One of our goals in the Southwest was to visit relics from past ages – ancestral Puebloan ruins and cliff dwellings, and the more recent Pueblos – which date back up to 700 years. We started with a visit to Arcosanti, which I thought of as a relic from a prior age that can feel almost as remote to us now – the 1970s.
Paolo Soleri was a visionary Italian architect who came to America in the 1940s to study with Frank Lloyd Wright. He eventually settled in Scottsdale, and began applying techniques he had learned for casting ceramics at the architectural scale. His compound in Scottsdale – Cosanti – is a truly beautiful place, where dirt was piled up in mounds to make formwork, then concrete was poured on top, and the dirt scooped out to leave domes. However, Soleri was thinking at larger scale the whole time, and laid out his thinking in Arcology, which combined architecture and ecology. In an age when Americans were happy to build endless sprawl, Soleri recognized the consequences of this pattern, for both the natural environment and human society. He bought property 70 miles north of Phoenix to begin his prototype urban community, Arcoscanti, in 1970.
Construction has proceeded intermittently since then, with much of Arcosanti’s current fame resting on their production of bronze bells and wind chimes, usually bought as souvenirs of a southwestern vacation to manifest good taste and seriousness. I had first visited Arcosanti about 20 years ago, and found it a little depressing – a small group of inhabitants who were living in the remnant concrete buildings from the 1970s, making wind chimes and chilling out in the desert, while Soleri mainly lived in Scottsdale. But Soleri had retired (and subsequently died in 2013), and has been succeeded by Jeff Stein, a Boston architect who had run the architecture programs at Wentworth Institute and the BAC for many years. I had met Jeff many years ago, and more recently at a HOPES conference in Eugene. He struck me as a thoughtful and serious person, and so I was curious as to how things might be changing at Arcosanti.
Arcosanti sits isolated out in the desert, on the edge of a small canyon (not unlike the cliff dwellings we’d be seeing). However, it is connected to Phoenix by Interstate 17, although it is isolated by two miles of very rough dirt road (which did cause every screw in our trailer to come loose).
There are some gorgeous models located throughout the complex. This one shows one conception of the final state of Arcosanti – a series of large apses facing south, which contain community spaces and are ringed by housing units. For a scale comparison, the parts of Arcosanti which have been already built are shown in grey in the middle of the model – the planned pieces are shown in white.
where you can see how the processes used to form the ceramics and bronzes are very similar to the processes used to form the architecture. The level of detail possible with this sand-sculpting in the formwork is notable.
When I visited here in the 1990s, it all seemed rather low-energy and unfocussed. It reminded me of Taliesin, where the impetus and vision came from the founder, and the followers were just hanging on to that revealed truth, always wondering WWFLWD when confronted with a new challenge, and eking out a meager living from the legacy.
Arcoscanti feels very different now. There are constant workshops being offered, which bring in short-term students to learn about Arcology and construction. There are performances and events, which can bring in attendees from the Phoenix megalopolis. There are approximately 100 full-time residents, some of whom live in the Camp area, detached houses closer to the farm at the bottom of the canyon. Construction is moving ahead on some of the concrete buildings.
Soleri’s vision seems even more relevant now than in the 70s. His basic principle is that of building dense, energy-efficient human settlements, which don’t sprawl across the landscape, and so preserve land for agriculture and other uses. In a very different form, this set of ideas underlays New Urbanism, and various principles which have become conventional planning in the past 30 years.
Millennials are showing a notable preference for denser urban living, often staying in our traditional city cores rather than moving back to the suburbs to spawn. There are not many models for new urban development at this point – we have accepted the traditional city form and are designing new buildings to fit into that context. Soleri’s morphology may not be the ultimate solution, but it is a remarkably clear proposal, one which proceeds from first principles and not just an imitation of older forms. In this way it does resemble Corbusier’s urban proposals, as he laid out his understanding of modern civilization, and tried to come up with a new form that fit those changed conditions. Soleri stared with a very different set of underlying conditions (recognizing the importance of the environment before most of his contemporaries), and proposed this new model. Perhaps most encouragingly, the ideas have not remained static: a newer book, Lean Linear City: Arterial Arcology, was written by Soleri and some of his followers, showing the development of concepts to fit changing conditions.
Visiting Arcosanti doesn’t feel like visiting the remnants of yet another failed agrarian utopia, which collapsed after the dogma-driven urbanites got bored and went back home. It is not a rapidly-developing alternative city (probably because no one has figured out to make a lot of money from it), but it is a serious testing ground for a larger vision. We now recognize the scale of the ecological crisis we are facing as a society, but so far our efforts to correct our course are puny and completely ineffectual. We keep proposing tweaks around the edges of the existing system. Arcology may not be the complete solution, but it is one of the few models out there of what a vision for the whole might be, one where the scale of the solution is within an order of magnitude of the problem.
The biggest problem with Arcosanti is its location: with the likely consequences of climate change in the next century, the edge of the Sonoran Desert is not where you want to be. Agriculture will not be possible here, as most climate models are predicting a mega-drought this century, similar to the one that contributed to the Ancestral Puebloans abandonment of their settlements 1000 years ago. Soleri didn’t foresee this, but then neither did anyone else. He began a small experimental community for up to 5000 people that might have to be abandoned; we built Phoenix, which with its 4,000,000 residents that will also be gone soon. At least the Arcosanti residents will be able to hold on longer, as their buildings will shield them in a way that the Phoenix buildings will not.
Even if its geographic location may not endure, the ideas of Arcosanti can still provide a useful model for our society. I arrived there thinking about the big ideas of cities and ecology and human settlement and the landscape, but the experience quickly shifted my thinking to that of the smaller scales of buildings and spaces. I hadn’t expected it to be so beautiful.
The quality of the architectural design and the integration with the outdoor spaces is comparable to an Italian hill town, or as I would discover, some of the Pueblos of the Southwest. It is architecture and urban design for a new age, but it draws heavily on the best precedents from our past.
Arcosanti wasn’t conceived by a dry planning theorist, but by an artist. If you have never looked at Soleri’s drawings in Arcology, you should; Soleri’s vision is right up there with that of other acclaimed visionary architects, such as Lebbeus Woods, but his visions are grounded in an understanding of the fundamental conditions human society is facing, rather than operating at the level of metaphor, or as projections of a purely personal, hermetic vision.
Soleri also took the great leap of trying to build this vision; in our recent fascination with paper (or now digital) architecture, we don’t seem to care whether or not a beautiful vision can be built at all – we are happy to bask in the imaginary. Thom Mayne once pointed out that the quality of architectural rendering would soon reach the point where architects would establish their reputations without ever having to build anything. Ten years later, we seem to have reached that point.
Or maybe it’s even worse – we are so cynical about ever being able to redirect our profit-driven building-production system that we satisfy our idealistic (yet rational) urges with fantastical imagery. Soleri didn’t spend thirty years making pretty pictures hoping that eventually some developer would adapt them for a shopping mall (cf. Liebeskind’s building in Las Vegas); he saw the vision as deriving from the conditions we are facing, and proposed a solution to those problems that, like most brilliant, integrative solutions, was also beautiful and enriching as well as pragmatic. He thought like an architect, never abandoning his dedication to the larger community, rather than just pursuing his personal vision.
Perhaps in the future we’ll visit Arcosanti as we now visit the abandoned cliff-dwellings, recognizing it as a harbinger, a place where the changing conditions of our world were first recognized and engaged.