Category Archives: Visions

Fighting for Change

Krutikov’s Flying City

25102847There is not really much in the way of a regular biography here, but a look at Krutikov’s early architectural imaginings. It is also an introduction, more a hint of the amazing story of the Vkhutemas (acronym for the Higher Artistic and Technical Studios — architectural studios), two competing schools of the 1920s avant-garde. Aleksandr Vesnin led the Constructivist school, and Nikolai Lavovskii led the Rationalist. Krutikov was one of Lavovskii’s students, and his diploma project that of designing ‘The New Cities’.

The magic of challenging students to imagine the new cities coming to life under socialism…we saw some of Krutikov’s extraordinary images at the Cosmonaut’s exhibition at the Science Museum on the Soviet space program, shown as part of the inspiration for humanity’s leaving the earth for the stars. How could I not investigate further?

in the course if its evolution, humanity has increased the speed at which it is able to move, and that these different forms of transportation have influenced architecture, particularly housing. Krutikov argued that the most recent forms of transport should be regarded as mobile architecture and, as such, they suggested a different way of approaching the problem of the relationship between architecture and the environment. They raised the question: would it ever become possible to detach housing and other buildings from the land? Would it be possible to  free the large amount of land on which buildings now stood? For Krutikov, land was vital to human beings, above all, because it enabled them to create favourable conditions for people on Earth. Was it absolutely necessary, therefore, to cover it with buildings? The dispersal of human settlements throughout the world limited man’s potential to use the land effectively in the interests of society as a whole. (12)

Born in Voronezh to a family of teachers, his main interests from a very early age were painting and space travel. The intensity of intellectual endeavour seems particularly Russian to me, I don’t know anywhere else the following sentence could be possible:

Judging from his drawings for The World, in 1912, the twelve-year-old was not familiar with ‘avant-guard’ painting. (17)

By 15, however, he was attracted by it. Also fascinated by aeronautics and airships. And fascinated by certain types of housing — he published ‘Circular or Semi-Circular Housing’ as a student at the architectural faculty in 1927, and designed this student housing:

IMG_3935

One of the buildings he looks at is the first circular house in Germany by Bruno Taut — designer of the glass house dreamed of by Paul Scheerbart, and it seems to me both must have been influences. Another is the Villa Tournasol (Sunflower House), a rotating house that turns to catch the sun, designed by Lecuyer and Jubault.

I love these years in European architecture, when everything seems possible.

For Krutikov’s final project, his flying city, he submitted a series of 16 boards as the analytical component. They are awesome and reproduced in full in the book. The titles alone are incredibly evocative:

No. 1 – The Visual Distortion of Moving Forms
No. 2 – The Composition of Moving Structures
No. 3 – The Formation of the Dynamic Element
No. 4 – The Evolution of the Forms of Cars and Railway Trains
No. 5 – The Evolution of the Forms of Ships, Airships, and Aeroplanes
No. 6 – Modes of Transportation for Sea, Earth and AirNo. 7 – Rudimentary Mobile Residences (Mobile Country Homes of the West)
No. 8 – Living Conditions in Contemporary Mobile Structures
No. 9 – Portability of Mobile Structures (The Lightness of Material and Construction)
No. 10 – The Evolution of Energetics
No. 11 – Physical Culture and the Future Man (This includes men playing tennis on the wings of an aeroplane)
No. 12 – The Evolution of Buildings (from Wooden Huts to Skyscrapers)
No. 13 – Man’s aspirations to Extend his Horizons
No. 14 – The Conquest of New Spaces and New Horizons
No. 15 – The Conquest of New Spaces and New Horizons (2)

IMG_3931
No. 16 – Dreams — Fantasies — First Experiments — Caricatures — Achievements

IMG_3932

What a time that was! The Russian avant-garde in architecture is heart-stopping in its awesomeness, there is so much more to investigate. Like a casual reference to Anton Lavinskii’s City on Springs.

Here, the flying city (these pictures with the spirals and someone else’s hands, they’re from this site about the book):

krutikov

More the floating city than the flying city, rings of residential and entertainment complexes hovering immobile above an industrial base. Communication between the two is through ‘the universal travel capsule’, imagined as able to move through air and water, with a flexible outer structure able to shift with its occupant, to accommodate their standing or lying down:

kkrutikov

Each of the rings a residential and entertainment complex, designed for ultimate flexibility and movement between privacy and communal living:

krutikovkrutikov

 

For visitors, another type of static residence in the form of a hotel:

krutikov

From his theses:

The fight for the architecture of the future is the fight of today.

