Back in the 60s, architect Paolo Soleri had a vision in green.
Soleri believed that by combining elements of architecture and ecology, he could create an arcology, an autonomous super-structure where 5,000 residents could live, work, shop, and play, all while improving their quality of life and minimizing their impact on the earth.
The Italian-born architect put his vision into action in 1970, and began building his self-contained 25-acre city in the middle of a 4,060-acre land preserve in the Arizona desert. He called it an urban laboratory and named it Arcosanti.
In the nearly 40 years since then, about 5% of the project has been completed … 10 or 11 buildings. That’s snail slow, but the mission continues under Soleri’s supervision and with the muscle of a rotating roster of residents, students, and volunteers.
Hon and I visited Arcosanti on a perfect fall day. It was 75 degrees and sunny. The desert heat was finally settling down, and the blue sky was a gorgeous backdrop to Soleri’s organic architecture. Visitors are welcome to walk around the property for free, but we took the $10 tour, which gave us a semi-behind-the-scenes look at the history of Arcosanti and some of its buildings.
Arcosanti is about 65 miles north of Phoenix. It’s a scenic drive along I-17, made quick and easy by Arizona’s 75 mph speed limit. Love that! Off the Cordes Junction exit, the pavement ends and an axle-crunching dirt road leads us two miles into the desert. The landscape reminded me of a Mad Max scene, long dusty roads twist through an endless panorama of brown, barren, beautiful desert.
At the entrance, a round metal sign welcomes us to Arcosanti with information on hours and amenities. A raised white image at the bottom of the sign shows a completed Arcosanti, but a quick scan of the landscape shows Arcosanti off to the right in its present state. The small group of buildings sits dwarfed and isolated in the big desert. The buildings look like a futuristic fortress and again, I think of Mad Max and wonder if we’ve gone beyond the Thunderdome.
Inside the five-story visitor’s center, the disappointing first impression fades away. The atmosphere is much different, cool, quiet, relaxed, and friendly. The gift shop on the top floor is where we’ll start our tour, but we’re half an hour early so we have time to browse. The gift shop stocks the typical fare, but mostly it’s filled with Soleri’s world-famous wind bells. To help fund his arcology, Soleri started making bells using the skills he learned while designing a ceramics factory in Italy.
The bells, made of bronze or ceramic, range in size from demitasse to wheelbarrow, and hang from every available spot on the ceiling, walls, posts, and beams. Some hang solo, others are linked to create a long line from ceiling to floor. There are so many bells it looks like an art installation, and with the wind blowing through the open windows, the bells provide a rich soundtrack to our visit.
Soleri bells are sold in shops and galleries around the world at prices ranging from $25 to several thousand. They’re solid, heavy art pieces made on-site at Arcosanti and at Cosanti, Soleri’s home and studio near Scottsdale, Arizona. Originally intended as a supplement, today the bells provide most of the funding for the building project, both from the sales and from the tuition students pay when studying ceramics and bronze casting at Arcosanti.
The other floors at the visitor center are taken up with a dining area for guests and residents, a gallery, apartments, and bottom floor access to the public pathway around the site. The design of this building is beautifully suited to its surroundings. It is open-concept space with floors overlooking each other and huge windows allowing lots of sunlight and uninterrupted views of the surrounding canyon and desert.
Our tour started at a scale model of Arcosanti in its finish state. The model matches the image we saw on the entrance sign and it’s magnificent. It looks other-worldly and space age, kind of how you’d imagine George Jetson’s neighborhood.
Our tour guide told us that the white areas were the proposed buildings and the gray areas were the completed ones. It was exhilarating to imagine a city like this could exist, but comparing it to the existing structures was disheartening. If only 11 or so buildings have been built in the 40 years since it started, it’s nearly impossible to believe this project could ever be completed. I started to see Soleri as Don Quixote, and Arcosanti, his impossible dream.
What’s most disheartening is that Soleri was, or is, a visionary and his ideas, like Quixote’s, might be idealistic, but they make a lot of sense. Urban sprawl continues to chew up the landscape and will continue to spread with our ever-growing population. Soleri says the solution is to build up, not out, with arcologies that would self-sustain by growing their own food, recycling their own waste and producing their own power. These mini-cities would preserve natural resources by using less land and fewer resources. Living in closer proximity, Soleri says, will create a better, richer life for residents by forging stronger connections and more social involvement. It’s tough to imagine that people would ever be willing to give up their cars or single family homes, but it’s a compelling idea.
As our tour continued, we were able to see a little bit of what made Arcosanti more like a city, than just a group of buildings. At the Colly Soleri Music Center, an outdoor amphitheater named after Soleri’s late wife, we watched as the Human Nature Dance Theater rehearsed for its performance that night. The performance space seats 500 and hosts a mix of concerts and performances that are open to the public and usually include dinner and a tour of the site.
Glass-front “retail” spaces surround the top deck of the amphitheater, but for now those spaces serve as a game room for residents, an archive for Soleri’s work and storage space. For overnight stays, the Sky Suite and Greenhouse guest rooms are available for rent, and the pool is open to residents and guests.
Other buildings on the site include the Ceramics Apse, where the ceramic bells are made, and the Foundry Apse for the bronze bells. We were the lucky tour, and got to watch as students and crew members did the last bronze pour of the day.
It was fascinating to watch the three of them concentrating intensely and working in tandem to complete the dangerous, molten hot process. The crucible was glowing bright orange as they took it out of the furnace, where the bronze was heated to 2000+ degrees. Using a long pair of tongs, two workers balanced the crucible and poured the molten metal into prepared sand molds. The third worker stood close by, shoveling sand over any bits of spilled bronze near the mouth of the molds. The heat was so intense that the bronze popped and bubbled as it was poured into the molds. Within a few minutes, the bronze solidified and was ready to take its next step toward becoming a Soleri original.
Walking around the property was a privilege; it’s a remarkable place to visit. It’s beautifully located and built along the top and edge of a mesa, and it uses its southern exposure for passive solar energy, warming the rooms in the winter and keeping them cool in the summer. The architecture: the domes, towers, windows, and open-air spaces is organic and interesting, but they’ve been around for a long time, they haven’t been well- maintained, and the years are showing through the cracks in the concrete and the peeling silt on some of the buildings. What was cutting-edge in the 70s seems out of date today, and many of the materials are obsolete. Newer building materials and processes offer cheaper, more earth-friendly alternatives, but it doesn’t seem that they’ve been incorporated into the Arcosanti way, yet. That seems contrary to the project’s mission, and it makes me wonder if a too-strong sense of single-mindedness has gotten in the way of Arcosanti’s progress.
Arcosanti is called an urban laboratory and project plans have changed over the years to reflect lessons learned. At age 90, Soleri has no expectation of finishing, but his vision remains strong. With a current population of less than 100 residents, Arcosanti keeps sputtering along. New students continue to arrive, and workshops, tours, and events still draw in visitors from around the world. It’s impossible to know what will happen when Soleri is no longer here to follow his star. It might fizzle or it might succeed in ways it never could when he was around. Regardless of what happens, Soleri has spent his life reaching for an ideal. It might be an impossible dream, but it is an important and honorable one … And the world will be better for this.*
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*Lyrics from “The Impossible Dream” by Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion