Sunday, May 24, 2009


Due north of Phoenix, where the desert is still dry, but has begun to roll and tip and actually have creeks with water in them, a visionary Italian architect called Paolo Soleri bought a huge tract of land in 1970, and preceded to begin building a city.

There is a picture of my brother at my parent’s house, lean and bearded, leaning on a shovel in only cut off shorts and work boots. Behind him is an arch, and the whole picture is sort of bleached out, suggesting blinding sun and heat. My brother went to Arcosanti for a workshop with Paolo Soleri which was part seminars on his theories of city planning, and part working on the city.

In the visitor center there is a model of this city, some 5-6 buildings now complete are in grey, small on the edge of an arroyo, and behind them in white are huge curved shell like apartment complexes and open spaces and green houses and fields and, well a whole city, yet unbuilt.

The dream is a sort of compacted city that needs no cars, everything you need, work, play home, shop, is within walking distance. The vast waste of suburban yards and parking lots and roads and streets and highways is rendered obselete. It was an intriguing idea in the 70’s, and seems fresher today, at least in theory. Soleri makes no attempt to dictate behavior, only wants to provide the structure for a more ecologically thrifty way of living. He calls it Arcology, Architecture + ecology. He is still a successful practicing architect, modern, quirky, organic concrete shapes, and also supervises the making of ceramic and cast metal wind bells. The income from the bells, his work, and seminar fees was to pay the way for construction. Architecture students (including my brother), and seekers and hiders still come, 6,000 of them since 1970.

The tour takes us from the 4 story visitor center, hung over the edge of the arroyo, up stairs and down, past the naves, band shell like, that house the ceramics and casting operations,

the big double vault of the concert hall,

and the amphitheatre.

These all face the south, and behind them are living quarters, all fairly small.

There are lots of nice planting and Italian cypress, mature and a nice vertical accent to the naves.

We are instructed in the rudiments of Arcology, and the offerings of the workshops.

Paolo Soleri was born in 1919. He studied at Taliesin with Frank Lloyd Wright. Great ideas, a great style, and years of admirable work here, and at Cosanti the smaller Phoenix center.

And now ? The road in is rough dirt, the concrete of the buildings is showing it’s age. There is a sort of dreamy hopefulness about the place, but not a great fire of zeal and ambition. Unfinished projects are everywhere, steps half done. The bells are arty and sound good in the AZ wind, but how many bells will the market bear? Arcosanti was to be a laboratory for Arcology, testing, tweaking and demonstrating. I’m by no means in the mainstream or even a backwater of architecture or city planning, but Soleri’s ideas seem to be lost in the desert, a side bar in alternative living ideas. Maybe there aren’t enough hippies left. Well, we are all still here, but we are too old to take our sleeping bags off into the desert and work with cement, or cast bells. I did have a moment of wondering if I could do that, more out of curiosity about what it would be like, not a burning desire to change the face of urban society. The spaces that are here are well thought out, at least the part that we get to see, lots of different levels and nooks relieved by the big open public spaces. I really wish I could have seen a living space.

The ones designed for the resident architects and other important folks look very open and full of desert light, I suspect the others may be a little cramped. The site has a good view over fields and the rolling desert.

I wonder how such changes could ever be made, to get us to give up our cars and our yards and our possessions and the setting to display them. For one thing, our financial world depends on the selling of all this to us, and to the example of public display of wealth. We have a serious mess on our hands right now because of this insidious system. The homes in the suburbs that have choked our roads with cars are now emptying, the cars and their makers are in trouble. The tangles of roads are getting old and weak, the fumes are killing our protection from the blasting sun.

So much of what Soleri identified as dangerous is coming true, but can we live in a rabbit warren of small apartments ? Can we be content with just a few stores ? How will we know if we have succeeded in life ? And can we do this out in the Arizona desert ?
Alas, it seems faded, naïve. But I am really glad I finally got to see what my brother was up to out in the Arizona desert.


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