I. THE SOCIAL ASPECTS

The international nature of the mobile capsule. Expanding horizons. The disappearance of the state. Community society.

A higher level of spatial organisation, corresponding to a higher level of social organisation.

Instead of linear chaos on the chaotic surface of the Earth there is a graceful organisation in the freedom of three-dimensional space. Linear chaos and the perfection of the circle as spatial contrasts, corresponding respectively to: firstly — the anarchistic and individualistic world of capitalism and secondly to socialism. (85)

***

The principle of flexible planning (planning that can adjust to changes in the way that the living social organism inhabits the city).

The expansion of the architect’s outlook beyond the limits of a narrow class context. The broad connection between architectural questions and all problems stimulating scientific thought. (87)

***

II. THE ARCHITECTURAL ASPECTS

The introduction of the dynamic element into architecture, the fourth coordinate of space (time). The particular perception of moving form. The architecture of mobile structures. The architectural expression of moving form. (87)

There follows more of his work — his ideas on the importance of flexible planning, our inability to predict people’s needs and to continually adjust. His designs for temporary exhibits, monuments and focus on theaters and how architecture can respond to and facilitate new kinds of theatre. His designs for a new Town-Commune of Avtostroi to house factory workers, which outwardly share  much in common with Le Corbusier (there are no servants quarters, though, let’s not forget Le Corbusier couldn’t even fucking imagine a future without the tiresome shenanigans of servants) — large buildings, great open spaces between them.

IMG_3930sm

This is so much more exciting in the air than on the ground.  I like that the main components, however, focus on space for ‘individual relaxation and group (team) interaction…extensive collective social contact…a springboard for mass events’ (100). Also interesting is how he separates sleeping residences from communal residences — reminds me a bit of Alexander’s A Pattern Language with spaces for privacy and sleep but much more focus on collective living and shared spaces for most of our daily activities. He also pays a lot of attention in the designs to the raising of children, how much is done collectively, how integrated it is into the full life of everyone (but not completely). It shows a rare attention, I think, to issues of the family. But this could be more due to the still revolutionary socialist context, where women fought hard, and somewhat successfully, in these early years to raise such issues to greater attention.

And then it is done. There is the onset of the Stalinist Empire style, an initially slightly playful (and probably disdainful) incorporation and reworking of classical architecture as demanded by the party, but that soon ends and the grim period begins…

Fucking Stalin, ruining everything.

For more on architecture and utopia…

Save

Save

Paul Scheerbart and his Glass Utopia

Paul ScheerbartImpossible to summarise Paul Scheerbart, I cannot help but wonder what he was like in person. If he went on and on about glass architecture, perpetual motion. If he only spoke in phrases of satiric certainty. As a tone, it works brilliantly in Glass Architecture, where outrageous claims become more than possible.

The key idea is this one, nice of him to put it out in front. But as I read this amazing Christmas present sitting on my brother’s couch in Chicago in lieu of braving the weather and my stomach flu to see any real glass architecture, I forgot it just a few theses in and only now am I giving it the proper consideration it deserves:

1
Environment and its influence on the development of culture

We live for the most part in closed rooms. These form the environment from which our culture grows. Our culture is to a certain extent the product of our architecture. If we want our culture to rise to a higher level, we are obliged, for better or for worse, to change our architecture. And this only becomes possible if we take away the closed character from the rooms in which we live. We can only do that by introducing glass architecture, which lets in the lights of the sun, the moon, and the stars, nor merely through a few windows, but through every possible wall, which will be made entirely of glass–of coloured glass. The new environment, which we thus create, must bring us a new culture.  (26)

scheerbartMany have argued similar things — that we are products of our architecture, or at least our environment. It is a fairly mad brilliant step to seek to open up our closed rooms, to open everything up to the light (even if not quite to full visibility — I love the use of nacre to shield our most private moments, how beautiful that is).

