Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Arcosanti: Paolo Soleri's futuristic vision of urbanism

Fig. 1 - view of Arcosanti

The other day my wife and I visited Arcosanti, the futuristic urban development in the desert an hour north of Phoenix (fig. 1). This is the brianchild, and life's work, of visionary architect Paolo Soleri. In the 1960s Soleri developed ideas about sustainable and livable cities for the future. At first glance, his idealized drawings and plans (figure 2) seem like unrealistic fantasies, disconnected from reality. But Arcosanti, still very much a work in progress, shows how Soleri's vision is starting to be expressed on the landscape. "Arcology" is Soleri's term for his cities (from ARChitecture and eCOLOGY).

Fig. 2 - One of Soleri's plans for a future city
Soleri advocates recycling of materials, waste reduction, energy conservation, and renewable energy sources. Cities should be dense, not sprawling. Expansion, through construction, should move upward, not outward (fig. 2), in order to reduce the impact on the landscape and keep people close together. Surrounding areas should remain as green or natural landscapes. People should be able to live, work, and shop within a relatively small area, without need for cars. Some of these ideas were later taken up by the new urbanism.

In 1961 Soleri worked out an interesting construction technique called "earth casting" for the production of dome roofs. In one variant, sand and silt are piled up into a mound, and cement is poured on top to make a dome. Spaces are left on the sides for doors and windows. Then the dirt is dug out, leaving the dome roof in place. In other variants, wood frames are used instead of earth mounds.Figure 1 shows some of the cement dome roofs at Arcosanti.
Fig. 3 - The extent of Arcosanti today

The construction of Arcosanti has been in process for four decades, and it falls far short of Soleri's original plan. Instead of the planned 5,000 residents, there are fewer than 100 people living there today. Figure 3 shows its extent today. In addition to the urban site, there is considerable land surrounding it, with gardens and orchards. Soleri refuses to take corporate donations, instead financing work through the sale of bronze and ceramic wind bells. These bells are quite nice, visually attractive with very nice sound (figure 4); we have two in our patio, where they tell us the strength of the wind. The bells are forged on site, using a casting method similar to earth casting, but on a much smaller scale. Bells are also made in Cosanti, Soleri's residence/workshop/foundry/shop in Paradise Valley (much closer to Phoenix). Much of the labor to construct Arcosanti is done by volunteers who attend month-long workshops to learn Soleri's construction methods by apprenticeship.
Fig. 4 - Bronze bells forged at Arcosanti

Arcosanti is a kind of utopian community. It is staffed by true believers in Soleri's vision. There are periodic workshops were students and volunteers contribute labor and learn to build using Soleri's methods and materials. The tour guide, clearly a follower of his ideas, told us that living space is apportioned on the basis of need: large families get larger quarters and smaller families get smaller lodgings. I asked what would happen if someone wanted a bigger apartment just to have a big place; I was told that things did not work that way in Arcosanti.

Fig. 5 - Small evaporative cooling pool.
My wife and I found Arcosanti to be a pleasant and very livable place. There are trees and vegetation and the construction is aesthetically pleasing. Soleri's positive construction methods are clearly in evidence, including passive solar heating methods for the winter, and evaporative cooling ponds (fig. 5) for the summer. But Arcosanti is not a city yet, and perhaps it will never be one. At the current construction rate, it will take decades, perhaps centuries, to complete.

Ultimately I was frustrated from the tour - I want to see a city with people, not a pleasant construction site with  some finished buildings. Can Soleri's ideas work in practice? What would life be like in such a settlement? I am fascinated by his vision and by the parts of Arcosanti that have already been built, but even after four decades it seems too soon to get an idea of what an "arcology" would be like.

Arcosanti has a nice website with lots of information about its history, construction, ideals, as well as volunteer opportunities, tours, and the like. Paolo Soleri has a number of books that explain his ideas and work; several are listed below. David Grierson has done a study of Arcosanti and has several papers available on the Internet. His work, like most things available on Arcosanti, are strongly positive and supportive of Soleri's vision. I did find one negative scholarly voice, however. In an interesting and insightful article in the University of Michigan journal Agora, urban planner Catherine Gaines Sanders states,

"Arcosanti, like many experiments in sustainable living, has been successful; however, it is not a city. ... These numbers [100 residents, not the planned 5,000] do not constitute the 'urban effect'. As an urban experiment, Arcosanti is a failure." (Sanders 2008:21)

While that sounds like a harsh judgment, I must agree with it. Soleri's ideas and vision are positive and inspiring, but they have yet to be put into practice. While I respect his insistence on independence from commercial or corporate funding, the result is an unfinished settlement in the desert. Perhaps he has valuable advice for the future of urbanism, but until someone builds an "arcology", the jury is still out.


Grierson, David
2001    The Architecture of Communal Living: Lessons from Arcosanti in Arizona. In Proceedings of the Seventh International Communal Studies Conference: Communal Living on the threshold of a New Millennium: Lessons and Perspectives, pp. 215-228. International Communal Studies Association, Israel.

2003    Arcology and Arcosanti: Towards a Sustainable Built Environment. Electronic Green Journal 18:(published online).  .

2003    Arcosanti. In Encyclopedia of Community: From the Village to the Virtual World, edited by Karen Christensen and David Levinson, pp. (published online). Sage, Thousand Oaks, CA. 

Sanders, Catherine Gaines
    2008    Paolo Soleri: Another Urban Utopian. Agora 2:18-22.

Soleri, Paolo
1973    Arcology : the city in the image of man. MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass.

1987    Arcosanti : an urban laboratory? 2nd ed. VTI Press, Santa Monica, CA.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Are shantytowns a normal form of urban residence?

People’s views of shantytowns—areas of informal settlement, often by squatters—have varied greatly over the years. Squatters settlements appeared almost overnight around many cities in the developing world in the mid-twentieth century, due to population growth, poverty, and inadequate construction industries. The early reactions were negative: these were seen as chaotic places of high crime and social breakdown. Then fieldwork by anthropologists who lived in these settlements painted a different story: people built their own houses and they worked hard in order to get ahead in the world; crime was low, and family organization remained strong. Although poverty and employment were and are real problems, many scholars and observers came to have a more positive view of shantytowns (Turner 1991).

Although a more positive or tolerant view of shantytowns and their inhabitants became common, many observers still saw the informal and unplanned nature of these settlements as an aberration. In Latin America, for example, Spanish colonial cities had highly planned, rigid, grid layouts, and these created the urban structure for modern city form and expansion. But then came the messy shantytowns. These were seen as a modern development whose lack of planning and organization was attributed to poverty and other forces of the modern world. Traditional cities are well planned, according to the orthodox view, and shantytowns are a chaotic deviation from that pattern.

Some urban scholars, however, pointed out that shantytowns are actually quite an ancient form of urban settlement. The great Argentine urban historian Jorge Hardoy (1982) was the first to suggest this idea, which was then taken up by architectural historians Peter Kellett and Mark Napier (1995), who noted that “The phenomenon of informal urban housing is  not new. Throughout history, the poor have constructed their dwellings around the urban centers of the rich and powerful” (p.8). In his book  Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, Robert Neuwirth (2004) goes even further: “the history of cities teaches that squatters have always been around, that squatting was the way poor built homes, that it is a form of urban development (p.179).
Hattusas, Turkey: informal housing next to a temple.

My research on ancient cities bears these ideas out. Some ancient cities did have carefully planned orthogonal layouts of their residential zones (particularly Greek and Roman cities, or places like Teotihuacan), but in many more cities, housing was uneven and informal. Here are four examples of this, two from the Old World and two from the New World. The ancient Hittite capital Hattusas (in Turkey) was laid out on a mountainside. Next to a temple compound are a series of irregular house foundations (in the area circled in red in the photo). The contrast with the much more regular layout of the temple is striking. (Bryce 2002; Neve 1996).
Tell Asmar, and early Mesopotamian city

Moving back in time to ancient Mesopotamia, the birthplace of the Urban Revolution, most commoner housing at these cities is densely packed and irregular in size and layout. Tell Asmar is fairly typical. It looks like individual families built their own houses without much planning or direction from city authorities. (Hill 1967; Ur n.d.)

Chan Chan, Peru.
This kind of urban informal housing is the dominant form at most of the ancient cities in the New World. Chan Chan, the huge capital of the pre-Inka Chimor Empire on the coast of Peru, contains ten large walled royal compounds. Outside of these, informal housing was thrown up, often against the outer wall of the compound. (Moseley and Mackey 1974; Topic 1982)

And finally, the scattered nature of housing at Classic Maya cities provides a strong contrast to the carefully planned pyramids and palaces of the city centers. At Copan in Honduras, the huge Acropolis was the center of government and state ritual, and the nearby housing shows an informal pattern. Now some of my Mayanist colleagues may object to calling Maya cities shantytowns. After all, the Mayas were the "Greeks of the New World," a people with advanced intellectual and aesthetic abilities. That may be, but these were self-built, unplanned and informal neighborhoods, clustered around the city center. This sounds like a
Copan: informal housing adjacent to the royal acropolis.
shantytown to me. (Andrews and Fash 2005; Webster et al. 2000).

