When I pulled up to Arcosanti, architect Paolo Soleri’s experimental town in the middle of the Arizona desert, I saw a large group of people off to one side casting molds for the famous bells being sold here. They differed in age, sex, color – all of them smiling and most of them wearing Toms shoes. Here we go, I thought – another commune.
My guide laughed when I told him about my first impression of the place. “There are a lot of artists and travelers, scholars and techies living and working here, always outside, living on one big preserve… so yes, it’s easy to jump to that conclusion,” he said. “You can call us whatever you want, but there are no real rules or religions.”
Soleri, now nearing his 93rd birthday, started building the so-called “urban laboratory” in the 1970s based on his concept of arcology– a mash up of architecture and ecology — to promote sustainable living and eliminate the need for cars.
Death to The Car?! I could see a few of his points, but that’s traipsing pretty close to being un-American. And maybe that’s because he’s not – he’s Italian. Oh, these Europeans, with their 3-hour meals and fluency in multiple languages. This is the United States and taking on the oil business will get you… well, you can go ahead and finish that sentence for me. Quietly.
As we walked the grounds – taking in the admittedly gorgeous semi-domes — I asked how many people Soleri envisioned living here. “Once this is all completed – around 5,000,” he said.
5,000? I had seen no more than 40 individual apartments. How are 5,000 people supposed to fit in here? I knew they were a bunch of hippies.
He must have seen the confusion on my face. “Wait. What entrance did you come in?” he asked. “Did you see the scale model plans when you first walked in?” I told him I had not. “You really should go do that.”
When I did, I finally understood what all the fuss was about. The area I had just toured — a few buildings overlooking the beautiful grounds, a pool and, in the distance, the vast Arizona landscape beyond — was, at most, 8% of Soleri’s vision for the 4,060-acre space. A parlor, or entryway, if you will.
In the sketches, you see an entire eco-city unfold – massive curving towers that climb up, not out, a greenhouse a mile long to heat and cool the entire town – neighbors getting back to meeting neighbors, organic produce growing below. Soleri’s plan was to maximize the best aspects of city life, while minimizing ecological impact.
It was like looking into the future – an optimistic and slightly idealistic future, sure, but still. Even in the 70s, the place was so avant-garde that George Lucas paid it a visit to get inspiration for Star Wars.
But, no cars? Next they’re going to want us to learn two languages.
I thanked them for the tour, and promised to come back someday to stay in the Sky Suite, which actually looked quite cool, and drove away.
Three minutes later, I suddenly realized what Paolo was trying to say about cars ruining things.
Because three minutes later, I saw this on I-17.
And I saw the looks on people’s faces inside.
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