18
The beauty of the Earth, when glass architecture is everywhere

The face of the earth would be much altered if brick architecture were ousted everywhere by glass architecture. It would be as if the earth were adorned with sparkling jewels and enamels. Such glory is unimaginable. All over the world it would be as splendid as in the gardens of the Arabian Nights. We should then have a paradise on earth, and no need to watch in longing expectation for the paradise in heaven. (38)

Almost I am convinced. I forget when we stopped desiring to establish a paradise on this earth.

Glass architecture is unthinkable without Gothic.  (38)

I love the gothic, the dream of soaring spaces full of light. Perhaps Scheerbart is right, and if they could have constructed in glass rather than being technologically limited to stone, perhaps they would have done so.

I am finding in myself as much nostalgia for this time of infinite architectural possibility as for the revolutionaries of the 1960s who believed the world was theirs to change…I am sad I will never be able to believe in a revolution around the corner, a technology so new, a progress assured and manageable. Not that Scheerbart believes it entirely. But I think he wants to believe, is perhaps challenging himself to believe  — and a part of him does believe in a way impossible now, however tongue and cheek his work is.

Cities in their present form are not yet fifty years old. They can vanish as quickly as they came. Even the permanent way of the steam railway is not immortal. (43)

I liked this:

I am convinced that every constructive idea will appear in many heads at the same time and quite irrationally; one should therefore not speak carelessly about the seemingly confused and crazy; it generally contains the germ of reason. (48)

And this also:

The vacuum-cleaner will naturally be needed as an insect-exterminator. It is absolutely horrifying that today it is still not used for this purpose. That the vacuum-cleaner has already been employed for getting rid of street dust, I take to be a known fact. (50)

This betrays the downside of a city of glass — no dirt. No nature. No insects. Not even dust on city streets. A curious, fastidious kind of utopia and I shudder at the cleaning of it. But I adore this passage on vacuum-cleaners.

I also love his fascination, any fascination, with aeronautics.

37
Direction-finding for aeronautics

Aeronautics will undoubtedly be determined to conquer the night. All towers must therefore become towers of light. (52)

and later

It is generally known that the aeronauts would like to take over the night. that they have not so far done so is easily explained: on the earth the night is not yet light enough. But when, thanks to glass architecture, it has become light down below, it will also be light up in the air…The crucial factor in this is undoubtedly reinforced concrete. (65)

This is not short on technical details as you can see, even though I am leaving them out of this blog. Today some of this insistence on height and light seems almost old-fashioned given the towering skyscrapers that fill London, Chicago, Dubai — but he is prescient really in discussions of building vertically, using iron and metal frames upon which glass is hung, he inserts long discussions of concrete, stone and mosaics, enamels.

Number 58 needs no words, it is pure happiness:

58
Floating architecture

We can talk in all seriousness of floating architecture…The buildings can obviously be juxtaposed or moved apart in ever changing patterns, so that every floating town could look different each day. The floating town could swim around in regions of large lakes–perhaps in the sea too. It sounds most fantastic and utopian, but it is far from being so, if reinforced concrete, shaped to the form of an indestructible vessel, carries the architecture. (64)

And to conclude we come back to how glass architecture will change us, improve us, help us move into our better future.

…our hope is that glass architecture will also improve mankind in ethical respects. It seems to me that this is a principle merit of lustrous, colourful, mystical and noble glass walls. this quality appears to me not just an illusion, but something very real; the man who sees the splendours of glass every day cannot have ignoble hands. (71)

And not just any light, but

We must not strive to increase the intensity of light–today it is already too strong and no longer endurable. But a gentler light is worth striving for. Not more light!–‘more coloured light!’ must be the watchword. (88)

Some of his ideas were put into actual form — by architect Bruno Taut with his Glass House created for the Cologne Werkbund Exhibition in 1914. Here Scheerbart stands inside of it (far left):

Paul Scheerbart in the Glass Pavilion 1914

Around the house can be read Scheerbart’s words (from a collection of adorably bad aphorisms on glass and life written for this purpose):

Coloured glass destroys all hatred at last.

