by Lori DeBoer
Perched on the edge of a basalt canyon cut by the Agua Fria River, Arcosanti presents a startling sight at the end of a rutted gravel road. The buildings shrug off geometric uniformity. Bathroom-sized concrete cubes with round windows jut from exterior walls stories above the ground. Apses as large as airplane hangars nestle together in a staggered hodge-podge unified by architectural flourishes that seem inspired by the drawings of Dr. Seuss. The complex has walkways instead of streets and sprouts a profusion of stairs that head into nowhere, designed more for community gathering spots than for climbing.
Here, 60 miles north of one of the fastest-growing cities in the United States, architect Paolo Soleri has spent 30 years building an experimental community whose compact design is the antithesis to urban sprawl.
Soleri, whose urban theories have put him on par with his teacher, Frank Lloyd Wright, began the project in 1970. Around 50,000 visitors a year tour the prototype community just west of Cordes Junction, a few of them paying a steep fee to work there. I am intrigued by Arcosanti’s mission, its slow progress, and how its philosophy fares against our modern land grab. Moreover, Soleri just turned 80 last year and I wonder what will happen to the project when the master designer bows out.
A chilly wind pummels Arcosanti from the south, yet Soleri is being interviewed by a film crew on an open terrace, dressed in a light shirt and sandals without socks. I hear him speaking Italian as we tiptoe past. My guide explains that Soleri has won an award in his country of origin but is unable to attend, so a video will go in his stead. What is one more award, I think, when you have received two grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, three honorary doctorates, had several landmark exhibits and been feted nationally on your 80th birthday?
Though architect, urban planner, philosopher and artist, Soleri does not wish to be called a visionary (“I never have visions, I envision things”). Nevertheless, his international reputation as a forward thinker began with the publication of his 1969 book, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. Arcology fuses architecture with ecology, producing a compact urban environment that conserves land, energy and other resources. Like a living organism, Soleri believes the evolving city should grow increasingly more complex, miniaturized and dense. At Arcosanti, a 25-acre tract of land will eventually provide shelter for 6,000 people. In contrast, Phoenix represents everything Soleri opposes: sprawl, wasted resources, expensive infrastructure, air pollution, traffic jams, hyperconsumerism and the isolation of individuals from the community.
“I have a definite notion of what we are doing in this country in terms of habitat is the wrong thing to do,” he says. “In addition, this urban expansion is the most wasteful way of going about things, it is the most polluted, it is the most encroaching on the land, it is a segregational system.”
He hopes that the lessons people learn from Arcosanti will provide a panacea for the problems of modern cities. But he espouses no Brave New World and politely bristles if you call Arcosanti a Utopia. Soleri, despite his tendency to philosophize about Very Big Social Problems, does not claim to be masterminding a new social order. What residents of an Arcology do is their own business, he says, comparing his work to the act of making an instrument, say a piano. “I would like to build a piano so the music can be played by the occupant. You are the musician by being a resident, I want to offer you the building so you can play the music. That is the work of the analogy,” says Soleri.
In 1971, PHOENIX Magazine predicted that Arizona would be known for two great monuments: the Grand Canyon and Arcosanti. It also observed that a prophet has no respect in his own country, a situation that holds true in Soleri’s home state. “For many years Arcosanti became notorious. Not famous. Notorious. But not here. We were totally ignored by Arizona,” Soleri says. “This is normal, it always happens. We were quite known in Japan and in Europe. Here, we have been considered for a lot of time just a strange thing going on in the boondocks. The last few years things have been changing because people have thought we have something serious to say. But the Phoenix planners would never turn around and say ‘maybe you should ask Soleri.’ That’s unheard of.”
He admits that his ideas are more complex than simply being rid of the single-family home. This is why, even though he had his workshop Cosanti in Paradise Valley, he wanted to build Arcosanti. He and his late wife, Colly, chose this tract of land because of the cooler temperatures, the availability of water and its location midway between Phoenix and Flagstaff, and began construction. “I thought maybe by example you can be more effective,” he recalls.
Because Arcosanti is only about 10% complete after three decades of toil, some might wonder if his example has been a success. Soleri smiles wryly, perhaps accustomed to the question, and cites lack of money as the culprit. “In the beginning, progress was almost rapid, and the reason why is we didn’t have money so we didn’t have to pay anybody. Everybody was volunteering to being a student, so our payroll was practically zero. But now our pay roll is 60 people. So that is why we are very slow in building,” he says.
Arcosanti, managed by the nonprofit Cosanti Foundation, is self reliant and debt-free and funded by tourism, workshop attendees, Elderhostel programs, events at the Colly Soleri Music Center and the sale of the famous windbells, made from silt-cast clay and sand-cast bronze. Soleri hints that the Foundation is currently exchanging ideas with a potential investor, though he is mum about the details. Last November, Arcosanti hosted a conference about cyberspace to interest the Net community in helping him complete his work. High on his wish list is paving the rutted, gravel road that leads to the complex, which discourages less intrepid tourists.
At an afternoon question and answer session with some of Arcosanti’s workshop attendees, Soleri noted that work would be completed immediately if funds were available. His remark evokes an outcry from some of his students, who seem to be more smitten with the idea of participatory architecture than the Soleri himself. “Won’t the spontaneity of the building process be lost?” sputters one college-aged woman.
Soleri tries to explain that building is not a spontaneous process. Though admittedly a “reluctant despot” and more the shy, creative and intellectual artist than the charismatic leader, Soleri has attracted his share of idealistic followers. Arcosanti, though not the hippy commune that some believe, falls well short of being a well-oiled entity. The sunny and informal feeling it projects, like that of a summer camp or university campus, is marred by the grime of construction and an air of neglect. Some student projects have come to fruition with more success than others, with the failures abandoned. Spartanly furnished apartments seem worn and dated, in sharp contrast to their soaring interiors, well-placed windows and whimsical design details.
Perhaps the contradictions that make up Arcosanti are part and parcel of the experiment itself. He emphasizes that the project is not meant to be a finished city, but a demonstration model for his concepts. “Given the fact that it is all amateur work, we never had any professionals, just young people, it has gone quite a bit. It has been very rewarding. What we could have here instead of what we have, that is frustrating. But, it might be that something might change.”
Will Arcosanti founder with his leadership? “When the founder or idea person leaves, eventually things change,” he says, smiling then adding boldly. “I’m counting on the soundness of my ideas.”
“Arcology Professor Paolo Soleri” originally appeared in the June 2000 issue of Phoenix Magazine.