-appointed structures seem to have inured Fresco and Meadows to their shock value, an outsider calling out to the compound for Fresco may be a bit surprised the first time they are told that he is in, say, the video dome.

But, in the end, what type of housing is used in Fresco's resource-based world of the future is irrelevant (though he's also designed some apartment pods he'd like you to take a look at). What's important is the thought behind them – the idea that the marriage of science and politics can eliminate most of life's hassles.

Fresco doesn't believe perfection or Utopia. He's not completely fixated on the future.

"I know about hip-hop music," the octogenarian says. "I'm right there."

Not surprisingly, there have been some setbacks to Fresco's grand vision. The biggest came in 1978, at what was– at least so far – the height of his popularity, during a decade when communal living was at its peak.

He was living in Miami at the time and had started a group called the Social Cyberneering Society, which he says had several hundred members. A small band of followers convinced Fresco to try and put his ideas into practice. The group put a down payment on 40 acres of real estate in a sleepy Gulf Coast town on which they planned to build a complete prototype circular city based on Fresco's designs.

The town was Naples. And if the SCS's plans had somehow been completed, its strip malls, golf courses and retirement communities might have been competing for space with a curvilinear city of the future.

The group's plans collided with the Collier County zoning board. There were rumblings that the board might have some problems with a futuristic city being built inside Naples city limits, rumblings that were amplified within Fresco's group. "Some of them began to talk amongst themselves about the zoning board would never let me do what I wanted to do," Fresco says. "So they all pulled out, they left."

Without the resources to keep up the payments on their own, Fresco sold his share of the Naples land and his Miami home and, along with Meadows and another woman, started scouting the state for another location for their city. They ended up in Venus, a rural community that old timers say is named after the morning star.

"It was just a flat tomato patch, no palm trees, nothing," Fresco says of the land they bought. "So I looked at that and I saw it as it could be."

The trio moved into a trailer while the first dome went up. It wasn't long before their third companion left, but the construction equipment and truckloads of concrete kept rumbling down the dirt road, Fresco's vision of the future taking shape in diesel fumes and dust.

At 6 a.m. Fresco is eating breakfast inside his concrete home. It's mostly organic foods – fruits and vegetables – that come from a store 26 miles away, in Lake Placid. He's up early every morning because when you're trying to change the world, it's best to get a jump on the day.

Fresco is diminutive, with deeply etched wrinkles and a voice that can be either soft or lecturing. He often ends sentences with the question "Can you understand that?" At 86, he's got energy to spare. He's a bit of a sartorial enigma – it's rare to see him without a Panama hat and all his shirts seem to have military-style epaulets.

He was born in Bensonhurst neighborhood of New York City in 1916 and grew up during the Depression. One of Fresco's earliest memories is watching his father's horse-drawn wagon, from which he ran a landscaping business, return home over the cobblestone streets.

Over the years, Fresco seems to have worked as a self-taught inventor and author. In the 1960's, he appeared on Miami broadcasts of 'The Larry King Show." He has a binder with laminated clippings on his ideas, such as a 31-part car, from magazines like Popular Mechanics. But Fresco says he never made much money with his inventions, and today it seems The Venus Project is mostly funded by Meadow's architectural rendering work.

Fresco seems happiest when he's out walking the Venus Project grounds, discussing his ideas and reviewing what he and Meadows have built, though he is often forced to add "we couldn't afford to make it like we wanted to." Kat Epple, a Fort Myers composer who has donated some of her music to Fresco's video presentations, has described strolling through the landscaped paths as "like walking into a different world ." Trails wind through groves of bananas, mangos, and pineapples, and a raccoon hangs out on the stoop in front of one of the domes.

Fresco opens a sliding glass door and steps into an igloo-like structure called the guest dome.

'Your brain is in a dome, right? It's nature's perfect shape. In a dome, no hurricane can pick off the roof," he says over the hum of a window air conditioner. 'There's no fire insurance, no termites and it's earthquake-resistant."

Like the other domes at The Venus Project, the guest dome is decorated in 1960's space-age fashion, with everything from the floor to the countertops coated in epoxy plastic. Stepping outside, Fresco walks over to the video dome, over a damaged fiberglass bridge and past an abandoned cement pool with a thick layer of algae. Dozens of plastic buildings and vehicles sit on shelves and work tables inside the video dome – they serve as models for the videos that he and Meadows produce.

