For Arcosantians, Paolo Soleri is the sun. As if to prove it, our guide pronounced his Christian name much like 'Apollo'. When he arrives at the site, two days a week, from his home in Paradise Valley—in the Valley of the Sun—the initiates rouse themselves from their corvée drudgery and flock to hear him. Soleri is a classic charlatan prophet, the best kind, combining the visionary narcissism of today's 'personality architects'—Koolhaas, Foster, etc.—with the hippie ecologism of Frank Lloyd Wright, under whom he studied, and the scruffy futurist aesthetic typical of the 1960s. He published a book with the MIT Press back in 1969 called The City in the Image of Man—this volume, over twice as wide as it is high, and rich with nonsensical aphorisms and diagrams of projected utopias, is better than science fiction. The book was a response to the urban planning crisis of the 60s—to the world of Jane Jacobs, Constantin Doxiadis, the Smithsons and the Anglo-American campus movement. Its central concept is the 'arcology' (combining architecture and ecology), a compact and sky-high city, a sort of organic techno-paradise. The arcology idea proved popular with the hippie video-game designers of the 1990s, and turned up in both Sim City 2000 and Sid Meier's Civilization. It is no wonder that Soleri has remained an icon for iconoclasts, and for daydreamers.
I like to imagine him strolling in scarlet robes among his Arcosanti minions, doling out kooky aperçus like these as they scrabble for bits of paper, tissue, or even a stray leaf, to jot them down. 'He's very outspoken', our guide gushed; 'if he thinks it's a stupid question, he'll tell you it's a stupid question'. Good, replied D pointedly.
Arcosanti overlooks a valley in the middle of the Arizona desert, an hour's drive north of Phoenix. It is a monument of faded futurism, mostly unfinished concrete and glass. The name is said to mean 'against material things'—anti-cosa—though quite obviously it was intended to suggest a sacred ark as well. Soleri started building in 1970 to house 5,000 people. Almost forty years later, it is 4% complete. The site currently houses 79 permanent residents, 20 odd temporary residents, and 4 non-resident workers. 'It is not a commune', said our guide, 'and it is not a cult—it is an experiment'. Unkind estimates might call it a failed experiment. But the inhabitants seem to like it. Mrs. Roth and I had visited the site once before, but we came again for D's benefit. I asked him if it was how he imagined it, and he replied that it was beyond imagining.
A major part of the site consists of 'apses', large concrete quarter-spheres facing south to conserve heat and light during summer and winter. These are used as amphitheatres and communal spaces, though there are also pools and indoor areas. Dotted around the site are the slim cypress trees of southern Italy, which suits the arid Mediterranean landscape rather well. Cows litter the extensive grounds, watching us as we drive into the site on a dirt road off the highway.
A whiteboard in one room, the only object adorning the bare grey concrete, bore the following program, scrawled in a cramped but energetic hand:
— GLOBAL EMARGENCY TEACHIN —
FEBRUARY 20, 2007
10.00-10.15 AM: WELCOME REMARK
SUSAN SZENASY, EDITOR, METROPOLIS MAG.
10.15-10.45 AM: A THREAT TO THE PLANET
JAMES HANSEN. DIR. NASA GODDARD INS FOR SPACE STUDIES
10.45-11.15 AM: RESUSCITATING A DYING WORLD
EDWARD MAZRIA. DIR. FOUNDER. ARCHITECTURE 2030
11.15-11.45 AM: DOING IS BELIEVING
CHRIS LUEBKEMAN. DIR. GLOBAL FORESIGHT & INNOVATION INITIATIVE. ARUP.
Much of the construction funds for Arcosanti come from the sale of garlic—they claim to be the second biggest producers in the state—and of the clay and bronze bells cast onsite. Our guide admitted that the bronze-founding techniques were not 'professional'—but then, 'Arcosanti is not about professionalism'.
Outside the wind blasts high around the site—tourists dribble in for the hourly tours, and the bells tintinnabulate as ghosts on their long ropes. A sculpture among the trees recasts the Graces as three little girls touching each other; D finds it rather disturbing, but I just laugh. In the gift-shop and in horror Mrs. Roth leafs through a portfolio of Soleri's erotic drawings. Clients—young women—pay him a fee to be sketched nude, and rather poorly too, receiving a single copy for their money. I have already bought a pamphlet and a poster. The latter shows another of Soleri's arcology designs, and reads:
The design finds analogy in eros. Throughout history, this constant drive in our species has been described and inscribed through art and the design of human habitat. Here the tower is the lingam, the male, while two concentric exedrae, semi-circular edifices, are the female, the womb.There are hundreds of bells, ringing in the wind. The TV has been stolen from the rec-room, and has not yet been returned. Is this the ideal of communal living? The children commute 7 miles to the nearest town for their education; our guide tells us that when someone needs medical attention, native tribes can airlift him to a hospital. A phone rings on the helpdesk; perhaps it is Soleri himself? A rustle of excitement passes among the staff. When the guide has finished her short introduction, she asks, 'Any questions?' Questions are asked, which she answers effortlessly. She is relieved that there are no 'troublemakers'. Out of the shade of the cypresses, sheltered from the high winds, the sun beats without mercy.
Update: an Arcosantian reproves me for sloppy reporting. Apparently my two guides gave me a misleading impression of the locals' devotion to Soleri.