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Recycling Arcosanti
Alex Steffen, 3 Jun 04

I'm working to finish my book on the future of sustainability, which started as a travel book, travels across America in search of a sustainable future, but which has morphed into something much weirder as it draws closer to completion. Subsequently, big chunks from the original manuscript have wound up on the cutting-room floor, as it were. One of the bits I wish I could keep is the story of my trip to Arcosanti. I'm including the original draft text as an extended entry (click the word "permalink" below). If you like this kind of thing, this is the kind of thing you'll like.

Arcosanti is arguably the most famous architectural experiment of our age. The brainfruit of Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti was envisioned as a 6,000-person "arcology," a hyperdense sustainable town meant to serve as a prototype alternative to sprawl. Countless books, documentaries and articles have hyped the revolutionary qualities of the Italian architect's new town. Even the staid old New York Times once called it "A lab for future cities, part commune, part Flash Gordon." At one point, not so long ago, Arcosanti was The Future, in buzzing electric letters.

I drive in over a washboard dirt road, following the signs to the Arcosanti Visitors' Center (nearly 50,000 people a year visit). When I get there, I see a handful of buildings grouped together and, well, a whole 'lotta nuthin', just scrub stretching away towards a distant freeway. I hear a truck downshift in the distance. I wonder where the rest of the town is.

I drift into the visitor's center. There are bells everywhere – bronze bells, clay bells. Soleri is famous as a designer of bells, but this is a bit too much. Then I enter the gallery, where things get entirely out of hand: rows and rows of bells hang from the ceiling. All are for sale. For some reason, there is a low-grade laser-print photo of Barbara Bush on the wall.

At the information desk, the gallery manager – a less-than-charismatic man, with beady eyes, thick glasses and a nest of long thinning hair – will barely acknowledge my presence. When I explain that I'm a journalist, and ask if there might be anyone who could answer questions for me, he practically recoils from me, and I worry that he may start yelling, "Unclean! Unclean!" He makes a quick phone call, then tells me in a curt tone that "Our PR person is out today. No one here can talk with you."

Now, I'm sure he meant that there was no one trained to answer my questions in the helpful, professional and unbiased manner of PR flacks everywhere (oh, those selfless servants of the Fourth Estate!), but it somehow came out, "I don't like you and I wish you would die quickly and quietly." Apparently, the press is less than loved at Arcosanti. I began to catch a hint of the stink of True Believers on the wind.

Eventually, I am allowed to take the hourly tour, at a cost of eight dollars. I am the only tourist. My tour guide, Bernadette, is a nice enough woman with a bright print fleece and graying hair, though she holds her body stiffly and looks at me as a polite person might look at a snake. We stroll over to a corner of the gallery, where a large, say fifteen square-foot, balsawood model portrays the City of the Future. I notice there is a heavy layer of dust on the City of the Future.

Arcosanti, Bernadette explains to me in a monotone, was built as an "experimental urban arcology for 6,000 people," arcology being "Paolo's coinage for a place whose architecture and ecology are in balance." This is most comprehensible thing she says for the next ten minutes. I get to hear "Paolo's" story (and everyone in the place refers to Saleri as Paolo, in frankly reverent tones): his birth (in Italy in 1919), his student years with Frank Lloyd Wright, his years in the desert, supporting his mad architectural scribblings through the creation and sale of hand-made bronze bells, the impulse behind his founding of Arcosanti. I'm a big fan of mad genius, and it's an interesting enough story, but it's shot full of insider terminology, and every time I ask a question, I seem to throw Bernadette off, and she has to pause and begin again with the exact same phrasing she had just used. Bernadette could be animatronic, I think.

