by Maggie Flickinger
Recently, I set off on a southwest road trip, and in later posts you’ll read about my impressions of Las Vegas and the Hoover Dam Bypass. Here though, I’d like to share some photos I took of Arcosanti – that fabled gem in the dusty desert north of Scottsdale, Arizona. Like many of you, I recall learning about Paolo Soleri and Arcology in Architectural History courses…here, something was happening…change was afoot! So when I realized the line on our map could take us right past the site of the only developed and inhabited Arcology, Arcosanti, I naturally foisted a visit upon my begrudging parter.
Internet research told the story of a declining population, an increasingly absentee visionary leader (Soleri is still an active architect at 93, but spends much of his time at Cosanti, in neighboring Scottsdale), and a project path erring from the original vision. The visit itself was marred by a cavalier tour guide who obviously had little knowledge of or respect for Soleri’s vision – he said that the idea of a fully built Arcology was “a joke” around Arcosanti. Indeed, work has markedly slowed in the past several years, with the most significant project being a swimming pool (not in the original plans). In the model below, the dark chipboard in the foreground is built, the white chipboard the remaining vision. Planned for 5,000 inhabitants, the current incarnation houses between 30 and 40 residents.
The structures that have been built settle into the desert with a wonderful handcrafted quality – wabi sabi to the extreme. Silt cast concrete with integral color forms apses & vaults, while a dynamic intermingling of rectilinear and curvilinear forms bring a calming sense of balance.
Perhaps we visited on an “off” day, but a sense of quiet pervaded the complex, making the tour seem almost archaeological. Architecturally, while the beauty has certainly faded, the buildings remained powerful and inspirational – especially when imbued with knowledge of the vision.
The operating foundry provides Arcosanti’s largest source of funding through the creation of the signature brass bells and plaques. While pricey, the sale of these is certainly not going to fund the manifestation of Soleri’s conception of the project. This led me to wonder: does Arcosanti – and other creatively visionary projects that redefine how we inhabit the planet – need to be paired with a business minded investor to see full fruition?
The allure of Soleri’s Arcologies is not simply that they house human beings in a different way, but that they are created in a different manner, unfolding and crafted by the inhabitants in a cooperative urban living model. The challenge seems to be sustaining the critical mass of people energy needed to continue that unfolding, or perhaps it is acquiescing to a modified or evolved vision. I left feeling that the literal construction of an Arcology – while adamantly not “a joke” – should be secondary in importance to spreading Soleri’s school of thought…while construction ebbs and flows, the passion & intellectual rigor behind the theory remains a constant, and the ideas themselves even more relevant than it was 40 years ago.