OR, I visited utopia and just have some cameraphone pictures to show for it.
I don’t remember where I first heard about Arcosanti, but at some point I came across Paolo Soleri’s drawings: reimaginings of what cities could look like. I read about his philosophy of culture as an emergent property of architecture: that it is the tight integration of live-work spaces and the multitude of possible pathways that exist in urban settings that give rise to creative exploits — in the arts as well as politics and individuals’ organization of their own lives.
I looked at masterful drawings of megacities that reminded me of my own childhood drawings of space colonies. I was into sci-fi and the prospect of interplanetary civilizations, or merely humanity on the run in giant tin cans lined with pasture and crops lit by artificial skies. But Soleri’s visionary megacities were earthbound, situated on cliffs, in deserts and other harsh environments. More than just drawings tho, he actually went and built one. An experimental city in the Arizona desert, halfway between Phoenix and Flagstaff. I visited in September of 2014.
Paolo Soleri was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Student. Even though he had already earned his Ph.D in architecture in Italy, he became an apprentice at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s desert school of architecture. FLW is highly regarded for his blending of the outdoors with indoors, creating homes that echoed their landscape and brought copious sunlight and scenery into living spaces. But he also had a less highly lauded vision, one that celebrated personal freedom afforded by the personal car — a new machine invented and popularized within the span of FLW’s career. “Broadacre City” sought to give everyone their personal space. An illuminating critique can be found on PaleoFuture. Apparently, Frank Lloyd Wright considered Urbanism a scourge on humanity.
His apprentice Paolo Soleri, however, considered Suburbanism a scourge on nature, and didn’t think it did much good for people, either. When I visited Arcosanti last year, the spaces he built made a point. You don’t have to give up the feeling of wide open space to live in an urban environment. Soleri’s vision was for humans to build their steel and concrete all in one, uninterrupted mass — and outside of that, leave nature uninterrupted as well. Whether walking along the edge of the city, having a meal in the cafeteria, or getting into bed in one of the guest rooms, there is always an unending view of wilderness, from the city’s edge to the horizon. Just as Frank Lloyd Wright managed to integrate the landscape with the interior of homes, Paolo Soleri brought wilderness and sunlight into the design of an entire city.
Jessica and I climbed on top of a concrete dome — the roof of a workshop, and talked as we watched desert thunderstorms rolled by in the distance. There was absolute quiet here. Instead of the droning sounds of cars and trains and climate control, the night air was punctuated by distant laughter, or the occasional sneeze. The architecture had invited us to climb onto roofs by virtue of how smoothly the sidewalk transitioned onto them — it was all poured concrete, and nothing really denoted public property from private property. The apartments opened up to balcony-like spaces that were accessible from the sidewalk just as well, which gave the city a strong sense of horizontalism and equality. We were all guests on someone else’s creation.
The main economy of Arcosanti at present is giving tours of the city and the casting of artistic bronze bells. There’s a poetry to the bells’ sand casting process: it is essentially a miniature version of how many of the city’s major structures were poured.
An economy run on bronze bells doesn’t bode too well for the city’s population of 50–60 artists and architects, but I think Soleri’s vision still holds a lot of weight. His drawings often include “automated production” deep in the guts of the megacities, and I like to imagine what that would look like in the Hackerspace/FabLab context of humans partnering with robots to generate the stuff we enjoy and consume. Take the concrete planters outside the guestrooms: iron rails on the edge, just begging for a CNC gardening machine to zoom back and forth every hour checking for crop growth and disease. Perhaps an atmosphere of invention and experimentation could bring more tourists through the city, and perhaps the production of more than just bells (beautiful as they are) could start an economy and a culture that starts nudging the 1970s monument towards its visionary goals.