27 February, 2007

Return to Arcosanti

The Egyptians believed that the unblessed dead languish in darkness under the earth. Their punishment was a separation from the light of the sun. But during the night the sun's bark—the Boat of Millions of Years—passed under the horizon and sailed slowly through the sectors of the underworld. The dead souls, briefly lit by the fiery god, would rise up to meet him, enjoying a moment of respite from their agonising tenebrity.

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:


FEBRUARY 20, 2007

10.00-10.15 AM: WELCOME REMARK





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'.

A spine of garlic, and bronze bells

The bronze foundry

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.


Andrew W. said...

Why is it that no one wants to live in a utopia?

Is the form of the city too fixed in our minds, so that Arcosanti only appeals to those on the margins, or perhaps, those unable to see the form itself?

And a life of brilliant nonsense doesn't sound so bad to me. I suspect Paracelsus died a happy man.

As always, you inspire me (us) in myriad ways.

Erik said...

Something for engaged architects. Saving energy and using "sustainable" materials is a must for any architect, especially today. "Eco" finds it root in "oikos" the Greek word for house. Any resistance to "preaching" eco-structures and -buildings by the eco-priests stems from, I think, our human inclination to master, and not to be part of nature. Mastering nature is expressed in Shanghai's, New York's and Dubai's sylines and huge and/or unnatural buildings, built to impress and dominate. Impressing and dominating is fine, as long as their systems are in harmony with natural resources as much as possible. A project taking 800 years to be finished (5% = 40 years) seems OK as an example against speed and time=money attitudes. Many cities are older than 800 years and are still not completed. Also cathedrals took often centuries to get finished. It's the process that counts, not the result, like life itself.

Conrad H. Roth said...

It's a good question, Otto. I think one good reason is simply that it's not much fun. The minority push towards social(ist) utopias is something I've long had an interest in, but never got around to doing proper research into. One day.

Erik, you're right, although Soleri himself planned the development to be much faster; the tone of the place is actually rather melancholy and disappointed. Although there is a rhetoric of process, there is also the sense of 'look what might have happened'. I do not sneer, though: I find the whole affair intriguing and moving.

Anonymous said...

A very nice piece, Conrad. It's interesting to compare this now-slightly-tatty instantiation of futurism past to the capitalist utopia-for-rent of a Disneyland, a perfectly plastic autonomous zone, yours to rent for a day.

The arcology often functions as an icon of the future in science fiction, a symbolic shorthand that says, Look! Someday, we shall live differently than we do today.

Admin said...

Jumping in for a bit of apology; I'm generally mellow, but for whatever reason (likely that your article came to me and all the other tour guides with a strong reproof attached to it) I seem to have come a bit unhinged. Maybe its living here....

Anyway, you did nail one thing; the pervasive melancholy of the place. There is a real sense of missing a mark. You suggested Arcosanti might be considered a "failed experiment" and in some ways, I would not argue that. But as anyone who has been in even a high school laboratory knows, failed experiments can be the most fruitful and interesting if you are willing to learn from the failures. Maybe that is the ultimate contribution of Arcosanti.

(Aside: Jerry Pournelle and Larry Niven's book Oath of Fealty about a successful arcology, paints Arcosanti in that light.)

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for this, Ric. I'm very grateful for your comments and corrections. The situation you describe in your reply on your own blog--of the disjunction between Soleri 'up there' and you guys 'down here'--is if anything more interesting than the one I imagined. I wish I'd known about this a week ago, and managed to speak to the residents in person. That, no doubt, would have made a much more worthwhile piece. Still, I'm content to leave it in the air as a tantalising suggestion.

I agree with your comments about experimentation, and will have a look at Pournelle and Niven.

Anonymous said...

I will say as a long term resident of Arcosanti I have often cringed at what I have heard some of our tour guides say. It is true that we are one of the largest producers of organic garlic in the state of Arizona which is actually a pretty sad commentary of the state of organic garlic production in Arizona given how little garlic we actually produce in any given year.

It would be hard to say what perturbed many of us here at Arcosanti the most; your article or the dysfunctional tour guide that took you around the site. Judging by the accompanying pictures you weren't all that long ago which of course was right in the middle of one of the coldest winters we have had in a while. It's hard to be happy and joyful and upbeat all the time much less when you are freezing your buns off. Come back in the summer when we have had a chance to thaw out a bit.

