"Soleri's Experiment" Arcosanti by Jonathan_C

Arcosanti Travel Guide: 12 reviews and 24 photos

In the search for natural beauty and real community I had come across the Arcosanti web site describing architect Paolo Soleri's concrete experiment in 'arcology' -- the marriage of architecture and ecology. Situated an hour north of Phoenix just off I-17, Arcosanti povides an interesting glimpse of just what creative minds and dedicated followers can -- and cannot -- achieve in the field of urban design.

Soleri's vision of arcology is undeniably appealing to the sustainability minded:

"Arcology is Paolo Soleri's concept of cities which embody the fusion of architecture with ecology. The arcology concept proposes a highly integrated and compact three-dimensional urban form that is the opposite of urban sprawl with its inherently wasteful consumption of land, energy and time, tending to isolate people from each other and the community. The complexification and miniaturization of the city enables radical conservation of land, energy and resources. "

But the execution of this vision at Arcosanti left me once again convinced that large scale planning by 'visionaries' must be tempered by an organic process of growth and renewal. In the context of architecture and urban design I would thus reject the 'rational design' movment of folks like Le Corbusier in favor of the more organic 'pattern language' of Christopher Alexander. As in the case of planned economies and managed currencies I just don't believe anyone is smart enough to anticipate all future needs under all potential circumstances. The place where urban planners can make the most useful contribution is not in the creation of completed neighborhoods, but in the careful construction of zoning laws and building codes that direct rather than dictate the built environment.

True Believers

Arcosanti is a utopian community. As in all such communities, a guiding vision is provided by a charismatic leader around whom a community of followers gathers. Unlike other utopian communities, Arcosanti is populated mostly by a transient population paying tuition to attend 5-week workshops. There are a few medium and long-term residents -- the true true believers -- but they are the exception. As of this writing the current population of Arcosanti numbers about 60 souls.

The glue that binds these individuals is presumably the same rejection of suburban sprawl that enticed me. But those with real staying power must be willing to sacrifice any individual ambition or creativity on the alter of Soleri's genius. I offer the following in support of my assessment:

o The long term goal is to finish the project as originally envisioned by Soleri in the 1960's.
o All the tours and literature constantly redirect your attention toward Soleri's vision and away from Arcosanti's current reality.
o The only income generating jobs available are conducting workshops and the production and sale of Soleri bells: decorative chimes designed by Soleri. Workers are all paid minimum wage.
o Any changes in how the community is organized must be sanctioned by the Cosanti foundation headed by -- you guessed it -- Paolo Soleri.

The situation of the true believers is best read between the lines of the Arcosanti community council's home page:

"The Community Council (CC) empowers Arcosanti residents by bypassing the top-down heirarchy of the Cosanti Foundation, allowing members of the community to have a direct impact on the way we live here."

Harsh Landscape

You should visit Arcosanti after you've visited some of the national monuments in the area that preserve Sinaguan pueblos often similar in concept. My pages on Montezuma Castle, Tuzigoot and Wupatki describe the communities of these early inhabitants. In ancient times and modern the desire to preserve arable land and promote community leads to compact, multi-story living spaces.

But the ancient ones managed to eke out a living in harmony with nature. They did not rely on ancient aquifers or external power grids. Despite extensive trade networks their communities were largely stationary -- individuals had a deep connection to the place where they lived. At Arcosanti a significant portion of the population only stays for five week workshops making it impossible for the community to form a deep connection with the natural surroundings. Tours have much to say about Soleri's idea of arcology and very little to say about the climate, species and other specifics of the immediate ecology. The irony of this seems utterly lost on the guides.

The western tradition is all about making decisions based on grand ideas rather than natural surroundings but Nature is a force that must ultimately be obeyed -- especially in the harsh landscape of central Arizona.

  • Last visit to Arcosanti: May 2004
  • Intro Updated May 9, 2016
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Reviews (3)

Comments (3)

  • Basaic's Profile Photo
    Jan 22, 2008 at 1:37 PM

    I need to go here sometime. Right now I'm mostly staying in SE Arizona.

  • Karnubawax's Profile Photo
    Jan 5, 2006 at 8:14 PM

    Very well done and spot on observation and critique. They should make your page into a pamphlet and sell it at the bookshop - if the good signore agrees!

  • mtncorg's Profile Photo
    Oct 5, 2005 at 8:09 AM

    Very fascinating. Be interesting to compare stays here versus Vedic City Iowa. One thing in common with Utopias is the Boss is always right. Interesting to stay here vs Colorado City AZ too ;-]


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