Finally, we get to the town itself, or at least the model of the town. [In explaining it's raison d'etre, she keeps using the phrase "the urban sprawl," as in "we need a new way of building cities so we don't turn into the giant urban sprawl." It's petty, but I can't help but notice it, like a person with a tic] It's pretty magnificent: huge, arching apartment buildings, a university, a clinic. Five acres of greenhouses on the south slope heat the buildings above in the winter through a system of heat tunnels, while in the summer deciduous trees and grape bowers will leaf out to cover the giant walls of glass. There are systems as well for rainwater collection and graywater use, for composting and recycling, and all traffic within the city is on foot.

"So what's been built so far?" I ask.

"Well, we've had some problems with the funding," she begins. She glances quickly around the room to make sure we're alone, then goes on in a quick, low voice, a total I'm-dishing-the-dirt voice. First they thought they'd be supported by grants from large foundations and government support, she says, but that never quite worked out. Then they tried holding festivals. At the first festival, a grassy field was turned into a parking lot, and "something – we don't know if it was a catalytic converter or a cigarette" caught the grass on fire. "Over one hundred cars blew up," she tells me, nodding. "So we didn't really make any money off that one." At the next festival, the concentrated activities on the banks of the nearby Agua Fria river. Unfortunately, it has rained upstream the night before, and a flashflood came and carried off all the tents, exhibits and kitchens. "As you might imagine, that wasn't much of a profit-maker, either." She smiles a tiny little wry smile as she recounts this story. Bernadette's not so bad.

"So, when you ask what's been completed, keep in mind that we're still in a process of growth," she says, and points to a tiny area on the diorama – say ten inches by six inches – about a dozen model buildings, bordered by a thin black line. It turns out that about 3% of the city has been built in the last 30 years, and about 70 people, not 6,000, live there. "In some ways, we're not very close to what Paolo has envisioned," she admits, and I'm about to ask her in which ways they are close, but she barrels on to describe how they still get almost all their energy from the power company, and their water comes pumped from an ancient aquifer, and how (while they have added a wind generator and so photovoltaic panels in recent years, and created a system for letting some of their waste water be cleaned in algae ponds for later use in watering the landscape) the city's infrastructure is really pretty conventional.

I have more questions, but she suggests we take a walk.

It's a fine early evening in the desert. As we walk, Bernadette points out some kilns, remarks on the cypress and olive trees Soleri has had planted across the site, and leads me into the pottery studio.

The pottery studio – I keep calling it the Pottery Barn, but Bernadette doesn't seem to catch the joke, so I drop it – is cleverly designed. Built in an apse shape (think of a forty-foot tall concrete band shell), it lets winter sunshine flow into its glass-fronted workshops, while shading the whole area during the sweltering summer days. A circular trench runs in front of the building, turning the front of the floor into workbenches when needed. Bernadette goes on to describe in great detail the molding process used to make clay bells, but a young potter with an attractive cast to her features and an artisan's intense expression of concentration is sitting next to us, and I find myself distracted.

Arcosanti, she goes on to tell me, is now funded almost entirely through the sale of bells. It is essentially one big crafts guild. Which is a fine thing to be. Indeed, sitting there in the evening light, with birds chirping, and the young potter smiling my way, I can see the appeal: fuck it, let's all throw aside our worries and make bells. It'll be a good life. But it's not the City of the Future.

We continue our walk. We pass a couple apartment buildings. The buildings themselves are a bit weathered and, well, not my architectural preference (very 70's, very blobject, very Planet of the Apes), but they are well-designed (they all employ passive solar, many have "sky theaters" built into the roof for sitting out and viewing the stars at night). The public space is great. There's an amphitheater with a waterfall running down the middle of the seats. Residents run a little store, the "Arc Mart," where you can buy your food and toiletries. There's a small hotel for visitors, with a swimming pool. Construction is underway on a new building which will have more apartments, a movie theater and an infirmary. Sometimes the entire community gathers at night on the roofs of buildings overlooking the canyon, and lights are shone against the cliffs of the other side, and dancers perform in front of them, sending huge shadows writhing on the basalt walls.

