The view driving north out of Phoenix along I-17 is less than promising. With the rise in elevation, you leave the saguaros behind for a harder, rockier soil in a landscape of low desert scrub brush that has none of the varied beauty you can find in the hybrid desert/forest area further north around Sedona and Red Rocks. The turn off to Corder Junction is another picture of desolation, a washboard dirt road that passes a gas station, a sagging, clapboard house flying the Confederate flag, an abandoned Airstream, and then, finally, a six-foot diameter, circular metal sign leaning against a cattle guard: “Welcome to Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory.”
Conceived in 1970 by Italian émigré and brief Frank-Lloyd-Wright-trainee Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti was a future vision of a heroic, hyper-dense, monumental city that would shelter 5,000 people in a harmonious coexistence of architecture and ecology; also serving as a reactionary alternative to the ubiquity of the sprawling suburbs that were beginning to crop up at the time. (And it should also be said, an alternative to Wright’s own Broadacre City plans.) 50,000 people each year make the drive to Arcosanti to visit the future.
What you’ll find at the end of the dirt road is a seemingly random assortment of concrete structures sighted along the edge of a gentle canyon that, taken together, have an almost mirage-like quality as seen in the waning evening light. The structures themselves are amazing, with balconies overlooking the canyon edge, a fascinating painted apse, soaring vaults above semi-circular amphitheaters, and multiple levels of stacked living cubes throughout. Each building is well-designed according to passive solar principles, which, coupled with ample shaded public spaces, make it an incredible place to spend the day. Concrete pathways and stairwells weave through the disconnected structures, and, along with the simple landscape plantings, start to connect the fragmented structures in a hierarchical sequence.
Even in August, the early evening in the desert was surprisingly mild and the canyon channeled a cooling breeze. You can stay overnight at Arcosanti, and for $40 a night (breakfast included), it sure as hell beats any roadside motel. And even if there was no A/C and we had to place the slight oscillating fan inches from the bed to little effect, seeing the full moon and stars a touchable distance away from our screen door/window made it all worthwhile. It was one of the most pleasant places I’ve ever enjoyed a drink.
The overnight rooms are located near the base of the canyon and connect to the main structures via a series of ascending walkways and stairs. The walkways provide glimpses of life at Arcosanti, from the half-empty construction areas, to the foundry where the Soleri bells are cast. But the laid back pace of Arcosanti belies the notion that this could be a manic urban city scaled up with 5,000 people. The echoes of Mesa Verde are unmistakable, but the monumental concrete structures also call to mind heavy traces of Logan’s Run and Predock’s Cal Poly Pomona Campus, serving to further reinforce the notion that you’re in a vision of the future that is firmly rooted in the 1970s.
The tour guides will tell you that “50,000 people a year come here, look at it, say, ‘Wow, isn’t that interesting?’ and then drive away, because it requires a total abandonment of what everyone has taken to be a given.” But how successful is the vision produced by Arcosanti? You’ll find a lot of fulminating references against “sprawl” in the Arcosanti literature and the vision of their city as a laboratory to present a prototypical alternative. Sprawl is an easy target, so no arguments here. I had just spent two days wandering around the empty, sun-bleached streets of Scottsdale, certainly one of the sprawliest and shallowest of urban experiments. So Arcosanti was a palette-cleansing salve that provided an alternative strategy.
This begs the question – especially in lieu of situations like Tijuana – that when one billion people live in slum-like conditions that are parasitically conjoined with existing urban centers, does bringing people out to the desert in a formerly unoccupied area seem like a viable option to combat the global housing crisis? It comes off more as a defensive position, dropping out and going off the grid in a state of self-exile. And while Arcosanti seeks to engage the entire world, their vision comes off less as any type of solution to sprawl and more of a segregated defensive fortification. Reyner Banham called this desert fantasy “pure creative will exercised against a defenseless landscape.”
But this alternative is still hypothetical. Granted the site is in a perpetual state of growth but Arcosanti has been beset by funding problems, lack of government support, and labor shortages that have left it after nearly 40 years approximately 4 percent complete. A city designed to accommodate 6,000 people, has completed facilities to house about 70. And while Arcosanti positions itself as a social utopia, it is also an architecture of techno-utopia, a place where advances in science and technology allow a hypothetical citizenry to exist in an ideal state where scarcity and suffering becomes anachronisms. But their technological infrastructure is still fairly standard. Arcosanti receives energy from a power company and water is pumped in from a nearby well. And while there are a scattering of wind generators and solar panels, this seems far less impressive than proposals being developed for China and elsewhere almost daily, where carbon-neutral buildings and cities make use of integrated solar panels, waste, and gray water reclamation, and thirty-story wind turbines that can create near zero-waste environments.
