A City of the Future in the Arizona Desert
Arcosanti is a self-described “urban laboratory” situated in the Arizona desert, approximately seventy miles from the sprawling suburbs of Scottsdale (a mega-suburb of Phoenix). In 1970, Paolo Soleri and a small band of volunteers broke ground on this architectural experiment in arcology (a Soleri neologism combining architecture and ecology). Soleri believed that arcologies would eventually displace the automobile, the suburbs, and the single-family home in favor of vertically designed, compact, three-dimensional city structures that addressed problems such as pollution, resource depletion, and food scarcity. In the Age of Aquarius, these utopian ideas attracted a steady migration of young people, hippies, and drop-outs who were willing to donate labor in exchange for getting in on the ground floor of the city of the future.
Today, less than ten percent of the original Arcosanti blueprint has been completed and several of the buildings are beginning to show structural wear and damage. Student volunteers, who pay fees for residencies and often receive academic credit at their home institutions, and tourists, who can buy the famed Soleri silt-cast bells as souvenirs, keep the site financially afloat as a non-profit organization. In the heady days of the early 1970s, Soleri predicted that five thousand people would eventually live at Arcosanti, though the current permanent population numbers about seventy people.
Paolo Soleri (1919–2013) has a complex reputation within the field of contemporary architecture and design. Yet in 1970, Paolo Soleri was very much in sync with his time. Though the oil crisis would not officially begin until 1973, Americans were increasingly aware of the negative environmental impacts of the automobile. The technological horrors (such as napalm, agent Orange and carpet bombing) of the United States war in Vietnam, in combination with rising awareness of nuclear and chemical risks at home, led comparatively large swathes of young people to mistrust simple pro-industrial narratives. This cultural shift had its most obvious incarnation in the Hippie Movement which, though easily caricatured today as nothing but bell-bottom jeans and LSD, was one important strand of a multi-dimensional search for alternative and environmentally sustainable lifestyles.
Paolo Soleri stated in the Globe and Mail newspaper in 1980 that the initial citizens of Arcosanti were “part of a process that is building meaning into the universe.” Notions like this still resonated with some Americans as the 1970s came to an end. However, as the 1980s progressed, the media commentary on Arcosanti became more skeptical, reflecting both the slow progress of the actual project and the cultural dynamics of the first Reagan Administration. As the late 1960s were recast as an era of generational betrayal at worst, or groovy hippie nonsense at best, Arcosanti became a project out-of-time, literally and figuratively. The tension between the lofty original ideas and the reality on the ground became harder to ignore and more critical perspectives began to emerge. Popular media analysis, however, focused less on the possibilities and more on the paradoxes that were becoming evident on site. The key question revolved around where and when to draw the boundary between imagined futures and failed futures.
Today, Arcosanti embodies an uneasy juxtaposition of the past and the future, of aspiration and failure. The architectural ideas that thousands of volunteers have poured into concrete over the last fifty years memorialize a particular version of the early 1970s, its energies, open frontiers, and wild optimism. That the project persists, however slowly, is a stubborn rebuke to the closed horizons of the neoliberal age. Arcosanti can also seem fragile, ghostly, anachronistic. On a bad day, as the paint fades from the apse walls and the silt-cast bells hang motionless in the gift shop, this experimental community seems more like an abandoned movie set, recognizable as some sort of living space yet uncanny and disjointed, as if one had awakened in a city on a distant planet. Fifty years on, any final verdict on the project remains elusive as Arcosanti continues to oscillate between the past, present and future, between dreams and dead-ends.
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Very well written. Keep up the good work!
Niche topic & fresh perspectives