I recently had the opportunity to visit Arcosanti – Paolo Soleri’s urban experiment just an hour outside of Phoenix, Arizona. Paolo Soleri came to the U.S. from Italy in 1947 to study with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West. The apprenticeship was cut short due to friction between Wright and Soleri and by 1949 Soleri was out on his own (working with another fallen Wright apprentice). However, he stayed in the Phoenix area and began a lifelong pursuit to the study of Arcology, a field he invented from the conceptual combination of Architecture and Ecology. Soleri is a fascinating character, and the project at Arcosanti (still an active construction site after 40 years) is unique in the context of the now popular “green design” movement.
The idea of Arcology is a direct response to urban sprawl, a trend that was just in its infancy when Soleri began to imagine a different mode of urbanization. The essence of Arcology is a dedication to a dense urban environment with minimal environmental impact. It’s not a big leap to see the connection between the conceptual drawings of Soleri and the sci-fi concept of self contained human environments.
But I was aware of all this before I went to stay at Arcosanti. So what did I gain from spending a night in a guestroom at the foot of this visionary construction site? Basically, I got a feel for the place, the environment, the scale, and the material. Also, if you stay in the guesthouse at Arcosanti, you are allowed to self-tour the entire site on your own at any hour. The experience of being able to wander through this creation of overlapping levels, weaving pathways, hidden windows, and grand open half-domes and barrel vaults was truly special.
Arcosanti is connected to nature in a way that no urban park can ever provide. The ratio of architecture to nature was inverted – at Arcosanti, you are in a dense urban environment surrounded by nature on all sides. It doesn’t hurt that this particular site is in the vast Arizona desert. Also, being in the space, the texture and color of the material and construction methods becomes tactile. Arcosanti’s signature silt-formed concrete methods were developed through the craft of the silt-formed bronze bells and ceramics they sell to fund the project. In some sense though, the experience of visiting Arcosanti is inevitably disappointing, despite the energy of the place and the inspiring effort to pursue a new type of urbanism. It is a design meant to house 5,000 inhabitants, and at the time of my visit had 75. The “urban experiment” has focused on the public shared spaces at the core of the design, but the towering quarter sphere stacks of minimalist living spaces that should frame the city and protect it from the desert sun are not yet built, and so large in scale, it is difficult to imagine the plan as a reality.
It is inspiring to imagine a young upstart from Turin, Italy standing up in the face of the world-renowned Architect Frank Lloyd Wright to say that Broadacre City is not enough.
Soleri understood the scale of the impending challenges of urban sprawl and human impact on the environment. He challenged the world to think more radically about how humans can occupy space without destroying the environment we depend on. And I see a connection between his vision and some of the trends in the field of Architecture today.
- We are sharing spaces and resources more.
- We are minimizing our impact on untouched sites, and looking for density and connectivity in our daily lives.
So whether we are designing live-work spaces or high-rise living with shared amenities, we can look to the crazy experiment at Arcosanti and Soleri’s fantastical drawings as inspiration to take chances and think radically about how we build the city of the future.