ArcosantiAn Urban Experiment
This urban laboratory, as Arcosanti is known, was founded in 1970 by the late Italian architect Paolo Soleri as an experiment in his concept of arcology – an approach to urban design which incorporates elements of architecture and ecology.
On a rocky outcrop, raised high above the Sonoran Desert of Arizona, a cluster of arches, apses, amphitheatres and cubic structures lie beneath a glaring sun. Narrow cypresses and argent olives wave among the rocks and concrete, and a delicate melody rises from their branches, as hundreds of ceramic and brass bells chime in the wind.
This urban laboratory, as Arcosanti is known, was founded in 1970 by the late Italian architect Paolo Soleri as an experiment in his concept of arcology – an approach to urban design which incorporates elements of architecture and ecology. Soleri, who studied briefly under Frank Lloyd Wright at nearby Taliesin West, conceptualised the city as an evolving, living system, which steadily develops in complexity over millennia, much like the evolution of a biological species. He believed cities should be vertical, dense, optimised for pedestrians, and in balance with their natural surroundings, in stark contrast to the vast urban sprawls he witnessed in the USA – he once condemned the auto-centric planning of these cities for creating “a fathomless sink hole for immense waste”. Arcosanti, then, is his arcological prototype for what a city could be: self-sufficient, low-impact, and in harmony with the landscape.
Today, the structures of Arcosanti are caught in a temporal limbo: a kind of expired prophecy rendered in concrete, a future that has failed to materialise. The site resembles something between a 1970s counter-cultural utopia and surreal science fiction (the building’s futuristic aesthetic is rumoured to have inspired George Lucas’s design of the desert planet Tattooine in Star Wars). The central volume of the complex is the Vault: two enormous barrel arches that combine in one long structure, each formed of 12 curving bands of concrete, painted on the inside in earthy hues of red, orange and ochre, and separated by a narrow band of blue sky. The Vault faces south, catching the golden light of morning and evening. At its southern end, either side of the arch, concrete blocks project into space, offering a balcony area behind wrought iron balustrades that recall the elaborate shape of a menorah.
Two apses are also embedded in the earth at either end of the hillside, oriented in the same southerly direction to benefit from the warmth of the winter sun, and to provide cooling shade during summer. These concrete half domes were formed in beds of local silt, giving their finished surface a unique, organic texture and tone that blends with the surrounding desert. The apses are used for the manufacture of clay and brass bells, which constitutes Arcosanti’s principal source of revenue for funding the on-going construction of its buildings – almost all of which have been built over the years by devoted volunteers and students of Soleri. Other structures house the complex’s monastic apartment and office spaces. Some of these have been built above greenhouses, which act as passive heating systems during the desert’s cold winter months. Corridors join many of the buildings, and vast, circular windows look out to the rocky Sonoran mesa beyond, bringing enough natural light into the interiors to make electric lighting almost entirely obsolete during the day.
The beauty of Arcosanti’s current structures bows beneath the weight of the architect’s unfulfilled plans. Unrealised designs of towering, multi-story arches and apses – which dwarf the existing structures in Soleri’s models – were intended to make Arcosanti a self-sufficient city for 5,000 people, a community of ceramic and brass bell producers who would live and work in harmony with one another and their environment. Today, around 50 employees and workers live in Arcosanti, and construction work has slowed considerably since the 1970s and 80s. The last building to be completed was in 1989, and so far, around 5% of the project’s total plans have been achieved. The Cosanti Foundation, a non-profit organisation founded by Soleri and his wife, Colly, in 1965, continues to manage Arcosanti after the architect’s death in 2013. They hold tours, educational workshops, and even overnight stays for visitors, and workers and volunteers still make bells in the foundry and ceramic apses as Soleri’s acolytes have done for nearly 50 years.
Additional revenue streams have been introduced since Soleri’s time: the space is often favoured for advertising campaigns, and plays host to an annual music festival, FORM, which takes place over a weekend each May, hosting performances in the amphitheatre, apses, vaults and surrounding desert for around 2,000 people. In 2019, Anderson .Paak, Kaytranada, Bonobo, and Khruangbin were among some of the artists to perform. With its focus on fostering a sense of community and preserving close ties with the permanent residents of Arcosanti, this weekend of music offers another glimpse of the settlement’s potential as a practical and harmonious urban environment.
The evolution of Arcosanti’s function is natural, and perhaps vital too. Enmeshed in Soleri’s unique architectural and artistic vision is a troubled past. As part of the wave of Me Too revelations in 2017, his daughter, Daniela Soleri, penned an open letter on Medium that alleged her father persistently sexually abused her as an adolescent. She writes: “He had good qualities — intelligence, charisma, discipline, skill — he was extraordinary in a number of ways. But like many such people, including many artists, he was a fierce narcissist, capable only of seeing others in terms of their role in his world.”
The revelation is a major thread in the web of tensions that binds Arcosanti together: the project is a forward-looking, utopic experiment, yet now seems to expend as much energy preserving its decades-old heritage as it does promoting a progressive future for today’s cities; it embodies an alternative vision for urban life, yet is isolated in the desert, miles from the nearest dense population; it is the opus of a brilliant architect, and the unfinished project of an accused perpetrator. These are not easy conflicts to reconcile, but admirers of the architecture and their creator must nonetheless attempt to navigate them, and to do so with care. As Daniela Soleri wrote:
I have tested myself over the last few years, looking hard at Soleri’s artistic and architectural work. Most does not seem to me to be compromised by his worst behaviours. I still like much, though not all, of what I see. But it is clearer now … I can also see flaws, expressions of ignorance, arrogance, narcissism. Teasing out a response to a work and its maker is complicated, and personal … For me now, unless a work is an extension or expression of an individual’s antisocial behaviours, or enriches and affirms those, I need to assess that work separately from its maker.
As well as raising invaluable and timely questions about how we wish to live in relation to our environment, and how we can do so with vastly reduced consumption of resources – a consideration that pre-empted the present climate crisis by decades – Soleri’s legacy can also be of value by prompting us to question our relationship with artistry, and to recognise the inherent contradiction in appreciating the merit of an artwork, whilst acknowledging the actions of its creator.