Begun in 1970, Arcosanti is a city in progress, ahead of its time(futuristic) and yet far from complete. Begun by Italian born architect, Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti broke ground on Soleri’s theory of Arcology, a portmanteau of architecture and ecology that treats city planning like organismal biology. The result is an experimental, almost science fiction endeavor that has captured the attention of environmentalists, architects, and tourists alike. Whether known for its groundbreaking embodiment of Arcology, artisanal bronze bells made on site, or the annual FORM Festival, Arcosanti has held the tension between futuristic(visionary) city planning and free-spirited small Italian village over its decades long evolution.
In this era, Arcosanti is hailed as an experimental Urban Laboratory, demonstrating a model of design that maximizes human flourishing as part of the natural landscape rather than in spite of it. The concept of Arcology rests on principles like bounded density and ecological envelopes, summarized as Miniaturization-Complexity-Duration” (MCD). These lofty attempts at ecological and human balance have yielded a distinctly urban environment in motion, somewhere between sci-fi city of the future and little old Italian village lost not only geographically, but in time. With ribbed, vaulted structures, sweeping curves, and circular windows that carve out a view of the vast Sonoran Desert landscape, Arcosanti may be built for efficiency, but manages to prioritize the beauty so often missing in modern cities.
Soleri, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright at the illustrious School of Architecture at Taliesin and Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, retired from the project in 2011, passing the torch to Jeff Stein, who has served as President of the Cosanti Foundation ever since. We sat down with Jeff to discuss the significance of Arcosanti, past, present, and future.
I was a young architecture student working as an intern in an architecture firm in the Midwest when MIT Press published this book in late 1969, the famous Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. It really got people thinking about architecture and cities in a different way. You open this book, the biggest book you ever saw, and the first thing you see on this big white page is, This book is about miniaturization. That got me. It got thousands of people in my generation.
At the same time the Corcoran Gallery was working with Soleri to put together this huge exhibition of his work in Washington, DC. A quarter of a million people came to see that show, breaking all records and this book was available there.
In the Corcoran, there was this huge model of Arcosanti and other huge models and scroll drawings. But in the corner of the Arcosanti Model was a handwritten note by Paolo that said, We’re going to begin construction of this in July. Come join us. That was how this thing started. It was a different culture back then. You didn’t send out an email. Things spread differently. So in July, two dozen people showed up in the parking lot of Cosanti, just from reading this handwritten note. They showed up to this land that had been designated for the work with a handful of gardening tools and just started digging. They dug the the leech field for the first septic system, and here we are now with running water and clean sheets and – it’s like a miracle. Over 8,000 people since then have come here to help to build this place.
Soleri proposed a three dimensional city. He shows a drawing of Tokyo as it is, and then how it could be three-dimensionally. Or Chicago. Or any city. There are 30 or so designs for three dimensional cities, some of which are floating, some of which are on regular land, some are space ecology. By investigating this apse shape that we have so many examples of here at the foundry and the ceramics studio, we explore Soleri’s notion about thickness. If you thicken the wall of whatever you’re making, all of sudden that can be inhabitable space. Nature on one side, culture on the other. The private space is the filter between those things. So we’ve done that here. Instead of putting our housing spaces right up against carbon monoxide and dangerous car-filled streets, at Arcosanti you walk out onto your porch and see where we’ve formed a thickened back wall of a performing arts amphitheatre. The most extraordinary pieces of human endeavor unfold just beyond everyone’s doorstep. So it’s not just about bringing more beauty through the architecture, but to daily life.
But it’s not just about Arcosanti; the idea of these 3D cities is a powerful one, and one we think can be exported as part of the global conversation of how 8 billion of us are going to live on the planet along with millions of other species; how things can grow and how they can be contained.
Stop for a moment and imagine that cities are the newest lifeform on the planet. Human beings themselves are just like we are: walking cities. There are ten thousand more bacterial cells on us than human cells, all of which by themselves aren’t doing that much. But when they get into this design, into us, oh boy. You can be Shakespeare or Donald Trump. Anything can happen! Just like all other organisms on the planet, we’re in these containers. Cities are only 7-10 thousand years old that we know of. They’re too young to have taken their proper form yet. They certainly aren’t designed for anything like “sustainability.” Or even in a way that you can have as much fun as possible in them. We think it’s probably going to be a lot more fun to be human beings in the future, even more than we’re able to imagine right now. But! The issue right now is, what is the best form for a city we can make? It certainly would be three dimensional, compound, complex like all other lifeforms and so over many years, Soleri and the people around him have begun to look at how that might work.
