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Arcosanti

Posted on 2015.07.26 at 21:54
The sign at the entrance says “Welcome to Arcosanti. An Urban Laboratory.” Which seemed ironic given that I was on a dirt road, about to drive over a cattle guard. There wasn't a building in sight.

There's Arcosanti the vision and then there's Arcosanti the reality. The vision was born in the mind of Paolo Soleri, an Italian architect who came to this country as a young man to study under Frank Lloyd Wright. Seeing American-style suburban sprawl for the first time, he was kind of horrified, not just at the waste of land and resources, but at the isolation. It seemed to him a way of life built for cars, not for people. His sense of the human way to live had been formed in the compact traditional towns of Italy with their short walking distances and mixed use of space. Naturally, he connected right up with the budding environmental movement, which was anti-sprawl and anti-car for its own reasons. Combining his ancestral traditions and the latest technology of the time, he designed a town that could, in theory, house and employ five thousand people in pleasure and comfort while using a fraction of the land, water, and other resources that a typical suburb of the same size would. In 1970, with the proceeds from a business he'd started crafting artistic bronze wind bells, he bought some acreage in the sagebrush scrub, gathered a crew and started building it.

It's still not finished. Paolo Soleri died in 2013. Maybe 10-20% of the place is built. The reason I couldn't see it from the front gate is that it's built into the south face of a hill which visitors approach from the north. Even at the parking lot, only a couple of concrete buildings are visible. I followed the “Visitor Entrance” signs into the larger of the two and was directed down. Below the level of the parking lot, I discovered a complex of concrete buildings, done in the style of the early 1970s but still capable of startling with their beauty, uniqueness and cleverness. The ongoing Arcosanti construction project tends to attract artistic types, so the place is dotted with random art: little sculptures and colorful tiles and of course the bells, which are still sometimes made here and still the main source of income for the community.

In theory, this is a construction project. People join by being hired. They get paid for their work. That pay includes a place to live with all utilities, but the (quite good) food in the little cafeteria has to be paid for, along with personal incidentals like cell phones and car insurance. However, it's not like a conventional job where you get hired after one or two interviews and a background check, with the decision to hire you being made by one or two or at most a handful of managers. Instead, you come for a five-week workshop in which you basically pay them to orient you, train you, feed you and house you, plus they provide side trips to relevant local sights such as Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright's western headquarters. They also put you to work, and in the process of working you get to know a number of the residents. If you decide you want to stay on and be a long-term member of the team, everyone on the team gets to vote on whether to hire you.


By that feature alone, Arcosanti goes from being a project to being an intentional community, like Twin Oaks and Lost Valley and the communities that branched off from Drop City. By that feature, too, I suspect that it will never grow much beyond its historic maximum population of roughly 200. (Current population is around 70.) Dunbar's Number, you know. Soleri intended it to be a small city, but even small cities have factions. They have police, because they need them. The people who are happy there now would probably hate it. In terms of meeting the social and emotional and value needs of its occupants, a small city would be a step down from what it is now. For Arcosanti to be an example that influences urban planning nationwide and maybe even worldwide, as Soleri intended, it will have to stop being a community small enough that everyone knows everyone. So I think Arcosanti is already at its peak.

It's also, like the long-abandoned cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, an artifact of a time now lost. When the Americans with Disabilities Act took effect in 1979, the parts of Arcosanti that were already built and not in compliance were grandfathered in. There are a lot of stairs, not many ramps, and no elevators at all. The climate and the scale make this an ideal retirement locale, but the stairs kind of kill that. One of the things the tour guide pointed out was a wall of sloping steps about two feet high and at odd angles. He explained that it was designed to facilitate lying back and looking at the sky. He said Soleri called it “our connection to the cosmos.” Then he demonstrated. It worked for him because he is, as Soleri was, about six feet tall and capable of getting into and out of the position. In a way, that wall is representative of both the positives and the negatives of that time. There was a lot of iconoclastic re-thinking going on regarding Man's needs and values and his place in the larger picture, but it was still about Man, the able-bodied male adult; the rest of the species tended to get forgotten.

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