From Bruno Taut:

The Glass House has no purpose other than to be beautiful. It is intended purely as a structure for exhibition and should be a beautiful source of ideas for “lasting” architecture but is not itself intended as such. According to the poet Paul Scheerbart, to whom it is dedicated, the Glass House should inspire the dissolution of current architecture’s far-too-restricted understanding of space and should introduce the effects and possibilities of glass into the world of architecture. May it, in its own way, help to foster a transformation of building toward the light and grace that it currently sorely lacks. (101)

Bruno Taut glass housebruno taut glass housebruno taut glass house

Bruno Taut also designed a set of glass building blocks, useful for imagining the future.

bruno taut dandanehDandanah — The Fairy Palace. They are beautiful, and probably the same colour palette he used for the Glass House.

I want them.

Scheerbart wrote fiction as well, some of which I have to hunt down in Mark’s boxes, but in this volume he writes a glass adventure or two for the Baron Munchausen to relate, though even the Baron himself lacks words to describe the wonder of the Chinese exhibition of glass he visits over a period of days.

Next I saw the Tiffany glass hall.
I looked back out.
Moonlight again!
And the stars are mirrored in the mirrors.
One almost begins to understand infinity. (202)

Paul ScheerbartI think my favourite piece in this book was Perpetual Motion: The Story of Invention (1910). A journal of invention, continual exaggerated hopes for the world’s transformation and a just as continual failure in making this contraption of wheels obtain perpetual motion through gravity.

The exaggerations come in imagining to what uses such energy generated could be put to…

13 January 1908
Building canals in the Sahara could make the whole desert futile.
And in general, if one could instruct all the rivers on Earth to adopt advantageous new courses, a tremendous increase in terrestrial fecundity could be achieved.
In other words: Desert culture on a grand scale.
Compared to this, the Panama Canal is a bagatelle.
***
There’s something dilettantish about always needing to see everything brought to fruition in reality.

and then

14 January 1908
Once–in former days–people used to move house.
Now–people can move mountains.

Paul ScheerbartThere is no limits to what the Perpets can do. The Martians clearly have them, as evidenced by the canals visible on their planet. Perpets can light up the earth for aeronauts (a foreshadowing of the dreams of glass houses). They can build the architecture park necessary for imagining the future using the Harz mountain range in its entirety. People will be able to go traveling carrying their gardens and livestock with them, and thus:

In the early phases, accordingly, we’ll have to reckon with the dissolution of our various fatherlands.

Things will also take a curious turn where languages are concerned. But I certainly hope that the culturally most significant languages can be preserved.

The German language must be saved in any case, otherwise my books will become utterly incomprehensible. And that would drive me stark raving mad. (215)

Then Scheerbart goes on to wonder if given a life of complete ease and plenty, people will become imbeciles…he hopes instead they will turn to astronomy, and plans observatories the size of cathedrals. There are pages of worry over the inevitable negative impacts on literature and theatre when suffering is erased.

After all, the Age of Satire has not yet come to an end. (217)

He is obsessed with motion:

11 February 1908
A garden with rearrangeable parts.
Transportable hedges.
Transportable terraces.

The economy will crash as labour becomes unnecessary and money becomes worthless.

Financial institutions are institutions with which, strictly speaking, I am utterly unfamiliar. If, however, my wheel works, I shall make their acquaintance. But–this acquaintance will not not be a pleasant one. (235)

Pride in work will have to disappear with work itself, and so will the Social Democrats. Belief in God will also disappear, to be replaced with religious awe. The earth itself might seek to follow its heart’s desire, escape its orbit and go off into the universe (the subject of one of the short stories).

Brilliant.

But wait, I think perhaps what I actually loved most of all was the ‘Gallery of the Beyond.’

As is generally known, it is only in the twentieth century, according to our accounting of time, that microscopic study of the photographic plates provided by the great astronomical observatories has begun to yield some results…This much is already certain: the plates taken in the region of the heavens near Neptune, an area characterized by a remarkable brightness, present new views of our world that are nothing less than exhilarating–that these are cosmic images can no longer be doubted. (283)

These views show amazing component creatures, with their cometlike limbs. I think this particular creature was my favourite, I am jealous of someone able to hang it on their wall.

Paul ScheerbartHere is another:

Paul Scheerbart

No, I cannot choose a favourite. I can’t at all.

I quite love Scheerbart. I didn’t get as much from the many essays of scholars and artists sprinkled liberally throughout this volume, but Scheerbart is enough, is he not?