"How long would it take to change the Earth to The Venus Project?" Fresco asks himself while demonstrating a mag-lev train model. "Approximately 10 years. A whole planet into a second Garden of Eden. Not using Jimmy Carter's way - with a hammer and nail. You're not going to rebuild America that way – you have to use this technique."

Still, he says, "I don't think they (his ideas) will be accepted (now). Not until there's an economic crash." Fresco was looking to the Y2K bug as the trigger that would bring his ideas into vogue. But December 31, 1999, turned out to be a rather disappointing turn of the millennium for The Venus Project. Eventually he heads backs to the most elaborate structure on the grounds, the dome where he and Meadows live.

Inside, architectural renderings are everywhere. Affixed to walls, stacked in sheaves behind a desk and embossed on a plastic coffee table, they not only represent Fresco's vision of the future -towers rising out of the sea, donut-shaped apartment complexes -they give a sense of the intensely focused, almost claustrophobic manner in which he has pursued that vision for the last three decades.

Here Fresco collapses into a semi-circular coach and goes into full lecture mode. Sunlight pours through the plastic bubble atop the dome, illuminating Fresco as he begins talking. As he gets going, his eyes glow with a firm conviction of how the world should be run.

'The Venus Project is not about architecture, it's not about future buildings or rocket ships – it's about humanity's relationship to tomorrow's technology. You can write that down," he says, speaking more slowly. "Humanity's relationship to tomorrow's technology."

"I'm saying this – that our system is essentially obsolete," he continued. "And if we continue along these lines, we'll destroy ourselves. So I'm not advocating overthrow, I'm advocating that we re-examine our values and update them so they coincide with the carrying capacities of the earth."

But it seems that life, even life in a futuristic dome, is as domestic as life anywhere else, as became evident when Fresco started looking for one of the several books he has written.

"Roxanne takes my books and puts them away," he muttered.

'What do you want, Jacque?" Meadows asked.

"I want that book ," he replied. "Oh, here it is."

Even though they are self-published and not widely known, his writings have proven to be an inspiration to several others, including a Seattle children's book author.

Pat McChord came across an old copy of The Venus Project: The Redesign of a Culture while searching for a book project after Sept. 11th, 2001, that would get kids thinking about new ways to live. In January, she and her husband flew in, talked and talked with Fresco and spent the night in the guest dome.

"You just don't see people like him anymore," said McChord, who recently completed the first draft of her book. 'They're the hardest workers I've ever seen."

She wasn't able to translate everything about them into her book, however.

"Everything is peachy-keen and hunky-dory and you can't make a novel out of that," she said. "If everything works fine, you don't have a book."

Jade Forester, an area voice-over artist, was attracted to The Venus Project for a much different reason. She would like to develop what she calls a dome town, a housing community comprised of domes.

"As soon as I walk into a dome, I feel peaceful and less stressful," she says. 'They (her domes) would be chic but organic. We need to come back to the circle of one-ness."

But like most of Fresco's admirers, she's only attracted to some of his ideas.

"I don't agree that you can put the world into a box like that," she said of his plans for a resource-based economy. "It's too controversial for me."

Glancing around at the small town where The Venus Project is situated, one theorizes residents used to ranches might find a futuristic settlement in their midst a little controversial, too.

"A lot of them think we came from Mars," Fresco says with a slight laugh. "Seriously, they think we came in flying saucers." Walking into Alex and Betty Kanstein's Venus Haven General Store is like stepping into a Tennessee Williams play.

The store, stocked with breakfast cereal, beer and animal feed, is empty save for the two owners, who are sitting at a plastic patio table, doing a crossword puzzle and listening to a conservative radio talk show while a ceiling fan slowly rotates overhead. They're familiar with Fresco's neighborhood Utopia.

'They work hard. They mind their own business," Alex Kanstein says in a thick German accent. But, as far as their ideas go, "I don't think that will happen," he says with a laugh. 'There are only cowboys here, lots of rednecks."

Katherine Davis has spent most of her 74 years in Venus. Even though she moved to nearby Lake Placid a few years back, she still considers herself a "Venus girl."

But like a fair number of residents in this tiny town, an assemblage of four churches and a general store on a single paved road off U.S. 27, Davis had never heard about The Venus Project. And her ideas of progress in Venus are a little less grandiose than Fresco's.

"Well, I think they'd like to get a nice grocery store and fillin' station in there," she says.