Bernadette pauses for a moment. "You know, Paolo imagined cities on the ocean, factories on the sides of dams…" she trails off. Her mind is elsewhere for a moment, and she looks younger than she has. I can tell she's not seeing the cracked concrete slabs and fading paint, but something altogether more beautiful.

She snaps out of it, and leads me to the bronze bell-making area. I feign interest. Bernadette explains, in mind-hammering detail, how molds are made, and bronze ingots melted, and decoration added. Humoring her, I say "It's amazing how much you've been able to accomplish on so little money."

"Well, yes," she says, clearly pleased, "but really, money isn't everything. A lot of the construction is done by the people who come for the workshops (five-week workshops can be attended for a tuition of several hundred dollars, and nearly 5,000 people have taken them, according to the Arcosanti literature), and we all get paid minimum wage. So we can keep going on with the work." In other words, it's a tourism and tokens economy.

Then we're back at the visitor's center. Bernadette makes a pitch for the food in the café, and then leaves me to wander the final exhibit alone.

Arcosanti's half life is long over, and it is headed for it's own tiny heat-death. Sure, it's still growing, but the vision and the reality have too long diverged, and my sense was that the True Believers needed desperately to convince themselves that the dream was still alive. Maybe it is. Who am I, really, to say otherwise? Let them build their utopia in the desert, if they can pull it off.

It's not a bad dream. Nothing there is all that revolutionary now, in this day and age where government buildings employ passive solar, and you can buy photovoltaic hat fans and laptop chargers, but there's no reason why an outworn future can't be chased longingly to completion. And Soleri's critique of sprawl, and manifest belief in the healing powers of compact community and a walking population, still sound just fine to me. I'll not complain if they're actually embodied in place.

It takes training to read space in the abstract, and to imagine the experience of place simply be looking at a plan or a drawing is an artform in itself. To be comprehended by regular people, radically innovative ideas need to be made concrete – you need to be able to walk around them, kick the foundations. You need to test them with your feet. That's why model communities are so important.

But Arcosanti isn't the future anymore. It smells too much of museum dust. It's the embalmed husk of a future, and a future that's older than I am, at that. I get in my car, and drive back down the rutted road, and wonder if I'll find some fresher dream ahead.

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I'm sorry that won't be in the book, Alex. Thank you for sharing it with us here.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 3 Jun 04

Damn, that's the saddest thing I've heard in years... oi...

(mutters a prayer, lights incense)

Sic Transit Gloria Mundi

Posted by: Vinay Gupta on 3 Jun 04

Oh dear . . .

I remember seeing a news segment on Arcosanti . . . well, it must have been at least 15 years ago. It doesn't sound like things have changed at all since then.

I wonder if things might have been different if the place was closer to civilization, say on the grounds of a SW university campus.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 4 Jun 04

Thanks for sharing this piece with us Alex.

I spent two years at Arcosanti as one of the primary spokespeople for the concept of Arcology. I agree with you about the heat death that has become Arcosanti, but I think the ideas behind Arcology are needed now more than ever. Arcology is a grand vision with many disparte parts that make up both its philosophy, but especially its practical applications. Most of the practical stuff people are not aware of unless they get a competent guide to share them the underworking of Arcosanti. You would be suprised. For example, their system of water collection is pure genius.

If you want to discuss any of this with me, feel free to contact me.


Paul Hughes
Editor, Future Hi

Posted by: Paul Hughes on 4 Jun 04

Thanks for posting this, Alex.

The Arcosanti meme seems to (re)circulate quite regularly. I was at a "psychogeography" conference session recently and a participant passed around a brochure from Arcosanti. Several folks seemed to be encountering this info for the first time.

I sat there, thinking, 'hm, when did Count Zero come out?' (1986 is the answer, and Arcosanti was 15 years old at /that/ point!)

