Crossing the California border into Arizona, we started our climb to 7,000 feet, hugged on all sides by the rolling mountainous desert. Our destination was Flagstaff, but we made a quick and enjoyable stop to Arcosanti, an “urban laboratory”. Before arriving, we were warned by our tour guide that this was not exactly agriculture or community based destination; instead, Arcosanti serves as a model of efficient urban development. Though it seemed like a bit of a left turn from our previous stops, we soon discovered how perfectly it fit into the picture we’ve been piecing together.
Paolo Soleri, an Italian artist and architect who designed the structures and the theories behind this “linear city”, intended for the property to be a place where people could come together to live and learn. Reminiscent of a European town with narrow walkways and stamp-sized gardens, Soleri’s concept of “arcology” defines all that has molded this micro-city:
“In nature, as an organism evolves it increases in complexity and it also becomes a more compact orminiaturized system. Similarly a city should function as a living system. Arcology, architecture and ecology as one integral process, is capable of demonstrating positive response to the many problems of urban civilization, population, pollution, energy and natural resource depletion, food scarcity and quality of life. Arcology recognizes the necessity of the radical reorganization of the sprawling urban landscape into dense, integrated, three-dimensional cities in order to support the complex activities that sustain human culture. The city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind.”
At this site, the buildings came first, and people followed. Located an hour and a half south of Flagstaff, Arcosanti (under the Cosanti umbrella organization) resides on a few thousand acres in the Arizona desert. Although only one acre is developed, the original plans of Soleri encompassed a city spanning linearly from Phoenix to New York; currently, the site has only physically built about 5% of the plans Soleri has laid out. His research, designs and philosophy are impressive and extensive.Soleri had a vision for an entirely different world; one without cars, instead moving walkways and monorails. His vision was all about multi-functional spaces, emphasizing common space over personal space, and extreme efficiency. Every inch of space is used here, but in such a way that it still exudes a clean, minimalist feeling.
Host to workshoppers (who are involved in a 10-week building apprenticeship), volunteers, and 70 residents, Arcosanti is a concrete wonderland buzzing with life. They have extensive ceramics and metal shops, many multi-family apartment style homes, a café, and a 500-seat amphitheater. The non-profit gets almost half of their funding from creating beautiful bronze bells in the traditional Southwestern style, which they sell in their galleries in Phoenix and on-site. The rest of their funding comes from workshop fees, donations, and over-night visitors who can stay in their multitude of guesthouses. Although made primarily of concrete, circles and oblong shapes dominate in the infrastructure. “The world is round, the universe is oblong; why should our buildings be rectangular?” was the thought that Soleri reflected in his visions.
Julia, our host and newly-appointed PR manager for Arcosanti, had an exuberance and passion for the project that was infectious. Although she was the one who warned us that “this isn’t really a community,” when we asked what keeps her here, she said “I absolutely love the community aspect!” As everyone who works here lives on-site, “There’s no room to not be yourself.” The authenticity of everyone involved, Julia says, is very refreshing.
Julia also shared with us why Arco hasn’t been focusing on agriculture, something we found a bit curious considering their focus on community and sustainability. “Soleri believed that food production would follow the people,” she explains, and as his original plans were for this metropolis to house over 5,000 people and enough solar-paneled greenhouses to feed and power the entire city, they haven’t gotten there quite yet. “Soleri didn’t really believe in the word ‘self-sustainability’ either,” she adds, “because when you’re involved so intimately everything you do relies on someone else.” This is something we can all agree on, and brings back the importance of community development when considering paths to true sovereignty from ‘the system’ as it is currently.
As the bronze bells danced in the southwestern wind whistling across the prairie, the beauty of the diversity of our trip was echoed against the walls. The Arizona desert, though not conducive to growing many fruits and vegetables, has a different sort of sustenance to offer us.