Unfortunately, archaeologists have been slow to analyze ancient urban housing, and comparisons with modern shantytowns are in their infancy; I discuss the situation in Smith (2010). But it is clear to me that Hardoy and the other scholars quoted above are correct that shantytowns or squatters settlements were important parts of the urban landscape in ancient times. They pre-dated the carefully planned orthogonal housing of the Greeks and Romans, and so perhaps we can call shantytowns "a normal form of urban residence." They are certainly a big part of the wide urban world.


Andrews, E. Wyllys IV and William L. Fash (editors)
2005    Copán: The History of an Ancient Maya Kingdom. SAR Press, Santa Fe.

Bryce, Trevor R.
2002    Life and Society in the Hittite World. Oxford University Press, Oxford.

Hardoy, Jorge E.
1982    The Building of Latin American Cities. In Urbanisation in Contemporary Latin America: Critical Approaches to the Analysis of Urban Issues, edited by Alan G. Gilbert, pp. 19-34. Wiley, London.

Hill, Harold P.
1967    Tell Asmar: The Private Home Area. In Private Houses and Graves in the Diyala Region, edited by Pinhas Delougaz, Harold P. Hill, and Seton Lloyd, pp. 143-181. Oriental Institute Publication, vol. 88. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Kellett, Peter and Mark Napier
1995    Squatter Architecture? A Critical Examination of Vernacular Theory and Spontaneous Settlement with Reference to South America and South Africa. Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review 6(2):7-24.

Moseley, Michael E. and Carol J. Mackey
1974    Twenty-four Architectural Plans of Chan Chan, Peru: Structure and Form at the Capital of Chimor. Peabody Museum Press, Cambridge.

Neuwirth, Robert
2004    Shadow Cities: A Billion Squatters, a New Urban World. Routledge, New York.

Neve, Peter
1996    Housing in Hattusa, the Capital of the Hittite Kingdom. In Tarihten Günümüze Anadolu'da Konut ve Yerlesme / Housing and Settlement in Anatolia: A Historical Perspective, edited by Yildiz Sey, pp. 99-121. Tarih Vakfi, Istanbul.

Smith, Michael E.
2010    Sprawl, Squatters, and Sustainable Cities: Can Archaeological Data Shed Light on Modern Urban Issues? Cambridge Archaeological Journal 20:229-253.

Topic, John
1982    Lower-Class Social and Economic Organization at Chan Chan. In Chan Chan: Andean Desert City, edited by Michael E. Moseley and Kent C. Day, pp. 145-175. University of New Mexico Press, Albuquerque.

Turner, John F. C.
1991    Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments. Marion Boyars, London.

Ur, Jason
n.d.      Bronze Age Cities of Southern Mesopotamia. In Blackwell Companion to the Archaeology of the Ancient Near East, edited by D. T. Potts, pp. _____ (in press). Blackwell, Oxford

Webster, David, AnnCorinne Freter, and Nancy Gonlin
2000    Copán: The Rise and Fall of an Ancient Maya Kingdom. Case Studies in Archaeology. Harcourt College Publishers, New York.

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Temporary Cities: Burning Man, Quartzsite, and Chalma

“Black Rock City” exists as a human settlement for only eight days each year. The rest of the time, it is an empty patch of arid desert. Chalma is a small Mexican village (less than 2,000 inhabitants) that swells to 50,000 inhabitants for a few days each year. The town of Quartzite in the Arizona desert is a bustling town of tens of thousands for half the year, but a sleepy village of hundreds the other half. Should we call these places “cities”? They clearly violate one of the four points in Louis Wirth’s influential definition of urbanism—permanence. But they share enough characteristics with other urban settlements to warrant the label “temporary cities.” This view is shared by Nate Berg, who has written about Black Rock City and Quartzite.

Black Rock City, of course, is the name of the temporary settlement that houses the annual Burning Man festival in the Nevada desert. Thousands of people gather each summer for several days of artistic expression, parties, and semi-communal living. When the festival is over, everything is cleaned up and the desert put back to pristine shape. For comparative urbanism, there are many interesting things about Burning Man and Black Rock City. There are lots of books, articles, blogs, etc. on the festival. A sociologist has written a book about how the festival is organized (Chen 2009). Nate Berg’s article on the Places website explores some of the urban issues, and his conclusion is worth quoting:
And as Burning Man has grown from a small gathering into a temporary city, attendees have become more intimately involved in the community around them, empowered to enact the changes on whatever scale is necessary to improve their quality of life during their eight days in the desert. It's city-making at the individual level…. People realize that they can do things — maybe small things — that improve how they experience and interact with their fellow citizens. To create power in that way doesn't require a political office or city budget, only the desire to make life better. Community improvement through community participation is not difficult to achieve. It happens every year at Burning Man. And possibly beyond.
One of the things I find interesting about Black Rock City is the relationship between city growth on the one hand, and centralized planning and organization on the other. The early years had few rules or established plans. People began to form neighborhoods informally based on interests and year-to-year friendships. But in 1997 the festival grew too large for informal organization; people were shooting off guns, driving cars too fast through campsites, and some participants were injured. So the organizers stepped up the formal regulation and planning of the settlement, creating the circular plan and a number of rules and regulations (including rules about neighborhood structure). 

 Quartzsite is a temporary city for a very different social clientele. The city becomes a mecca for “snowbirds” in their RV’s each winter (snowbirds are the northerners who flock to Arizona each winter). A city springs up in the desert, but a months-long city of RV’s, not a days-long city of tents as in Black Rock City. The mobile retirees form neighborhoods and enjoy urban life. Nate Berg’s article in High Country News gives a good picture of Quartzsite as a temporary city, although many questions remain. Because of our project on comparative urban neighborhoods, I am particularly curious about how the neighborhoods form at Quartzsite: is the composition consistent year to year? Why are some groupings large and others small? Just how close are social relationships within these spatial clusters of RV vehicles? How much planning or organization is provided by authorities in Quartzsite? Ethnographers and planners have studied the RV lifestyle (Counts and Counts 1996; Simpson 2007), but like Black Rock City, this and other RV destinations cry out for more attention from urban scholars.

Lest one think that temporary cities are a contemporary innovation, consider pilgrimage destinations. Chalma is a sleepy rural village in the mountains west of Mexico City. But there are important relics in the local shrine, and millions of pilgrims come to Chalma each year. It is the second-largest pilgrimage destination in Mexico, after the Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City. During the annual festival, the village swells to over 50,000 residents. These people have to be fed and sheltered, and order has to be maintained somehow. For over four hundred years Chalma has been the setting of a temporary city (Benuzzi and Fay 1981; Rodríguez-Shadow and Shadow 2000).

I hope you did not miss my use of the term “mecca” to describe Quartzsite above. The city of Mecca, of course, is the largest pilgrimage destination in the world. For centuries, each year has seen millions of pilgrims make the hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Mecca is a large city all year round, and has been for many centuries. But when its ranks swell by many millions of residents for the main festival, the urban issues (food, water, shelter, sanitation, crowd control) multiply accordingly. Chalma, however, is more typical of temporary pilgrimage cities around the world in the past and present. I haven’t heard of anyone studying these places for their urban insights, but such a study would make a fascinating and important contribution to urban studies. Temporary cities are part of the wide urban world, and they have much to teach us about cities, urbanization, and human life in cities.


Benuzzi, Silvia and George E. Fay (editors)
1981    A Pilgramage to Chalma: The Analysis of Religious Change. Museum of Anthropology, University of Northern Colorado, Greeley, CO.

Chen, Katherine K.
2009    Enabling Creative Chaos: The Organization Behind the Burning Man Event. University of Chicago Press, Chicago.

Counts, Dorothy A. and David R. Counts
1996    Over the Next Hill: An Ethnography of RVing Seniors in North America. Broadview, Peterborough, Ontario.

Rodríguez-Shadow, María J. and Robert D. Shadow
2000    El pubelo del Señor: Las fiestas y peregrinaciones de Chalma. Universidad Autónoma del Estado de México, Toluca.

Simpson, Deane
2007    RV Urbanism: Nomadic Network Settlements of the Senior Recreational Vehicle Community in the US. Paper presented at the Conference, Temporary Urbanism: Between the Permanent and the Transitory.  http://www.holcimfoundation.org/Portals/1/docs/F07/WK-Temp/F07-WK-Temp-simpson02.pdf.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Addis Ababa in 1900: A “collection of villages” that was capital of an empire

At the end of the nineteenth century, Addis Ababa was a city of 100,000 and capital of a large empire. Emperor Menelik II was one of the most powerful rulers in the world. He had defeated the Italian army, and European diplomats and missionaries were beating a path to his door to win favor and make deals (figure 1).

Yet when safari hunter Percy Powell-Cotton visited the city in 1900 he was less than impressed with its the size and grandeur: “Dotted across the plain were clusters of huts, many stockaded enclosures—large and small—and several camps, but all very much scattered and more resembling a collection of villages and farmsteads than the capital of a great empire.” (Pankhurst 1985:213).