Arcosanti ultimately seems to bear a greater resemblance to good old American utopianism, than with social change or green (deep, light or Viridian) movements. Et in Arcadia Ego.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 4 Jun 04

The fundamental problem was that it was damn creepy. Course it prolly didnt help that logans run came out around that time;/

The main problem with all arcologies is you need to find a whole lot of very nice sane well mannered intelligent people who actauly wana live that close together... in short your screwed before you even begin.

Posted by: wintermane on 5 Jun 04

"The main problem with all arcologies . . ."

All? Arcosanti is the only one . . .

I don't think Arcosanti is especially dense. No more than a block in NYC. The difference is that in an arcology, the density doesn't crush the spirit.

I think we need to disassociate the notion of a environmentally friendly architecture and infrastructure from that of an ideal society.

Put another way:

I don't think we should expect the people who live in an arcology to simultaneously sign on to live in an intentional community with some shared moral or ethical code.

Yes, there might be the equivalent of a homeowners' association. But you shouldn't have to leave your balls at the door, or convert to eco-paganism, or have group meditation sessions.

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 5 Jun 04

I was talking planned as I dont concider that one built yet.

The problem is while it may be as dense a city block tends to be dozens if not hundreds of seprate smaller comunities where you actauly only know and have to get along with a dozen or so people.

Posted by: wintermane on 5 Jun 04

Hey, Alex, I loved you description of Arcosanti--hit the nail on the head.
A few years ago I went there (unfortunately having made the mistake of booking in advance to spend the night) and went to Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West the following day. I felt like Arcosanti was like House on the Rock in Wisconsin--a place where somebody studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, thought he could do better, and went off to prove himself horribly wrong. The idea of it is great, but in reality none of Arcosanti's buildings are as creative or well-thought-out as ANY Wright building, and they're less effective from a green-building point of view (check out the canvas-roof daylighting in Taliesin West, for instance) and most people there actually live in a tent ghetto, not the designed buildings. Moreover, the "ecology" of this place in the middle of the Arizona scrub desert includes huge cypress trees (non-native, overly-water-needy plants that clash horribly with the landscape) that Soleri wanted there because he's from Italy. It makes me sad how many people have been suckered by that mirage over the years, because it was never well enough designed or planned to be true to itself, much less a success.
Taliesin West, however, was everything I would've expected it to be--beautiful American-Taoist architecture; organic, balanced, & crafted on every level, from the site plan to the buildings to the rooms to the furniture to the art & detail work. Every square inch considered. I actually didn't think all the choices Wright made there worked as well as the original Taliesin, but there were more unique experimental elements to it. And even though its school hasn't produced another genius, the students there do have freedom and creativity and artistic responsibility for their own work, unlike at Arcosanti where drones crank out bells in Soleri's thirty-year-old spec.
I dearly hope you also went to Taliesin West, as long as you were out there. And I'd be interested to hear what you thought of it.

Posted by: Jer on 7 Jun 04

Leave it on the floor Alex. Your description barely scratches the surface. Sort of a surfers first impression, or should I say a searcher's first impression. People often search forever for some exterior attraction to give them their reason to stop spinning their wheels. Lots of people come through here like that. Untill you look at your self and listen/hear that thing we used to call a concience you won't find that dream you're looking for. That is what you said you were getting into your car to go look for wasn't it?