Save

Short Films that will blow you away, and other thoughts on The New Scientist afternoon at Sci-Fi London

bg_headerI can’t remember the last time I was blown away by a short film — actually I can, because it was Robots of Brixton which if you don’t know you should watch immediately — but one of the sets of shorts at the afternoon hosted by Simon Ings of the New Scientist had some of the best things I have seen in ages. Like this:

The Centrifuge Brain Project from Till Nowak.

Nothing beat this short for laugh-out-loud, jaw-dropping, fear-of-heights-induced-eye-covering and thought-provoking action. I think it might have been a mistake to open with it, because nothing else quite lived up to its awesomeness.

SEFT-1 Abandoned Railways Exploration Probe (Ivan Puig and Andrés Padilla Domene (2014)) did come close, as the enjoyable film is only the tip of the iceberged project of much deeper, more amazing, and a longer concentrated effort.

It’s an exploration of the past, of the Mexican Revolution and its use of the railways in armed uprising, of the birth of villages along the route where the trains needed to take on more water and coal, of the history of nationalisation and then decay — an exploration of all this things through the physical landscape using a special earth-and-rail-running vehicle crafted as a space exploration probe, collecting stories and interviews along the way.

I am filled with unbearable loss that I could not be part of such a amazing thing that brings together the social, cultural, political, physical nature of hopes for the future and their ruins. I look forward to exploring it at length.

The three other shorts that followed were all enjoyable and thought provoking. Growth Assembly by Daisy Ginsberg and Sacha Pohflepp (2009) explores the potential of engineering new commodities to be grown as plants (products will no longer be shipped, only seeds which then can be grown) through the use of seven different plants to create a herbicide sprayer — an obvious irony I know, but this is clever. Studio Swine’s Hair Highway looks at the uses of human hair in unexpected ways, beautifully done. The final one, Magnetic Movie by Semiconductor shows the wonder of magnetic fields around us, and they are wondrous indeed.

A few other shorts stood out, making me worry that I do not spend enough time seeking them out. Like The Afronauts by Cristine De Middel (2013) about Zambia’s space program, and The Moon by Pavel Klushantsev (1965) about all the things humans will build on the moon once we get there, you don’t need to speak Russian to understand its awesomeness. The other films, however, were more artistic and ranged from actively annoying to vaguely interesting for a few seconds and then boring making you wish they were even shorter — reminding me of why in fact I don’t like most shorts. I was bit embarrassed to laugh at the man kicking the robot dog for example. Still, 7 brilliant ones I had never seen made up for the rest.

Discovering things like this is why I love eclectic afternoons put together like this one, exploring the Science Fiction Future. It had opened with a lovely keynote from Alastair Reynolds, who I confess to not having read but that shall be remedied. I love Gerry Anderson references and space, the call for a critical SF that retains a sense of fun, but that also engages with the world and goes beyond shiny gadgets (but keeping shiny gadgets because let’s face it, they are SO cool). But what most made me think was a comment that obviously referred back to the whole sad puppy debate in the US, the efforts of right wing and exclusionary people to control and define the genre. He noted that all of this was a spillover from the American Culture Wars but that it was having global effects. All my academic work has been looking at race and the city, the physical and concrete aspects of these culture wars that I argue underpins them — the awfulness of that impacting on world culture hit me like a blow. How much more vital that we understand it, do what we can to fix it though sometimes I despair of that.

The first panel on Museum exhibitions and ‘Unreliable Evidence’ contained Doug Millard, who talked about Russian space exploration and the upcoming exhibit at the Science Museum which I am looking forward to immensely. But then there was the Lost in Fathoms project, shown at the GV Art gallery — an exploration of the sudden disappearance of the fictional Nuuk Island. The pictures were nice, the thought of standing in the rift in Iceland and touching two continental plates amazing. Still, the anger such an abstracted look at climate change, geological shiftings, oceanographic explorations (all those glass containers of water from around the world, collected at different depths. What a great use of collaboration with the oceanographic international community!) runs fairly deep. Possibly because the oceans are rising, causing the non-fictional loss of entire islands, their states, their people forced to seek new homes. Possibly because sands are spreading causing desertification, similarly forcing people from their ancestral lands and contributing to instability and violence in places like Mali, Chad and Nigeria. Such luxury and privilege to ignore these things, what a message that in itself sends.

