The Miniaturization of the Megalopolis

"The Miniaturization of the Megalopolis: Paolo Soleri's Arcosanti downsizes sprawl"
Unpublished, written for TENbyTEN

Do we need an alternative to urban sprawl? The easy answer is “yes,” but it’s difficult to propose what the alternative would be. New Urbanism -- an urban design movement that attempts to alleviate sprawl through real estate reform -- is an admirable attempt, but it falls prey to middle and upper-class exclusivity and continued automobile dependence, not to mention historical pastiche, rooted more in American myth than reality. Ultimately, New Urbanism proposes more of the same, repackaged and slightly more compact, focusing on the past rather than the future. So, what is the more effective alternative?

These are the questions posed by Paolo Soleri, the man behind Arcosanti, an urban laboratory smack in the middle of Arizona. Located about 65 miles north of Phoenix, it is envisioned as a city for 5,000 inhabitants based on Soleri’s original design concept of Arcology, a combination of architectural and ecological thinking based on complexity and miniaturization. How Soleri arrived at Arcology and the city in the desert is as fascinating as the place itself, a journey of equal parts fate and talent.

Growing up in Torino, Italy, between the two World Wars, Soleri spent some time in France, eventually returning to his hometown where he earned a Ph.D. in Architecture from the Politecnico Di Torino. Before graduation, Soleri came across a book on Frank Lloyd Wright in a local bookstore. Soleri explains, “what interested me about Wright was the fact he developed the idea of a fellowship.” Writing the renowned American architect, the Italian was offered a one–year stay at Wright’s desert workshop, Taliesin West. He left Italy one year later, in 1947, on a boat to America.

Taliesin West, Wright’s winter residence outside the original Taliesin in Spring Green, WI, became a training ground for building in the harsh desert climate. Wright and his fellows experimented with rock walls, fabric ceilings, and other devices to control the sun but take advantage of breezes, day/night temperature swings, and other desert conditions. Sleeping on raised platforms under the night sky, Soleri and the other fellows helped build Wright’s ever–growing complex that would eventually have a cabaret theater and music pavilion, in addition to the studios, eating, and sleeping facilities needed for a fellowship. What became an 18-month stint in the Arizona desert left a large impression on Soleri, saying “I have fond memories of Wright. We developed a pleasant relationship even though I didn’t speak English.” Working in the kitchen and serving the Wright family their meals afforded the young man unique access to the master architect. For Soleri ultimately “It wasn’t so much a conscious architectural learning process as an absorbing experience.”

After a brief return to Italy, the desert called Soleri back. Now married and with family, Soleri first lived in Sante Fe, NM, making and selling ceramic pots. Some local merchants approached Soleri to carry on the production of wind bells for them after another maker passed away. Even without a background in making this type of pottery he agreed, not knowing it would become a permanent part of his life -- the construction and sale of these bells would later support the construction of Arcosanti, his desert community. But first came Cosanti.

Leaving Sante Fe for Scottsdale, AZ -- a more amenable climate for his bell-making activities -- Soleri began experimenting with construction techniques that use earth as a formwork for poured-in-place concrete, whereby the earth is built up and shaped into a form, then concrete is poured over and the earth is excavated after the concrete cures. At what would grow into the community he dubbed “Cosanti” (a fusing of Italian words roughly describing a timeless architecture transcending consumer materialism), he built his residence, the Earth House. Studios, offices, residences, a pool, and a foundry followed. According to Soleri, “Cosanti is where I begin to acquire experience,” most apparent in what became his signature architectural element: south-facing apses (half domes) that enable year-round activity outdoors by allowing sunlight in the winter and shielding people from the sun in the summer months. Cosanti’s intimate environment is generously planted with trees, reminiscent of Italy. Furthermore, it is apparent that much loving thought was put into the spaces between the buildings, the courtyards, paths, and other outdoor “rooms” where people move and interact. It’s clear that at Cosanti, Soleri developed forms and ideas that would find greater expression at Arcosanti, similar in many ways but on a different scale. Soleri explains, “Cosanti is for twenty people; Arcosanti aims to house five thousand.”

As stated previously, complexity and miniaturization are the cornerstones of Arcosanti, two characteristics that any natural system requires to be successful. Think of the human brain, whose nerves and other inner workings would stretch for miles if uncoiled, yet would be utterly inefficient; this is not unlike suburban sprawl. Tightly packaged within our skulls, though, the brain is at its most efficient; this compression is the Arcosanti solution to sprawl. To achieve complexity at Arcosanti, residential and commercial uses are mixed within individual and adjacent buildings, unlike suburbs which zone businesses into segregated areas. The suburban model requires one to drive from home to work, to the store, to the park, and so forth, whereas Arcosanti eliminates the automobile entirely in favor of a pedestrian-oriented, compact city.

For such a massive ideological undertaking, Arcosanti’s beginnings are small. In 1970, construction began on the first structure, the South Vault, marking the city’s “center” on a mesa in the southwest portion of the Cosanti Foundation’s 860-acre property. Arcosanti currently consists of about twelve distinct structures sitting on the mesa, most oriented toward the south. These twelve structures surround the South Vault, meant to provide an outdoor work area oriented to the sun’s path. Moving in a roughly chronological order from east to west across the mesa are Arcosanti’s other buildings: the Crafts III multi-use structure with visitor’s center, café and bakery and housing; the Ceramics Apse for the production of the signature wind bells; the Foundry Apse for bronze bell production; East and West Housing; North and South Vaults used for outdoor work, celebrations, performances, and other gatherings; the Lab Building for indoor work space; the Colly Soleri Music Center, an outdoor amphitheater with seating for 500; the Sky Suite rental apartment; a swimming pool; Soleri’s drafting office; and the Greenhouse Guest Rooms.

While the master plan has evolved over time, currently about five percent of the buildings required for the intended capacity of 5,000 residents are complete or under construction. Having begun construction of Arcosanti in 1969, it’s apparent that Arcosanti is a long way from its intended “finished” form, currently housing about 50 people at any given time. According to Charles Provine, a resident at Arcosanti, “people usually stay anywhere from a few months to several years,” after they complete a five-week workshop. He adds enthusiastically, “I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in America.” Over 6,000 people have participated in the workshops over the last roughly thirty years, aiding in the construction of Arcosanti, maintaining the facilities and the grounds, and farming the land, all in an effort to “improve urban conditions and lessen our destructive impact on the earth.”

To help pay for this immense undertaking is the fabrication of the already-mentioned ceramic and bronze wind bells (25,000 every year!). Other means of revenue include tours, a bakery and café, and a diverse range of cultural events, including theater and dance, music, and spoken-word performances. As Soleri explains, “We had to build shelter, including what I call the Culture Institution. We had to shelter both the body and the mind.”

Soleri’s long-term thinking is reminiscent of some Native American societies, who considered the impact of their actions seven generations ahead. By taking into consideration the lives of our children, their children, and so forth -- or, better yet, thinking of the planet as theirs not ours -- we will leave them a place not scarred by short-term thinking and selfishness. Everything at Arcosanti respects the earth to provide for future generations. And while Arcosanti may very well still be under construction seven generations from now, it will have far outlived the cheap suburban detritus that litters the landscape.

Beyond the physical, car-free existence that Soleri is creating in the desert Southwest, he is more importantly proposing a new way of life; one where humans live directly with the earth, respecting it and each other by building dense, compact cities; one where a distinct alternative is actually finding fruition, through the labors of its residents and workshop participants. These aren’t new ideas, but they are ones that may be necessary for the human race to realize itself at its highest fulfillment.