And, as for the world converting to a resource-based economy, she's decidedly doubtful. "I don't know about that," she says, "I think people want their peace and quiet."

Carl Rainear, pastor of the United Methodist Church of Venus, said he's driven past Fresco's place and seen the Venus Project sign on the gate, but never had any idea what it was.

"I usually try not to open gates (in Venus)," he said. "You might get a gun pointed in your face."

'"Well, I'll be," said one stunned local resident after hearing what lay behind Fresco's mysterious gate. "You can't see anything from the road ."

Then there's the movie script. The Venus Project's founders have contemplated a number of ventures that would help bring attention to their ideas, including building a theme park on the grounds. But their chief hope now lies in the pmduction of a major motion picture.

"We don't have the finances to build a city," explains Meadows. 'The most important thing is the movie. It's a story with characters and plots and all of that. It would have many different levels."

'This motion picture thing will be one of the most significant motion pictures ever made," Fresco adds.

The movie, entitled "And the World Will be One," is set in Venus several years after the world's economies have collapsed as a result of the Y2K bug. Fresco has yet to find a backer for film.

Although the characters, including the hero, Cleo McSwain, have an unfortunate habit of lapsing into reveries about Fresco – "Who ... was this man, this obscure genius who saw through the falseness of modern society?" wonders one – the script provides an interesting glimpse of how he envisions society would change.

For starters, people don't shake hands anymore – it's considered a holdover from the money-based society – and they use lightning for power. Their diet is so well-balanced that there's no need for toothbrushes, and computer sensors detect when people are sick even before they feel symptoms. Acronyms have become extremely popular – toilets are called HWDU's (human waste disposal units) and houses are called IHU's (individual housing units). There are no more sports; people seem to spend most of their time on scientific research.

The script does at least condense Fresco's thought, which has a tendency to go off on tangents, much like the following statement he made while walking the project's grounds: 'There's a big flat area over there. We're going to build a big dome there called The Center For Dialogue where people with different ideas come and criticize one another – not with anger.

'Today when you're driving, it says 'School zone - 15 m.p.h.' We have a unit that put a 15 m.p.h. output so you can't exceed that. Then we have proximity units on all automobiles, so if he got mad at you, he couldn't drive into your car. At 30 feet, your brakes go on. If you're backing up, if a kid is crawling across, the car stops. Don't leave all these things up to people."

Three months ago, Fresco and Meadows drove to a Coral Gables bookstore so Fresco could discuss and sign copies of his latest book The Best That Money Can't Buy: Beyond Politics, Poverty & War.'

Fresco doesn't often get a chance to present his ideas in public, so he wasn't sure what kind of reception he would get. After all, 30 years is a long time to be out in the wilderness, trying to convert the world with a handful of domes and a Web site. At times it can be difficult to interest people in the future. It's so indefinite, formless, and indistinct, and at the same time, quite ordinary, vanishing before us every second of every day.

But that night was a success. More than 100 people showed up, asked familiar questions ("Why would anyone have any incentive to do anything?") and bought up 27 copies of his book.

"It was nice to see so many people there," Fresco said, his voice softening. "It means a lot to me.''

In his movie script, the hero has a pivotal line that goes: "You can't kill ideas, as long as there are people to keep them alive." As Fresco reaches the age of 90, he sometimes has thoughts of what would happen to The Venus Project if he dies. He isn't worried, he says. In life and death, it seems his philosophy is simple.

''You just do the best you can," he says. ''You can't assume what people will do." 

From the daily function of our homes to the structures of our society, Jacque Fresco has a vision of a much different world. The Venus Project, named after the small central Florida town it was started in, is currently into its third decade of development, encompassing several small but unique buildings and many ideas.

Fresco's life partner, Roxanne Meadows, helps to illustrate his vision, as shown in this depiction of how new materials and building techniques will offer, according to Fresco, more efficient structures that can adapt to changing needs of the occupants.

Emulating nature's shape, several living quarters grace the land that is the Venus Project. Limited by funds, the houses illustrate concepts and new ideas for the way structures should be built. Ergonomics, ease of maintenance, durability and constructability are juse some of the considerations Fresco has made. If they look familiar, they hearken back to the structures of another futurist, R. Buckminster Fuller, who promoted geodesic domes as the perfect architectural shape.

Roxanne Meadows, Fresco's partner, has created a visual record of the Venus Project in still images, models and video Production.