To think that you think we rouse ourselves from our drudgery to flock to hear Paolo almost made me fall out of my chair from laughing so hard. First, there are no drudges here. That is what goes on in the world outside Arcosanti as you struggle for your continued existence day after dreary day. Although, I know Paolo would castigate anyone here who even suggested Arcosanti was utopian in any way. The idyllic near utopian lifestyle of Arcosanti was never its intent but rather grew out of a shared common core around which Arcosanti was built. Arcosanti gives us glimpses of what the world might be like when greed is no longer the motivating factor in the world. As for the flocking, they pretty much have to pay us to waive the flag around here.

As one who grew up in an age when being a hippie actually meant something, and never really sold out to the system, I kind of bristle when people tend to misuse the term. I can't imagine Frank Lloyd Wright being a hippie anything in any kind of connotation. The only thing the '90s had were hippie wannabes and I doubt that the multi-millionaire games designers of Sim City and Civilization could be considered hippies by any stretch of the imagination; geeks maybe, but not hippies.

Sure the favorite topic around here is: what's wrong with Arcosanti. But, we live here and have passed through the fire and become a part of a very exclusive club and earned the right to complain if we want. Even at 4% complete Arcosanti, as one man's dream, is a staggering accomplishment given the fact it has been self-funded and has lacked skilled professional managers and workers. The potential for true greatness is here as it is in any seed, but like any seed Arcosanti may never become the embodiment of Soleri's dream. But, we dream it anyway.

Anonymous said...

My grandparents came to Cordes Junction in the late 60's, my grandparents were here when Paolo wanted to start his idea of an Arcology named, "Arcosanti". My grandparents, helped when help was needed and the residents of Arcosanti also helped my grandparents when help was needed, the very foundation that was my grandparents home was made by the residents of Arcosanti. You imagine that the people who come to Arcosanti flock just to see Paolo, most people come to Arcosanti to see what an arcology is, and see what kind of help they can offer in the process. My parents moved us here in the early 70's, and when I was a little girl I used to come here with my grandparents or I would visit with friends who lived there. I grew up in Cordes Junction, and I can honestly say that the community I grew up in was the best choice that my parents could have made. We didn't have computers, videogames, all that stuff that kids have today, we had to find things to do, hike 4 miles to the creek, which we did almost everyday, we didn't have to worry about getting run over by a car, or worry that someone was going to break into our house, we did not have the fear that most children in a big city grow up with.

The Cordes Junction I knew is no longer the rural area where I could run down the street with my dog, or go to the pool for a swim, or just go to an empty lot and play baseball with my family or the kids who grew up in Cordes. I can't go to my brothers house and watch the wild animals walk through his front yard like I used to do when I was a child. It has become a small town where people want to control every move that you make. After raising my family I moved to Arcosanti 2 years ago, and it was the best choice I could have made, I do not "flock" to Paolo, I live here because I agree with his idea of keeping our land mass as natural as possible, living here keeps me out of my vehicle poluting the atmosphere day after day, I don't have to own a house and have all the headaches that come along with owning a house, I can watch the wild animals from my window, I can visit with a neighbor after an 8 hour day at work and not be exhausted from commuting and working. I get to exercise everyday on my way to and from work. I can walk less than a quarter of a mile and have a great camping spot. Can you get any of this where you live?

We have rules and regulations just like the big cities do, but the best thing about Arcosanti is the "PIECE OF MIND" you feel everyday living and working here.

I guess the mistake you made was your perception of Arcosanti and the faults you made by assumption, plus the fact you did not have a very good tour guide, instead of getting more facts or asking more questions, you took what you heard in one hour and sized it all up from there, that was your mistake.

As a tour guide for Arcosanti I was disturbed by what you had written, my love for Arcosanti has nothing to do with Paolo, it has everything to do with preserving the land around us and keeping 1000's of acre's from becoming black tar, house's, apartment complexes, or a shopping mall. 25 acres of land will be used to house and work 5000 people, to me that is remarkable, and a blessing in disguise.

