Long before eco-cities entered the popular imagination, designer Paolo Soleri envisioned Arcosanti, an experimental city for 5,000 people in the Arizona high desert, 70 miles north of Phoenix. While falling short of projections, Arcosanti continues as an urban laboratory focused on innovative design, community, and environmental accountability.
A Stabilizing Series of Design Elements
Based on the concept of Arcology, or ecological architecture, it evolved to confront environmental destruction, economic collapse, and social dislocation, creating an energy-efficient urban form within a modern city, blended with the open wilds.
Soleri advocates recycling of materials, waste reduction, energy conservation, and renewable energy sources. Cities should be dense, not sprawling. Expansion, through construction, should move upward, not sprawl outward, in order to reduce the impact on the landscape and create a community of people living close together. Surrounding areas should remain as green or natural landscapes.
Paolo Soleri passed away April 2013 at the age of 93. Read a lovely meditation on his futuristic desert utopia here.
Arcosanti’s large, compact structures and large-scale solar greenhouses would occupy only 25 acres of a 4,060-acre land preserve, keeping the natural countryside in close proximity to urban dwellers. People should be able to live, work, and shop within this area, without need for cars. Some of these ideas were later taken up by the New Urbanism, and certainly championed by proponents of Ecological Urbanism.
Arcology is Paolo Soleri’s concept of cities, where traditional boundaries between architecture, ecology, biology, urban design, sociology, environmental studies, and art dissolve and blend. Some have compared this with eco-architect Michael Reynolds’ Earthship Biotecture movement, about off-the-grid, sustainably-designed structures. The do-it-yourself functionality of Earthships has the capacity to advance Soleri’s comprehensive vision of urbanism, yet they remain as differing paths to sustainability, with Arcosanti advocating collective, Earthship more individualistic.
“Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory,” a short documentary on the vision of Paoli Soleri in the high desert of Arizona.
“In nature, as an organism evolves it increases in complexity and it also becomes a more compact or miniaturized system. Similarly a city should function as a living system. Arcology, architecture and ecology as one integral process, is capable of demonstrating positive response to the many problems of urban civilization, population, pollution, energy and natural resource depletion, food scarcity and quality of life. Arcology recognizes the necessity of the radical reorganization of the sprawling urban landscape into dense, integrated, three-dimensional cities in order to support the complex activities that sustain human culture. The city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind.” —Paolo Soleri
Born in 1919 in Turin, Italy, Soleri received his Ph.D. in Architecture from Torino Polytechnico in 1946. Soon after graduating, Dr. Soleri moved to the United States to attend Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprenticeship program at Taliesin West in Arizona. He was among the lecturers at the 1976 UN Habitat I, which included Buckminster Fuller (inventor of the geodesic dome), 24 years his senior. The two were paired for their structural genius and were admired by Canadian architect Moishe Safdie of Montreal Expo fame.
His early work focused on the production of a theoretical model for a new physical landscape, what he calls a neonature, designed to support biological, human, and social evolution while containing human societies along with all their material goods. The model stands in opposition to urban sprawl with its inherently wasteful consumption of land, energy, time, and human resources, and advocates the need for a more balanced relationship between morphology and performance within a unique conception of the modern city.
“The problem I am confronting is the present design of cities only a few stories high, stretching outward in unwieldy sprawl for miles. As a result of their sprawl, they literally transform the earth, turn farms into parking lots and waste enormous amounts of time and energy transporting people, goods and services over their expanses. My proposition is urban implosion rather than explosion.” –Paolo Soleri, Earth’s Answer, 1977
Paolo Soleri, Ceramic Artist, Earth Caster
Soleri returned to Italy in 1950, where he was commissioned to design a large ceramics factory, Ceramic Artistica Solimene, which is now an Italian historical landmark. During this time he began working as a ceramic artist, acquiring the ceramics knowledge he would later apply to producing windbells. Over the next fifty years, these ceramic windbells, along with his explorations in metal casting with bronze windbells and sculptural commissions, would serve as the major source of funding for the construction that would test his theoretical works.
In 1961 Dr. Soleri worked out a construction technique called “earth casting” for the production of dome roofs. In one variant, sand and silt are piled up into a mound, and cement is poured on top to make a dome. Spaces are left on the sides for doors and windows. Then the dirt is dug out, leaving the dome roof in place. In other variants, wood frames are used instead of earth mounds.
Soleri originally envisioned a series of greenhouses that would occupy the hill below the complex. Hot air would rise from these conservatories into a complex of tunnels that could heat the East Crescent. At present, two trial greenhouses have been finished, but sustainable food production has not materialized. The facilities are aging, and Soleri’s disinterest in compromise to obtain capital partnerships has kept the reality humble. But that doesn’t stop thousands from all over the world from visiting, staying for five-week workshops, or volunteering for extended stays.
While Dr. Soleri has recently retired as head of the Cosanti Foundation, Jeff Stein, former Dean of the Boston Architectural College has stepped in to take over, exploring ways of developing a more profitable, privatized or at least self-sustaining model for shaping Arcosanti’s future. Despite its flaws and limitations, Arcosanti continues to inspire. As Michael Tortorello in the New York Times quipped: “For decades now, visitors have asked what it would take to finish Arcosanti. Maybe it’s time for a different question. Why doesn’t everyone choose to live this way?”
Cosanti Foundation President Jeff Stein delivers a TED talk about Arcosanti, Arcology and Lean Linear Cities at Madrone Studios media lab, San Francisco, as part of a day of Global Ted Conferences: TEDxCity2.0.