"We have internet," our tour guide assures us. "And we drink beer, listen to music. It's not a cult." It's 94 degrees and we're deep in the Arizona desert, about an hour north of Phoenix, touring the foundations of a utopian eco-city that its residents believe holds the key to sustainable living. It sits just five percent completed, populated by between 50 and 100 people depending on the season, rather than the 5,000 citizens it was originally designed to house. But this prototype urban community, begun in 1970, with its soaring cement domes, massive porthole windows, and curious foundry that produces brass bells, continues to draw architects and city planners and inquisitive tourists from around the world, all of whom brave the heat and the rutted, unpaved road off Interstate 17 to reach the gates.
Arcosanti was the vision of architect Paolo Soleri, who came to America from Turin, Italy, in the 1940s to study with Frank Lloyd Wright at the famous draftsman's Arizona estate, Taliesin III. After a year and a half, Soleri left to pursue other projects—he designed a ceramics factory, opened a studio, and created the Cosanti Foundation, a non-profit that was to become integral to his work.
Soleri's dream was to build a fully functioning, environmentally responsible city that balanced architecture and ecology—something Soleri called an arcology (arcologies, based on Soleri's idea, exist in the virtual world of SimCity). His belief was that existing urban planning was unsustainable: cities were too big, too wasteful, too isolating. Suburban sprawl was just as bad. He dreamt of a compact alternative that felt more organic, more social, and more in tune with how people were meant to live. Soleri's city would maximize human interaction. It would include sustainable infrastructure and provide access to residential, commercial, agricultural, and public space. It would reduce waste. The city would be walkable, intimate, self-sustaining. But the city would also be grandthe stuff of science fiction. In a review of one of his exhibits in 1970, a critic for the New York Times called Soleri's designs "some of the most spectacularly sensitive and superbly visionary drawings that any century has known." The Chicago Tribune called them "Maya-like megacities" designed to be "more permanent than the pyramids." Today, two years after Soleri's death, Arcosanti stil exists—and continues to evolve.
Paolo Soleri, with a crew of students and volunteers, carved ribs and designs into a shaped mound of silt and filled an original drawing by Soleri with paint, at the apex of what wiould be the ceiling of the bronze bell studio at Arcosanti. Concrete was then poured onto this silt form to adapt its shape and designs. Photo by Ivan Pintar.
Duration, complexity, and miniaturization are key points of Soleri's philosophy of arcology, according to Julia Dorn-Giarmole, the spokesperson for Arcosanti. "The miniaturization of a city enables radical conservation of land, energy and resources," she notes, "and by constructing it as dense, complex structures that satisfy a variety of needs, one can create a city that maximizes potential with minimal waste."
In fact, Soleri was a conservationist ahead of his time, predicting many of the current infrastructure issues and energy shortages plaguing major cities today. "The saddest aspect of waste on the energetic side is that no matter how much we produce and install in horsepower, kilowatt hours, gas mains, fuel tanks, coaxial cables, the linkage is inevitably far too tenuous for a truly complex and vivifying society," Soleri wrote in his book, Arcology. "True life cannot be spread that thin." At a time when cities were rapidly expanding—wider roads, taller buildings, more complex sewer systems—Soleri was advocating a contraction. It was radical thinking at the time, but it was also in step with the early environmental movement of the 1960s. He soon had a following.
Paolo Soleri with residents and workshop participants in the Ceramics Apse at Arcosanti in the mid 1970s. Photo by Ivan Pintar.
"The fascination with the project stems from our knowledge, on a very basic level, that the way we currently develop cities isn't right," says Dorn-Giarmole of Arcosanti's enduring value. "Urban sprawl promotes isolation and is inherently wasteful, and Arcosanti provides a living alternative to that."
And what an alternative it is. In 1969 Dr. Soleri published a lavishly illustrated manifesto about his architectural theories, called Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, in print today with the foundation's Cosanti Press. ("With the precision of a scientist and the compassion of a poet, Paolo Soleri has drawn up a very practical alternative to the kind of urban oblivion we are headed for," wrote the Chicago Tribune.) In 1970 he enjoyed a critically successful exhibit of his work that premiered at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C., and traveled to New York and Chicago.
Photo of Arcosanti by Ken Howie.
His timing was perfect. Soleri's ideas coincided with other non-religious utopian visions popular during the early to mid-20th century, from Roosevelt's Jersey Homesteads to Walt Disney's EPCOT and Tomorrowland; Buckminster Fuller's floating Triton City; Moshe Safdie's Habitat 67 in Montreal; and Tandy Industries' indoor Alaskan city project "Seward's Success." Disney and Soleri even shared similar priorities for their utopian cities, with Disney's plans for a livable EPCOT calling for a car-free, high-density city and lots of green space—although the plans were abandoned after Disney's death and the land set aside for the project eventually became Disney World.
And so, in 1970, buoyed financially by the success of his book and the exhibit, Soleri and his wife Colly finally bought the land that would become Arcosanti—a project he made his life's work until his death in 2013 at the age of 93.
For Arcosanti's north vault, twelve panels were designed and cast individually on silt beds, then cured and put in place with a crane. Photo by Ivan Pintar.
For visitors, the most notable aspect of Arcosanti, beyond its 1970s cement-block style, are the apses that dominate the settlement's skyline—two multipurpose public spaces in the form of a kind of open-air amphitheater. One houses the bell foundry and the other serves as a town square. These quarter spheres, a form Soleri used often in his designs, allow residents to take advantage of their natural environment. In the summer, the apses provide shade; in the winter, when the sun is lower, they flood with sunlight. As with everything at Arcosanti, the apses are built with concrete, which absorbs the heat from the day and radiates it back at night. And the acoustics are good enough that the apses double as performance venues, in keeping with arcology's goal of multipurpose spaces. The complex is made up of thirteen main buildings and also features a central hall where the daily tours begin, various apartments for the residents, a bakery, a swimming pool, and some common rooms. The current project under development is a garden area—Arcosanti continues to expand.
"In an arcology, the built environment and the living processes of the inhabitants interact as organs, tissues, and cells do in a highly evolved organism," says Dorn-Giarmole. "This means that multiple systems work together, coordinated and integrated to minimize waste while maximizing efficient circulation of people and resources, employing multi-use structures and exploiting solar orientation for lighting, heating, cooling, food production and aesthetic impact."
A view of Arcosanti from the southwest. Photo by Alfonso Elia.
The entire Arcosanti complex was built by volunteers—more than 7,000 of them over the years—and this is still true today, forty-five years later. Anyone wanting to live at Arcosanti must pay to complete a five-week workshop. The first week covers the history of Arcosanti and Soleri's philosophies. The next four weeks are spent building the city. Once these workshoppers have finished their session, they can apply for employment on the site, or stay on and volunteer. After Soleri's initial land purchase, the funds to build his arcology came from his personal accounts, along with the income from the brass bells and ceramics made by the residents and sold at the site's main hall and online. Today the city is sustained by fees from the workshops, donations, and bell sales and is a registered non-profit organization.
Soleri's sketch of the pyramid arcology Hexahedron. Image courtesy of the Cosanti Foundation.
While Arcosanti gives us a glimpse of what a desert arcology might look like on a small scale, Soleri's other futuristic visions survive only on paper or as cardboard models: Mesa City, a desert arcology designed to house two million residents in an area the size of Manhattan and thought to be the inspiration for Arcosanti; Novanoah, a floating ocean arcology for 400,000 residents; Babel, more than a mile high; and perhaps the most famous design, the one that's most often pinned on Pinterest or included in articles about Soleri's work: Hexahedron, a series of pyramids on stilts designed to house 170,000 people). Asteromo was to be built in outer space. While these arcologies remain impractical to build, they were nevertheless serious proposals. "It is demeaning to think," Soleri is quoted as saying in the Chicago Tribune review of his exhibition in 1970, "that the cities of today are the cities of forever."
In 2006 Soleri received the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Cooper-Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City.
"Life is a study of the improbable, not the statistically average," wrote Soleri. And so Arcosanti continues to draw visitors—looking to study the improbable, and marvel at what might have been. To this day, Arcosanti remains the only built arcology in the world.