Aren’t imperial capitals supposed to be large imposing cities with huge stone monuments? Think of ancient Rome or Beijing or Tenochtitlan. If the idea that a low-density settlement in the jungle—without big stone buildings—could be a powerful capital sounds incongruous, it is because of two western biases. First, a century ago many people thought that “natives” in tropical areas of the developing world were incapable of building cities or large empires. Today most people know better because archaeologists have uncovered material evidence for the accomplishments of the kings of tropical cities like Angkor, Tikal and Great Zimbabwe.

The second bias is still with us: the notion that cities have to be large places with many thousands of residents living in dense residential quarters (see my earlier discussion of the demographic definition of urbanism). Low-density settlements are often seen as something less than urban, which would make the notion of a low-density imperial capital incongruous. This bias has a long history in western culture. More than two millennia ago the Athenian Thucydides disparaged the Spartan capital as follows: “Since, however, the city is not regularly planned and contains no temples or monuments of great magnificence, but is simply a collection of villages, in the ancient Hellenic way, its appearance would not come up to expectation” (Thucydides 1972:41, book 1, section 10). The same metaphor was expressed by archaeologist William Sanders who made an effort to portray Maya cities as non-urban settlements in comparison with Teotihuacan. He called Tikal “a gigantic cluster of hamlets with intervening areas of light settlement” (Sanders 1979:397). It is hardly surprising that Sanders was for decades the leading archaeological proponent of Louis Wirth’s demographic definition of urbanism.
But if we take the functional definition of urbanism (that is, cities are places whose activities and institutions affect a larger hinterland), then a place like Addis Ababa in 1900 was clearly an urban settlement. It was not only a major market center and focus for craft production, but it was an imperial capital. It is a good example of the low-density city, a type of settlement common in many tropical areas prior to European expansion. Roland Fletcher (2009) has made the most systematic comparative study of these low-density cities. What were they like? While it is difficult to get a close appreciation of the urban feel of ancient Tikal or Angkor at their height, early photographs and descriptions of Addis Ababa allow us into one of the last great tropical low-density cities.

We can probably forgive safari hunter Powell-Cotton for calling Addis Ababa a collection of villages. Early photographs show that there was considerable open space within the city. Most of this land was not empty lots, but rather gardens, fields, orchards, and pastures (Gascon 1995:15). People lived in clusters of houses, typically grouped around the compound of important people. These clusters served as urban neighborhoods—places where people interacted on a daily basis and took care of many activities and affairs. Edward Gleichen visited Addis Ababa in 1897 and published an excellent map of the city (Gleichen 1971:endpiece). One portion of that map is included here. It clearly shows the clusters of huts that made up the neighborhoods; these were called sefer in Amharic.

While Addis Ababa as shown in these historic photos may not look very “urban” to us today, it is hard to avoid the labels of city and urban for a powerful imperial capital with 100,000 residents. Low-density cities like this show the variation in urban forms around the world and through time, and they occupy an important niche in the wide urban world.


Biasio, Elisabeth
2004    Prunk und Pracht am Hofe Menileks: Aflred Ilgs Athiopien um 1900 / Majesty and Magnificence at the Court of Menilke: Alfred Ilg's Ethiopia around 1900. Verlag Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Zürich.
Fletcher, Roland
Gascon, Alain
1995    La naissance du paysage urbain à Addis Ababa. In Fotografia e storia dell'Africa, edited by Alsessandro Triulzi, pp. 11-25. Istituto Universitario Orientale, Naples.
Gleichen, Edward
1971    With the Mission to Menelik, 1897. Gregg International Publishers, Farnborough, England.
Pankhurst, Richard
1985    History of Ethiopian Towns From the Mid-Nineteenth Century to 1935. Franz Steinter Verlag, Stuttgart.
Pankhurst, Richard and Denis Gérard
1996    Ethiopia Photographed: Historical Photographs of the Country and its People Taken Between 1867 and 1935. Kegan Paul International, London.
Sanders, William T.
1979    The Fon of Bafut and the Classic Maya. In 42nd International Congress of Americanists (Paris, 1976), pp. 389-399, Paris.
1972    The History of the Poloponnesian War. Translated by Rex Warner. Penguin, New York.

1. Menelik's court (from the internet).
2. Addis Ababa, 1890, looking toward the palace at the top of the hill (Biasioi 2004: 76).
3. Addis Ababa, 1900, market (Pankhurst & Gérard 1996:114).
4. Map, redrawn from Gleichen (1971: Endpiece).
5. Menelik II (from the internet).