The charismatic kingpin of San Francisco’s Glen Park neighborhood and owner of the gallery Modernpast, Ric López lifts terrariums out from under the bell jar of their Victorian design with his “terradomes.” The terrariums, which are acrylic and blown in Canada and Taiwan, call to mind a 1960s sci-fi aesthetic—from Eero Aarnio’s Bubble chair (essentially a terradome hung on its side) to Antti Lovag’s Bubble Palace or the capsule windows of the early Batmobile.
Although gardeners have grown plants under glass since 500 BC, it was the polluted air of industrial London that precipitated the terrarium. In 1829, Dr. Nathaniel Ward, whose herbarium had 25,000 specimens (many of them stunted and wilting), accidentally germinated ferns in a jar. The jar ferns were robust and healthy, inspiring Ward to create miniature greenhouses to keep indoors. An overnight sensation, “Wardian cases” had horticulturists scrambling to bring home tropical plants previously too delicate to survive a long sea voyage, helped cultivate tea and rubber trees in the British colonies, and became the must-have item for every Victorian parlor—the plasma screen of their day. Despite a fad of kitschy terrariums in the early ’70s (kids eating Alpha-Bits even found toy models in their cereal boxes), the design of most still show their Victorian roots and look more like filigreed bird cages or replica Crystal Palaces, which detracts from the plants.
López’s terradomes aim to be the opposite. The at-home ecosystems are engrossing—an entirely different genre than potted plants. López says kids are especially transfixed, despite the fact that no frogs, snakes, or snails live inside. From the other side of the looking glass, adults walking past his store peer at the terradomes through the window. Befuddled, they check the sign: Modernpast: Home Facts for the Eclectic Eccentric, which doesn’t help. So they step back and read it aloud, turning the phrase into a tongue twister—exactly what López wants. It is concentration, interest, a pause: a moment of what he calls “mindfulness”—being present with a purpose.
But what do terradomes have to do with mindfulness? According to López, terradomes are a living moment captured, allowing you to appreciate that moment, walk around it, and thus be present in it while looking at it—a moment that contains both life and death.
The terradome is a living Möbius strip. The plants give off moisture that condenses on the dome and rains back down. An aperture in the top allows airflow and regulates temperature. Once planted, a terradome is self-sustaining—the best way to care for it is to leave it alone, even as plants die.
Although the talk of the terradomes’ relationship to humanity may call to mind Silent Running (the 1972 film in which a fleet of Bucky-domed terrarium spaceships haul the Earth’s only remaining flora and fauna after a nuclear war), López is not a kook. His most passionate idea is grounded: constructing a public plaza in San Francisco where “people are there to actually be with other people, to take the time to be present.” López sees the vital connection between nature—a sustainable urban canopy—and human community. His terrarium design is both a metaphor for our planet and the self-imposed bubble people so often inhabit. But until his public plaza is created, he can have his miniature parks, populated by the people outside, looking in.
Chelsea is the former online editor of dwell.com. Her architecture chops come from swinging hammers for her father’s design/build business in Maine and living with an architect in San Francisco; a city she loves for its supreme bike-ability.
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