I was also a bit puzzled about the field of fashion forecasting, though I did rather like the idea of fashion as clothing that has been mediatised, narrativised.

The second panel also had moments of deeply interesting ideas and a lot of moments without…Pat Kane’s giant head on skype from Glasgow was very charismatic though surprisingly academic. I really enjoyed thinking about the opposition between the politics of nudge and behaviour modification, and the politics of play. The one controlling and patronising, the other seeking to create spaces of openness. I would love to help create this world where play is respected, where shorter work weeks and citizen’s wages allow more time for us to explore our worlds, to honor our efforts to create meaning, to engage with the physical world around us and to have autonomy in how we do that. This is what is needed for a full life, and I think we should demand it.

Sadly no one else really engaged in this call for a revolution in our political economy.

I will, however, be checking out the game Ingress, that creates a virtual game reality layered on top of the city. That sounds cool.

At this point our heads were full, and if revolution wasn’t on the table (which it didn’t seem to be) we were pretty done with this programme. It was nice to share a room with so many people though, giving up a Saturday afternoon to explore things like this.

Sci-Fi London still has a few days left, check it out.

Don Toñito Mendez, Presente

Growing up poor, I was predisposed to believe in revolution. Don Toñito only confirmed me in this.

When I was 21, I moved to LA because I had finally found work fighting the immigration fight, finally gotten a job at CARECEN. I started work the day I flew in, a horrible, brown, smoggy day — we arrived downtown before I could properly see it. My heart hurt.

I missed home. I kept missing it for years, but those first six months were the hardest months of my life I think. Those first six months when I slept on the floor and cooked with only one saucepan. Starting in a city like that, no money, no friends or family, no car, no hard city face to keep men away.

Don Toñito was one of the people who helped me through it. Kindness radiated from him, a huge smile always, one that filled a room. I towered over him, because my own childhood poverty still came with good nutrition, proper protein, vaccinations. I couldn’t understand him very well at first, was still getting attuned to the sounds of El Salvador so different from Mexico, but it didn’t really matter.

He took the pictures that people needed to renew their work permits, apply for residency and citizenship. He sold beautiful crafts — downstairs I still hang my keys from the enameled wood of a Salvadoran village and a Dios Protege Este Lugar. But best of all, he sold books. Spanish books, radical books, with cheap covers and thin paper. Marta Harnecker, Radio Venceremos, Liberation Theology, Roque Dalton, Manlio Argueta. I saved up for them.

It is all foggy now, too distant. He told me stories of San Salvador streets from when he was a kid, and best of all, the FMLN, the struggle. Mostly stories about close shaves, like the time the soldiers were searching for him and Violeta Menjívar, some of them walking down the streets, others along the roof. He loaned me an old cassette of songs about Che Guevara, told me about Victor Jara, showed me footage on battered old VHS  of the FMLN entering San Salvador after the war was over. Told me jokes I didn’t always understand, but couldn’t help laughing with him.

I would sit and write people’s stories about death and destruction, rape and torture. They still fill me those stories. When it was too much I would go say hello to Don Toñito and he would make me feel better, make me instinctively feel the love and hope for the future that was the foundation for the FMLN’s fight. The need in that place and at that time to fight to change the world. This could not redeem such suffering, such brokenness, but help situate it, help to bear it.

Because I was only holding the reflection of it in my heart after all, not the actual shattering grief.

Don Toñito held this grief, transformed it into a radiating kindness and humour and hope. I was so proud to be his friend, and there is no one I would trust more to help transform this world into a better one. He lives on in the way I see things, the way I struggle for change, and hopefully, in a piece of my smile.

Compañero Don Toñito, presente.

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:

IMG_0788

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:

IMG_0900

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:
IMG_0791

IMG_0793
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:

IMG_0846
IMG_0843

IMG_0847
It’s beautiful set there in the side of the mesa. Eating breakfast we saw deer coming down the hill:
IMG_0857

IMG_0854

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).

1313186976-image-29-1000x694

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:

IMG_0888 IMG_0890 IMG_0893 IMG_0863 IMG_0871 IMG_0872 IMG_0892

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

IMG_0875

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

IMG_0884

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.

IMG_0897 IMG_0885 IMG_0882

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

Save