If you should ever return to Arcosanti and I hope that you do, you will take the time and get to know and feel what Arcosanti is all about.

Conrad H. Roth said...

R. and Virginia, thanks very much for your comments. I am now more glad than ever to have written this piece. As I said to Ric, I apologise if my comments or opinions offended you. In my defense it was partly humorous, and might have been taken with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, it is evident that I did have some serious misinformation from the last guide. I will add again that although the two guides (from two trips) were my only sources of information about Arcosanti, I do own Soleri's books, and know more about his more general ideas.

Virginia's description of the benefits of Arcosanti interested me for the reason that they reminded me very strongly of campus life in Britain.

As I also said to Ric, I am not remotely contemptuous of Arcosantian ideals, and as I have mentioned in the comments here, communal utopianism--please excuse the word, R. B., but it is in a tradition and I do think it appropriate, albeit not in a science fiction sense--is something that fascinates me. I am moved by your hope, R. B., and by your satisfaction, Virginia, and delighted to see that there is plenty of positivity about the project from the residents.

Anyway, thanks for your comments, which like Ric have provided a welcome corrective, and moreover another dimension, to my vision of Arcosanti.

Mrs. Lily-Plum Roth said...

I am bemused by all of the palaver, although I suppose that I can understand the prickly protectiveness of the actual residents of Arcosanti.

For my part, I am admiring of what Arcosanti represents, in terms of vision and idealism and I asked our guide a lot of questions about life there...both times we've been.

The thing that disturbs me most is the fact that Mr. Roth's article was sent to all of the tour guides accompanied by "a strong reproof". This is the sort of thing that gives Arcosanti a bad name. The ideals of Arcosanti sound fantastic...but when you come across as humourless, pedantic and rigid, that does not create an impression of a true community that is supportive of each other and welcoming to outsiders. Education should be the goal...the people commenting here seem eager to instruct Mr. Roth about Arcosanti, but whoever sent that "strong reproof" needs to lighten up!

Mrs. Roth

Anonymous said...

Mr. and Mrs. Roth,
Did you come to Arcosanti to truely find out the meaning of why Paolo started this project or did you come here to find amusement and fault with everything he has tried to accomplish?

Mrs. Roth you seem confused by all the "IDLE CHATTER" or "CHARM", we are trying to reach out and let you know that we do not appreciate the article that was written, it would have been better if you had not come at all.

To the people living and working at Arcosanti the article was more damaging than people actually coming to visit Arcosanti. Word of mouth is the best resource for letting people know about Arcosanti, it's articles like yours that make us cringe everyday because we know that someone is going to read the out landish tale that was written and then let other people know what was said.

We do not expect everyone coming to Arcosanti to be satisfied, we only want people to know what we are trying to accomplish and hope that other people will take heed and follow. Arcosanti is here to help teach people that we need to do something now, not later. I am sorry that you had such a bad experience when you visited Arcosanti, but please do not make it worse by writting insulting remarks about Arcosanti.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Anonymous, I think you're far more guilty of missing the point than I was. You would have to be heavy-brained to think that I was trying to find fault with everything about Arcosanti. It seems as if much of the misinformation came from your camp; however, the residents who left earlier comments here--Ric, Virginia and R. B.--have afforded the 'outside world' a better insight into the place than any tour guide could have done.

Admin said...

Which probably has something to do with Virginia, R., and myself all being tour guides ;-).

Seriously, if you happen to be up this way again, I do tours most Saturday's and Sunday's at 1pm. It would be a pleasure.

I would also like to clarify that the reproof was with the intention of pointing out the importance of always being as accurate as possible and being careful of what you say even in jest. I do not believe that it was intended as a "toe the Arco line or else."

Anonymous said...

Re: the sketches,

I was honored to pose for Paolo in his program a few years ago (I was 35). It was at no charge. He does 3 sketches and I got to keep my choice. The others are then held for a period of time to protect privacy, and then they may be available for purchase.

Please never imply anything was distasteful - he was completely a gentleman at all times, never once being anything other than an artist.

It is a celebration of the female form as well as beauty in our reproductive capabilities. Of course the most attractive body sketches sell fastest, however when you view his sculptures and bells, you will see that Paolo celebrates the maternal over sensual.