Arcosanti: Architecture in the Desert 2

It’s hard to imagine two more different visions for architecture and urban/home living than Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West and Paolo Soleri’s vision for Arcosanti.  We didn’t know until the tour that Soleri had been an apprentice at Taliesin in 1947-48. There are at least two things tying them together, however, and that is the building of a community, and a method of learning by doing. I love both of them.

You can stay at Arcosanti overnight, and so we did. Soleri writes:

1088295The planet is richly endowed with what mass-consumption culture calls marginal lands. Far from the main transportation networks, hard to “colonize”, and poor in resources, such lands are for the most part beautiful and at times inspiring. These are reserves where future cultures might flourish, saving the fertile plains for much needed crop cultivation.

The Project is located on such marginal land. Part of the test is to demonstrate not just the viability (self-reliance) of a community on such land, but also the beauty and inspiration such environs engender. The so-called cradles of civilization seemed to opt for such razor-edged conditions.

We arrived in the late afternoon, the mesa took my breath away:


Arcosanti is founded on this central principle:

Complexity-Miniaturization-Duration Imperative

From bacteria to God, three basic parameters are present:

COMPLEXITY: Many events and processes cluster wherever a living process is going on. The make-up of the process is immensely complex and ever intensifying.

MINIATURIZATION: The nature of complexity demands the rigorous utilization of all resources — mass-energy and space-time, for example. Therefore, whenever complexity is at work, miniaturization is mandated and a part of the process.

DURATION: Process implies extension in time. Temporal extension is warped by living stuff into acts of duration. A possible resolution of “living time” is the metamorphosis of time into pure duration, i.e., the eventual “living outside of time.”

A community meant to become a “living organism” succeeds if it is congruent with the complexity-miniaturization-duration paradigm. If it is not, it will not continue to improve itself. Although the paradigm is very general, it is also a clear, forceful, normative light for any living process to follow. At Arcosanti, we try to be aware of such norms and be coherent with them. Nature and the living are dependent on such coherence. The rewards are many as the following topics point out (11).

I had just finished reading The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene, and this language resonated so strongly, is so influenced by the breakthroughs in quantum physics Greene describes (and much more clearly too). Soleri uses the concepts of space-time and energy and entropy, holds astronomers dealing with the immense and the minute as models, his later topics describe Arcosanti as a useful model for the settlement of space. It is hardly surprising that this mix of science, philosophy and a kind of 1960s spirituality without the hedonism called Arcology (architecture + ecology) would become immensely popular with SF writers (though mostly in the cause of evil, as in Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle).

Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory? is a series of 63 single-page topics to thought about, meditated over, it is almost a religious text and the preface is by a professor of theology. This particular book doesn’t enter into eros at all, but the drawings and later writings do. This poster is from the cafe along with a model of the original vision for Arcosanti, and represents the joining of the male and the female, there is as much D.H. Lawrence here as Frank Lloyd Wright:


Our lodgings were very simple, clean and comfortable as you could imagine given that ‘The Project proposes frugality as a better way of life’ (60). The view was anything but frugal however:

Cold though. Very damn cold. It’s like architects from afar don’t understand the extremes of temperature experienced in the desert. We heard more talk of passive solar heating, but I smelled the delicious wood fire of at least one long term resident. Our inefficient space-heater paled by comparison. We went for a little walk before dinner to more fully experience the space: IMG_0811 IMG_0828 IMG_0806IMG_0839
Dinner was delicious, but as you can imagine the dining hall/cafe was also very hard to heat. We went to bed early, the cold demanded it. Interesting to find another utopian building  (though Soleri rejected the idea of utopia) built in massive concrete, but of a completely different form to Britain’s social building of the 50s and 60s. Again I wondered at the lack of insulation.