Posted by: David Tollas on 17 Jun 04

I lived at Arcosanti for nearly four years, and wanted to add an inside opinion to this forum. First off the following statement, "and most people there actually live in a tent ghetto, not the designed buildings.” posted above is completely erroneous. As there is no "tent ghetto" at Arcosanti I assume he is referring to the Camp area, at the foot of the mesa in the agricultural fields, composed of about 18 individual concrete structures called Cubes, a canvas structure that can house 10 called the Yurt and a long building called the Bunkhouse which can house 12. Camp is used as the temporary housing for students in on the workshop. Each student is given a Cube, (basically a 10x10 room), or a Bunkhouse (an 8x12) for their one month stay. True the camp housing is highly criticizable, but keep in mind it is also temporary housing designed to be used for one month of habitation only, it is then expected that if one was to stay on at Arcosanti as a resident you would move 'up the hill' into the Arcology proper. Generally there are around 60+ residents and 10-20 students living at Arcosanti at any given time. Generally, about 10 residents live in the Camp, leaving 50+ people living in the designed buildings. Most of the residents living in camp are on the agricultural crew, and CHOOSE to live among the agricultural fields so they don't have to walk up and down the hill everyday to 'get to work'. Other residents who live in Camp choose to do so for their own reasons. About a fifth of the resident population lives in the camp, because that is their choice, and the majority of 10 or so temporary student population.
That said, there is a significant difference in touring the structure of Arcosanti as an architecture critic, and living there as a resident. I lived there for four years and never felt 'suckered', because I went in with my eyes open. Paolo himself states in the book "Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory?", if you are looking for utopia do not come to Arcosanti, and it is not a 'utopian' vision. In my opinion, and in Paolo's statements of Arcosanti's goal, it is a place to get a taste of what life in an Arcology, a new type of urban form, could feel like. And given this 'taste' of that life, trust me there is a reason that some people choose to live there for years on end.
I've been to Taliesin West many times, and I do love many of the structures there, but it offers little to no example of an urban lifestyle.
Yes, without a doubt there are some excellent examples of structures at Taliesin, but Taliesin is not on the scale of Arcosanti as a structure. The tallest structure at Taliesin West is one to one and half story. The largest structure at Arcosanti, the East Crescent is three stories high and can house twenty two people with about five multi-purpose rooms and encompasses teh amphitheater. The tallest structure,the Crafts III,is four stories and holds the Cafe, Visitor's Center, and six apartments.The central Vaults cap out at fifty feet high. If one knows the practicalities of construction you will know that larger scale necessitates some sacrifices of form and aesthetic for structural integrity. The canvas day lighting at Taliesin is beautiful, but the canvas structure at Taliesin is not an amphitheater which can hold upwards of 250 people like the canvas structure at Arcosanti.
From my conversations with Paolo, I believe he wasn't trying to do Taliesin 'better' than Wright. What Wright was attempting to accomplish and what Paolo is attempting to accomplish are two radically different approaches. Paolo's work is specifically a logistical question of urban design, how many people and urban functions can you fit into as small an area as possible, while providing a fulfilling aesthetic and cultural experience. To accomplish this there are many little intricate tricks of design in Arcosanti, and yes almost every square foot has been designed to accomplish this...though it is fair to say some parts accomplish it much better than others, that is what experimentation is.
Arcosanti still maintains some excellent aesthetic experiences of structure. For example the Sky-Suite, the apartment called EC-3, or the Foundry Apartments. Frankly these examples blow away anything found at Taliesin, and if you don't believe me you should see them for yourself. Another excellent example of the architectural ideas of Arcosanti is the Greenhouse apartment in Camp. Aesthetically it is a little bland, but the concept and experience in living in an apartment integrated into a green house is a unique and eye opening experience of the possibilities of radical new urban form.
Arcosanti is, of course, highly criticizable. I think it is unfortunate though when people visit it, and see it only through the eyes of one seeking to criticize. By doing this you do miss the details, the intent and the experiences that Arcosanti has to offer. We also miss the lessons that can be applied to on going construction projects and urban design.

Posted by: Wes Ozier on 2 Nov 05

I know this comment comes way after the fact, but better late than never.

I was hanging out with Jerry Pournelle, the science fiction writer, at a sci-fi convention, when he made a passing reference to a conversation he had with Solari, rekindling a long-misplaced interest in arcology.

During the mid-seventies, I was involved with a group of people who were involved in a networkinhg project linking Auroville, in India, with Findhorn, in Scotland, and Arcosanti. The project involved setting up slow-scan live television feeds via satelite connecting the three communities in a simalcrum of a global village.