That may partially explain why the construction at Arcosanti happens in fits and starts—they’re advancing toward a future vision that is already anachronistic. There’s been some debate within the community, but the cult of Paolo (it’s always “Paolo”—never Soleri) holds sway, and instead of evolving organically as you’d envision a city would grow, they’re still building toward his singular 1970 vision. The whole place becomes more of a living museum where there is still a tenuous connection to the ’70s flower children, the liberal arts drop-outs, the turned-on desert commune dwellers, and the middle class revolutionaries. It’s still here, and you can detect the faint traces of hardcore believers in the air, still fighting the good fight. In this scenario, the filmic analogy would swerve more toward Godard’s Alphaville, where the inhabitants work toward the whims of one central, all-knowing computer.
Furthermore, what has been built by semi-skilled labor seems like it is partially in a losing battle with the desert. Areas look abandoned and unsafe. And that becomes the difficult part, having to resolve in your mind the dueling realities, on one hand the incongruous sight of a pristine Plexiglas-encased model of a future city, and on the other, to look out the window where you’re readily confronted with the reality of wonky steps, cracked concrete, and a wheelbarrow lazily and inexplicably swinging from a construction crane.
But so what? In the end, it’s not perfect but it’s not a failed project. It has stayed true to its initial vision of a heightened environmental and ecological consciousness and has resisted, by all accounts, being easily subsumed by the cold logic of capitalism. The gulf between vision and reality still seems too vast to reconcile.
I was once in an architecture seminar course in which the last hour of every meeting was devoted to discussion, with questions thrown out from students and the professor fielding them as best he could. For at least the first half of the semester this was one of the most awkward hours of the week. The nervous tension in the room was seriously thick as we all made poorly concealed, conscious efforts to look everywhere but at each other or the professor who stood waiting expectantly—and a little eagerly—against his podium. Not only are architects a pretty introverted bunch but, you see, it was still early in the semester and we hadn’t really gelled together as a group, which meant everyone was still too self-conscious and didn’t want to risk coming off as ignorant or poorly-read or whatever in such a large group of people that you don’t know all that well. But anyway, we could all breathe a little easier because there was always one guy who didn’t give a damn what anyone thought and would never hesitate to blurt out every random stream of conscious type association he made during the lecture. I should stop here and mention that ostensibly this course was about architecture and the city (it was really a survey of radical ’60s architecture which is coming back in popularity in a big way), and this particular session was centered around swinging London with requisite lectures on Blow-Up, Archigram, and Robert and Allison Smithson, amongst others.
Anyway, this particular student was upset—offended even—that we were “wasting our time” learning about the work of these guys when they hadn’t built any actual buildings. Well, the built output was either nonexistent regarding Archigram, or lackluster at best in relation to the Smithsons, and even more so in the case of the Smithson’s Robin Hood Gardens where you could convincingly make the argument that the project was both bureaucratically oppressive and spirit-breaking in a structurally defective and criminal-element-incubating kind of way. However, their theories and writings were everything their buildings weren’t: they easily captured the imagination in an egalitarian vision of technology and design-liberating humanity from the gray dullness of modern life. Their failures as builders were only exacerbated by their success as multifaceted thinkers.
But what this particular student tried stubbornly to resist was that architects don’t build buildings, they design them. The term “architect” is both one of the most heavily regulated (thanks NCARB) and also the most capriciously thrown around. (see: Turd Blossom) So there’s a lot of room for interpretation in there. Even unbuilt,Walking cities, streets in the sky, and a utopian city of 5,000 people in the Arizona desert are all inspiring architectural proposals that continue to drive the discussion. Architects work in electronic space—spaces that can capture the imagination on a greater scale than the physical. That mad desert messiah Soleri’s vision was more powerful than Arcosanti, where the image of the city of the future still lingers in the imagination long after you’ve driven out of the desert. Soleri imagined single towers housing a million people, floating cities on the ocean, and merged infrastructure of dams and factories. When thinking small was considered a virtue, he thought big. Soleri constructed a theory that sustains itself long after Arcosanti returns to back to desert scrub. His dream was for a better world yet to come, still waiting to be built.