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.

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