The project didn't actually amount to much because, when everything was set up, we discovered that these three disparate groups of people didn't really have anything to say to one another.

The most interesting aspect of the project were the virtual tours of each community, conducted via live television feeds between the communities, which, on slow scan television, were interesting but excruiating. (I had a similar experience last year, at the World Science Fiction conference in Boston, where we had a live hook-up via the internet with Arthur C. Clarke, in Sri Lanka, which was looped through the satelite system that Clarke proposed in 1945.)

Some years later, in 1977, I believe, I visited Arcosanti in the flesh, and was astounded to see that very little progress had been made beyond what I had seen in the video tour. Now, nearly 30 years later, I find that little progress appears to have been made since my visit in 1977.

I am interested in Acrosanti because I am deeply interested in the concept of diffusion, breaking up large cities and moving our population into smaller, more managable communities that present insignificant targets to terrorists and are easier to maintain in the event of economic, social, environmental, and political breakdown, all of which loom in our future.

When I visited Acrosanti, I realized that a crucial mistake was being made by building the central buildings first. Communities don't develop that way. Cities begin as trading centers, intersections of roads and rivers, or along good harbors. They begin as collections of cabins, domiciles for the residents because the first imperative in the taming of a wilderness is to get a good solid roof over your head.

The first commercial buildings are trading posts, not large industrial buildings, because those large builings have no purpose until the community has grown to the point where it needs them.

Solari reversed that process, building large comon spaces first, and later filling in the model with living spaces. He also built monolithic structures, with huge concrete castings that require great precision and scrupulous technique....the ancient knew better, constructing their great buildings using much smaller building blocks, that can be massed produced and applied to any construction process.

Since Acrosanti was designed as a showcase for Solari's monolithic construction techniques, this is a case where form refused to follow function.

The construction of the commercial and industrial spaces first had two deleterious effects.

Psychologically, the hardships imposed upon the permanent residents through the lack of adequate housing and services, probably discouraged the emotionally well-adjusted from participating in the experiment, and attracted those for whom hardship itself is attractive, creating an imbalance in the population mix.

More importantly, and I believe I said this when I visited Acrosanti, constructing the residential spaces first would have resulted in a highly marketable...and therefore profitable...vacation community, the proceeds from the sale of which would have improved the balance sheet to the point where the project would have been finished years ago.

The response that I received then was that well-off people who could afford to purchase a second home in the desert were not the kind of people that the leaders of the community wanted to attract to Acrosanti. They wanted to attract permanent residents, artisans, craftsmen, engineers, builders.

Be that as it may, there is still a chance that Acrosanti can be salvaged and redeveloped into a unique resort community. Some of the units could be held as time-shares, making it a profitable investment for people of modest means. The net result would be a truly habitable community for the permanent population, a constant influx new and interesting people (who else would want to visit Acrosanti?) who would bring fresh ideas, energy and diversity to the community, and who would leave with the arcology concept firmly embedded in their minds for future use elsewhere.

I am presently involved in developing a 15 unit apartment building in Manhattan to house the families of transplant patients during the recovery process, using the same exact technique, purchasing the structure, then breaking up the structure into condominium units which will then be sold at cost to donors whose monthly payments would then be considered charitable contributions.

Acrosanti reminds me of The World, a condominium cruise ship that, when it was being built in the late nineties, was selling staterooms for $250,000 each. The starting price for suites on this ship is now $2 million. I would expect a similar escalation of value at Acrosanti, for different reasons, but in both cases, the rental on the units more than covers the monthly mortgage costs. The ship never sales with vacancies.

(Actually, it may not have been The World, in particular that I was offered, but the first ever of this type of cruise ship. My recollection is hazy on that point.)

The real problem at Acrosanti is the same problem that doomed the commune movement from its inception in the early sixties....cultural insularity, the inability to accept real diversity.

Posted by: Alan Milner on 7 Nov 05



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