Building a three dimensional community – building a community at all in America – flies in the face of the myth of self-sufficiency. Cities have been designed for short term profits by real estate brokers rather than anybody that knows anything about evolutionary biology. It’s interesting to try and go against the grain and try to develop this kind of thing, so we just continue to build by enlarging in scale and complexity. The prototype handmade buildings here are trying to demonstrate this kind of community we want to see. Ultimately that will look like Arcosanti growing to 20 stories tall with a roof over the entire city, shading this fantastic three dimensional space created by this same apse formation.
Yeah, here we are at the end of this two mile dirt road but we’re not separate from anything or anybody. We have nearly 50k people visiting us every year. It’s funny to me, but they always ask, Where are the solar panels? I think because they’ve heard that Soleri was kind of the grandfather of the Sustainability Movement. But we’re really not about sustaining. We’re rather about transforming.
They’ve also heard that solar energy has something to do with sustainability, and that we probably have a bunch of it. We do have sun, but mostly because we’re architects, our buildings work harder than yours. The rooms have a certain measurement – a thickness – predicated on sun angles. They shade themselves, gather light and heat as they open to the south in the winter.
Yes, comfort. It’s important in the desert, but it’s increasingly important everywhere. Here we are on the water planet with 7/10’s of the Earth’s surface covered by oceans, but we’re quickly becoming a desert planet. A third of the world’s deserts have been deemed so since 1900. Arcosanti used to be located in this interstitial high grassland about 30 miles south of the Sonoran Desert. Since 1990, climatologists have documented that the Sonoran Desert has moved 50 miles north and ends now in Camp Verde north of us, so we’re in it now. We’ve seen changes in foliage and animal life ruminating around this area since then, not to mention rising temperatures.
You’ll also notice all over Arcosanti these round windows that frame your view. Here in the middle of the desert you have 360 degrees, 100 miles in each direction of empty space around you. It can feel a little overwhelming. So we focus our view, give it some context. But also, we live in a circular universe; we might as well be reminded of it.
It’s not an intentional community. It’s a group of people that have been attracted to the place because of the power of an idea and the possibility of building something that matters, something that isn’t part of the problem. Normal architecture, the state of the art of architecture is really the big problem in the world because it’s responsible for cutting down forests and mining everything we can and manufacturing like crazy. The entire transportation sector in the US is only about a quarter of our energy use and our carbon footprint. Another quarter is manufacturing because other than say, bronze wind bells here in Arizona, we don’t manufacture much in the US. Fully half of the energy used is used in buildings. All the coal fired power plants, that energy gets used in buildings. In our buildings at Arcosanti, we use about one fifth of the electricity that most commercial or residential buildings use, because there’s the sun out there and you don’t have to turn it into electricity to be able to use it. So we have plenty of daylight and plenty of warmth just because the buildings are formed a certain way.
We are having an impression on architecture in China, but in the United States not so much. I’m a member of the Board of Eco Cities World Congress which had its major bi-annual global meeting in Melbourne, Australia this past summer. Some 600 people from around the globe were there, but of the 600, only 20 of them were from the US. But the issue for us is whether or not we’re able to develop a kind of architecture that is efficient and resilient and cheap enough that’s transferable to other cultures. We’re trying to help the over 2.5 billion human beings that are mostly overlooked by mainstream Western culture and architecture. That’s in large part what we’re doing. So stuff is happening all over the globe, but it isn’t happening here. In part it’s because things just aren’t bad enough to change the culture. But, they will be.
Yes, and we are part of the answer but not the answer. Interestingly, Soleri himself never pretended that he had the answer. The architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote in the New York Times as part of a review of the Corcoran Exhibition that this would be something of an urban laboratory. Soleri liked the idea, but he didn’t want to be declarative on the point. A lot of his published work actually had the subtitle, What If? He was always living inside of that question. We already know what it’s like to live in the suburbs, drive a nice car – what if we did this other thing? That was just how he lived his life, and ultimately gathered a bunch of people around him who were interested in having themselves and their own consciousness poked a little bit, to think in a new way about some old problems.
I believe it’s because it offers hope. Hope that a group of individuals can get together and use their imaginations to create something that works better than what already exists. The future isn’t going to just be a repeat of the past. We might actually be moving toward something pretty wonderful. There’s a little bit of hope to this place, and as things get stranger and stranger on the planet, as sea levels rise and climates change and globalization continues and the price of energy goes up, the kind of hermitages that we’ve developed, these single family houses with two car garages.. That stuff can’t last. All of those things are based on a growing middle class and cheap fossil fuels. So to have an alternative in which connection is the issue rather than separation, and in which buildings are trying to connect to each other and to their local surroundings and to the cosmos in general, we think is pretty exciting.