Arcosanti

One night in the spring of 2018, a friend of a friend told me about a place called Arcosanti. Her husband at the time was an architect and they had visited a few years before. I don’t remember how it came up in conversation, but I may have told her that I love visiting interesting places that are trying to do something completely new. I’m not surprised the conversation landed us in the desert of Arizona.

American migration being what it is, my grandparents moved to Northern Arizona years ago and I got the chance to visit Arcosanti not long after this conversation. It’s right off the highway so I stopped with Nina and my brother on the way to the airport in Phoenix.

My experience of the visit was overall positive and inspiring. Arcosanti is a place completely of its own invention. It is a monolithic, Tatooine-like, concrete village on a ridge overlooking a valley just minutes off the highway. The walls of the room where we ate are enormous, with massive round circular windows and expansive high ceilings to provide space for hot air to rise. The photo below is from the patio off of that room.

The closest thing I can compare the buildings to is the Bangladeshi National Parliament House by Louis Khan. Construction on that complex began just nine years earlier in 1961. As the photos below show, they are both monolithic Brutalist structures, but unlike other brutalist buildings they also have these large round windows that give the structures a lightness. Rather than looking like fortresses, they open to the outside world, draw eyes upward like temples, and let in diffused light while protecting from harsh, hot climates.

Wikipedia image of the Arcosanti cafe
Wikipedia image of the much larger Bangladesh National Parliament House

When we walked in, we stopped by the bookstore first. It was full of books and booklets written by Soleri to promote his vision of the city in the future. His main theory is called “arcology,” merging architecture and ecology to create cities with minimal impact, in close proximity to nature, and in a style that mimics and compliments nature.

I bought one of the recent editions of his Quaderno series titled Lean Linear Arterial City. I’ve added some photos below. When I bought the book, the guys behind the counter joked that the place was started by some Italian guy who planted friendship trees everywhere to make it look like Tuscany, but they have to be watered every day because they aren’t native to the desert. I think that’s a good analogy for most of Soleri’s ideas and maybe Soleri himself. He had the vision, but it would require daily work by other people to make the dreams a reality. He was also unrealistic and in the context of reality some of his dreams seem to contradict.

I love the drawings and the ideas in Lean Linear Arterial City. I love the idea that cities in flood-prone areas could be built on ridges in order to protect inhabitants as well as the areas inland. I also really appreciate the idea of a city that is self-sustaining, energy-producing, efficient, and beautiful. My main critique of this particular idea is that in order for cities to really be resilient I think they need to be more modular. When one structure in a traditional city gets too old for repair, it can be replaced. But if the entire city, miles of steel and concrete, reaches obsolescence, it would disrupt an entire society. I might compare this to The Loop at Apple Headquarters, a building that many have said cannot be split up or retrofitted for many purposes after its current use. For the city below to be constructed and inhabited, there would also need to be a mass relocation of people and abandoning of existing cities. That feels like a waste compared to retrofitting existing cities. But it’s true that eventually we may need to give up on some of our cities. At that point, we will have wished we had started construction on this lean linear city decades earlier.

That is precisely what Saudia Arabia appears to be planning to do with The Line. The comparisons are striking: a linear city built out of nothing, an idealistic vision of the future, powered by clean energy, connected by a sub-structure of futuristic mass transit. Who will live there? What will they do for work? Will there be poverty? Where will the dead be buried? Many questions may go unanswered as they develop The Line. But obviously the city of the future doesn’t have to be a line. In the nearby UAE, a much smaller development called Masdar City is already thirteen years old. Just outside Abu Dhabi. Masdar City is planned in a more traditional grid layout with similar goals of sustainability, innovation, and car-free lifestyle. Unlike The Line, Masdar City is more modular so construction has started and various aspects of the project have been completed while others are still being planned. Even with the seemingly bottomless finances of these oil rich nations, incremental growth still seems like the most realistic approach between these two competing visions of the future.

One thing that sets Arcosanti apart is that it wasn’t commissioned by a nation, aristocrat or corporation. It was the vision of one person, Paolo Soleri. Like many male visionary/architect types, Soleri seems to have had a lot of self-confidence. He doesn’t tether his theories to reality in the sense that most of them were never accomplished. You realize pretty quickly that Arcosanti is just a fraction of what he intended it to be. The writings he left behind are the legacy to another generation that he hoped might carry the torch.

These two developments appear to do just that. They are driven by grand visions and they have received all kinds of criticism, especially The Line. And, as with Arcosanti, even if they don’t accomplish everything, I am excited to see what is left and I hope that it survives in some way. We can’t go on in the way we always have, we must try new things, and it takes visionaries with deep pockets to actually give it a shot. Even if only 10% of the vision becomes reality, it will still push us to reevaluate our lives and our cities they way they are.

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