by Stephanie Stubbs, Assoc. AIA, LEED-AP
Two weeks ago, I had the opportunity to satisfy a 30-year-old jones: I finally made the architectural haj to Arcosanti, Paulo Soleri’s urban vision-come-reality in the Arizona desert. The anticipatory road trip and resulting tour, guided by construction worker Jeff Buderer, lived up to decades of anticipation, and—for a brief shining moment or three—I reveled silently in a private fantasy of chucking Washington, D.C., packing up the cats (they’d have lots of new friends there), and becoming an Arcosanti construction worker myself.
Well, here I am, back in D.C, hitting the keyboard instead of pouring concrete. The sad truth is that I’m too comfortable and just not that brave.
But how to share the wonder of the Arcosanti vision and perhaps explore ways to keep it alive? Arcosanti, begun in 1970, is now older than an entire generation of architects, some of whom perhaps have not had a chance to be tuned into or even consider the excitement of Soleri’s manifestation of the concept of “arcology,” the marriage of architecture and ecology to create high-density, self-reliant new towns. Soleri conceives of Arcosanti as an old-town, small-scale village “heart” surrounded by high-rise structures, all designed within a very small footprint to preserve the surrounding natural landscape, use minimal energy, and conserve the desert’s all-precious commodity, water.
The multi-use old town today houses residences, educational spaces, recreational areas, an amphitheater, a foundry where those famous Arcosanti bells are cast and sold to support the construction effort. Still under construction, old town buildings are distinctive for the silt-cast tilt-up construction that gives them their highly crafted and distinct look. The town also serves as an educational laboratory for visiting architects and scholars, offering hands-on experience underlying Soleri’s emphasis on doing rather than knowing. (In fact, during my trip, the 89-year-old Soleri was kicking off a new work program for 13 visitors.) Arcosanti is designed to eventually serve a population of 3,000-5,000, once the high rises are built. There currently are about 50 people in residence.
Yes, the wheels of Arcosanti have ground very, very slowly. However, that this wonderful demonstration project has been built to any extent at all seems some kind of miraculous. Its lessons of density, energy conservation, and self-reliance are the very ones we are looking to now as we strive for carbon neutrality in a mere 22 years. We could imbue our work today with Arcosanti’s concepts; it in turn could adapt some technological expediency. (They’re looking at precasting, for instance, to speed up some of the work.) Certainly it’s worth some of our expensive attention.
If choosing one word for the feel of Arcosanti, it would have to be “timeless.” It feels like an ancient ruin peaceably tendering the age-old secrets of thriving within nature. And that it keeps going speaks of incredible optimism and hope for the future.
So, is it time to go back to Arcosanti? What do you think? Take a look, make a visit, take the Web site virtual tour, read Jeff Buderer’s blog. And, hey, buy a bell. They’re beautiful and a gentle reminder of why we do what we do.
Photos by the author.
1. (top) The author with family.
2. Arcosanti’s first structure, the South Vault, shows off the crafted colorations possible with silt-cast tilt-up construction in the curved panels.
3. The main building to Arcosanti houses the visitors’ center, bakery, gallery, and dining area for guests and visitors.
4. The foundry, where the famous bronze and ceramic wind bells are cast.
5. The music amphitheater fronts visitors’ residences.