Intentional Architecture at Arcosanti

I’d somehow heard about Arcosanti through the grapevine, but it didn’t initially register as a “must-visit” place for me.  A trifecta of events changed that.

First, my environmental literature professor mentioned it in class one evening, in the midst of a discussion about ecological mindful communities.  Then, a few days later, I passed the Arcosanti exit on Arizona’s I-17 and realized that the site is right off of the highway, just one hour south of Flagstaff.  Finally, the space bar on my laptop decided to quit functioning, and the Apple service center informed me that I would have to drive to Phoenix to get it fixed.  That settled it; I decided that the only way I could rescue a last-minute round trip solo drive to Phoenix was to do some exploring along the way.  Arcosanti was the obvious destination.

After a little poking around on the Arcosanti website, I discovered that in addition to taking a tour of the “urban experiment,” you can stay on the property in one of their sparse dorm-style rooms.  Thirty-five dollars for a bed in the middle of the desert halfway home sounded perfect, so I booked one and turned my computer mission into an overnight trip.

So what is this place?  Arcosanti is described as “an urban laboratory focused on innovative design, environmental accountability, and experiential learning.” According to their community’s website, its objective is “to actively pursue lean alternatives to urban sprawl based on Paolo Soleri’s theory of compact city design, Arcology, where architecture meets Ecology.”

Intriguing?  Yes.  But what does all of that mean, exactly?

A little history will help here.  Paolo Soleri (1919-2013) was an Italian architect who first came to the US to study with Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesin West winter home and laboratory in Scottsdale, AZ.  After some time with his mentor, he returned to Italy where he designed a ceramics factory and learned about pottery fabrication.  He started making ceramic bells (an industry that continues at Arcosanti today) commercially, and his business was sufficiently lucrative to enable Soleri to return to Scottsdale to start the Cosanti Foundation, dedicated to exploring non-traditional design ideas.

A few years later, Soleri began looking for land in the high desert where he could ground test his ideas about complex, concentrated, intentional population centers. He believed that as human beings evolved, their dwellings should become more complex and compact.  This is the trajectory in organismic evolution; urban evolution should follow suit.  Soleri wanted to experiment with architectural alternatives to sprawl and automobile-based design. He believed that density could augment citizens social and creative lives while also allowing for the adoption of intelligent, conservation-minded water and energy systems that decreased consumption.

He found a plot of land outside of Cordes Junction, Arizona that fit his needs.  For about $50,000 he purchased roughly 800 acres with water rights. The year was 1970, and experimental communities were becoming somewhat more commonplace.

Since 1970, over 40,000 people have visited Arcosanti. Over 8000 people have participated in workshops on the site, and experiential learning remains a cornerstone of Arcosanti’s mission.  These workshop participants have, in effect, built the place, using the siltcasting and concrete forming techniques that Soleri pioneered and taught. Many students come from other countries to study Arcosanti’s design, intending to implement his ideas upon returning to their homelands.

In addition to visitors and workshop participants, Arcosanti is home to about sixty people.  Some work onsite casting ceramic and bronze bells – activities that provide a substantial portion of the community’s income.  Others work in the gallery and café, which are open most days of the year to curious visitors.  Soleri’s intention was for the site to someday house 5000.

There are currently thirteen buildings at Arcosanti.  Several are mixed used; for example, there are apartments nested above and behind the ceramic and bronze casting areas.  Others, such as the amphitheater and vaults, are intended for both community and rental (performance and workshop) use. There’s also a pool, a greenhouse, and a laboratory space.

The tour guide who introduced me to all of these structures was a woman in her late forties who had first come to Arcosanti as an eighteen year-old.  She met her husband, the one-time foundry manager, there, and the couple raised two sons on the property – one of whom currently works in the foundry.  She lives offsite in Prescott, AZ now, but, she commutes in to work as the café manager.  She patiently answered my myriad questions about how people end up there, how decisions are made, who sits on the Arcosanti Board of Directors, and how often people drive to town.

I wonder about living in places like this all the time.  When I was nineteen, I went from my parents’ large, well-equipped house in New Jersey to living out of a backpack in the Alaskan wilderness for ninety days.  I came home, donated more than half of my clothes to Goodwill, and vowed that I would consume less.  Yes, I have owned a car for my entire adult life, although I wish I didn’t feel the need to.  But, apart from my trusty VW Golf, the rest of my possessions currently fit into a 5×5 storage unit (I know this because I need to move into one again in two weeks).  I am the perfect candidate for a small-footprint “tiny house” – only, due to urban zoning restrictions, it is hard to put a tiny homes anywhere other than the middle of nowhere.  For a single girl prone to hermit-like behavior, living ten miles from other human beings is probably not a great idea.  So, I wonder about intentional communities – places where I might live alone but with other people, sharing resources, and living out values that focus on creativity and community rather than consumption and competition.

Is that what’s happening at Arcosanti?  It’s hard to tell.  I like the idea of living in a condensed community surrounding by open space.  I like the idea of having art going on around me all the time. I like the idea of occupying a thoughtfully constructed space, where the community’s resource use is planned and monitored.  But there’s that half hour drive to the grocery store, the pool, or the mountain bike trail.  There’s the worry that, if a few people drove me nuts, I’d have no escape hatch.  There’s the fact that I could never blast Physical Graffiti or 2112 at full volume in my space (not that I can in my apartment now, of course).

And, despite all of that, I know in my gut that, as a nation, this is the way we HAVE to go.  If we don’t start to live more densely and intentionally, we will have destroyed all of our wild lands and covered all of our open spaces with sprawling McMansions within ten years.  This is not the nation I want to live in, nor is it one we CAN live in for long.

Someone’s got to start this shift, and I think Soleri was ahead of his time in founding Arcosanti.  I’m going to keep my eye on this place; I’m guessing that renewed interest in communities of this nature is on the horizon.  It better be.


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