This is Arcosanti in the morning from across the wash that runs along the bottom of the mesa, our guest rooms and then the main complex:


It’s beautiful set there in the side of the mesa. Eating breakfast we saw deer coming down the hill:


It has plenty of inspiration, but ultimately fails in achieving Soleri’s vision I think. This is a key insight into what was needed (and is still needed by any such community developing a new way of life through how we structure our living and working spaces):

11: Exodus of Populations Toward the Megacities

This is one of the most critical problems of population, resource, culture and ecological coherence. There are no real answers in sight. How shall we balance the magic of the big city with the magic of the village or the small town? Economic enticement is not a sufficient nor an adequate solution to the problem of decentralization. A culture is not just a by-product of economic proficiency.

The Project is 65 miles from Phoenix, 36 miles from Prescott and 80 miles from Flagstaff. It will succeed as a “population fixer” only if the mentioned but not described magic can become an integral part of it. It goes without saying that the magic is found in the intense and spirited “urban effect” we might be able to generate at Arcosanti (23).


Arcosanti was also supposed to be a laboratory in planning. Many of the topics deal with the evils and wastefulness of suburbanization and sprawl, commuting, and above all segregation:

Segregation is the most pervasive threat to the dignity and well-being of the individual and the group. Segregation is endemic It goes from the segregation of ages to race, ethnicity, occupation, wealth, religion, and real estate. To reduce its impact and to construct a condition more effective and equitable is an enormous task and an urgent one (35).

In Topic 28 ‘Social Science Versus the Art of Living’, Soleri writes:

One intent of the Project is to “legislate by design.” Two instances are: A) by not having roads, Arcosanti excludes the presence of the car; B) by mixing living, learning, and working, Arcosanti breaks down the ill effects of zoning. What the project wants to avoid is planning the lives of its residents. They are offered a specific grid of environmental resources (the instrument) within which to act and play out their lives (the music) (46).

This concept is remarkably like Lefebvre’s city as ouevre, though Lefebvre would undoubtedly insist that the residents have as much to say about the construction of the grid as to how they play it. Like Lefebvre, Soleri also touches on the fundamental question of land ownership in topic 33: ‘Ownership: Public Versus Private’ (though avoiding any discussion of capitalism, the forces behind property ownership, the forces making the building of his vision impossible/why the State has never invested in such a project and etc):

The “God given right to private property” is an egregious lie. Nothing is more alien to grace than holding on to something other than knowledge and emotions. But then, reality is not graceful, and there are contingent reasons for the existence and justification of ownership. The fact remains that both science and religion tell us that everything is interlaced with everything else, therefore anything I hold onto also belongs to others (53).

An attempt to build an arcology failed here under our current system of government and land ownership. What you find at Arcosanti is a kernel of the original vision, a glimpse of what could have been. It is too small, far too small, to achieve anything like the magical ‘urban effect’, 50 to 100 people live here now rather than the 5,000 envisioned by Soleri. There is no ‘urban’ magic. This has made so much of the intellectual, artistic and cultural dynamism Soleri dreamed of impossible to create.

The project was never meant to be self-sustaining, rather self-reliant while still enmeshed in a larger network. Still, I was surprised at what seemed a fairly half-hearted attempt just at self-reliance, especially with all the work around permaculture that has been developed and fits in so well with ideas of arcology. Such self-reliance also requires an immense amount of specialised knowledge and skill, and without a larger population I imagine this is difficult to find.

Instead it seems to have become a symbol of an alternative, a concrete reminder that something else is possible. This is important in itself of course, but in this monument I hate to see the grandness of the vision lost, though perhaps the kernel will still grow. Today it seems to have become almost entirely about an alternative lifestyle, and teaching and learning by doing, focused very concretely on earthcasting as an architectural/metal-working/ceramic technique. The tour showed both how the famous bells were made through molds of sand, as well as many of the arches and tiles:

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Just as at Taliesin West there is a very cool performance space (though still waiting for its roof):


More lovely communal spaces — and the music on top of the piano is an interesting reflection of a diverse community:


But the idea of an urban laboratory still seems remote, particularly one that is breaking down segregation by race, age and etc. Even so, I am glad to have such a symbol in the world, still working as a community while remaining open to visitors to allow them to find their own inspiration and further think about and develop ways that we can live well upon the earth.

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Other Architecture in the Desert posts:
Taliesin West | Before ‘Architects’ | Mining Zombies, Cadavers and Ghosts


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