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From Issue #31 December 5, 2013

If You Build It

A utopia near Phoenix remains underpopulated, but slowly grows.

By Kyle Chayka Twitter icon 

Model of the Arcosanti 5000 master-plan with an explanation of planned buildings. The built portion is in gray. Photo courtesy of the Cosanti Foundation.

Italian architect Paolo Soleri traveled to an uninhabited part of Arizona’s desert in the 1970s, and started to build a city to his exact specifications. It was a utopian vision made into reality.

The city is named Arcosanti. “Arco” is short for “arcology,” Soleri’s philosophy of sustainable architecture, and “cosa-anti” is a loose suggestion of “before things” in Italian — a harking back to when humanity had fewer technological artifacts.

With the help of thousands of architecture students, artists, and volunteers across decades, Soleri built Arcosanti into a lightly populated place that is being completed at an achingly slow pace, though it still grows even after the architect’s death in April at 93.

In September, I traveled to Arcosanti — a creative commune in the middle of nowhere, a city that was also an artwork — to find out, if such a utopia was possible, what it could mean for the rest of our imperfect world.

Pilgrimage

Phoenix, Arizona, seems designed to keep you perpetually indoors. After landing in the frigidly air-conditioned airport, I rent a car, a laughably sporty 2014 Ford Fiesta. The rental agent demonstrated how to blast its AC before I got in.

I drive the city’s highways, getting used to the unfamiliar vistas of brown and clay, with angular mountains protruding abruptly from flat horizons. There are mansions sprinkled across the bases of these hills: small, self-contained capsules of domestic life that are as closed to the elements as the interior of my car. I’m seeking out another kind of community entirely.

I ask about Arcosanti at cafes and shops around Phoenix. Locals have often heard of it, but few have visited. A glass-blowing artist says that he wants to choreograph a dance there. A barista tells me I have to stay overnight and watch the sunrise. Others stare blankly when I tell them I’m heading out into the desert to visit a mysterious oasis.

Buildings become sparse as I drive away from Phoenix and the desert takes over. Scenic overlooks off the highway reveal sprawling views of undulating hills, empty as far as the eye can see. I pass through nowhere places with names like Moore’s Gulch, which I never thought would exist outside of a TV western.

Arcosanti doesn’t turn up on my GPS, but I catch its name on a sign above an exit, which I take until it ends in a dirt road on which I continue. Finally, I find a rusting metal sign that reads “Welcome to Arcosanti, an urban laboratory.”

Arcosanti as it is.

An unforgotten outpost

What did Soleri see when he first came here? Nothing, except what his imagination created. He had just finished building a home with his wife, Carolyn — a low-lying, organic dwelling called Cosanti — closer to downtown Phoenix, but Soleri’s ambition had grown. He wanted to apply his ideas about architecture on a massive scale.

In 1970, Soleri scouted and bought 860 acres of empty land 70 miles outside Phoenix and started to build, planning out a home for 5,000 residents on the slant of a hill overlooking a mesa. He built foundations and walls out of concrete, digging molds out of the desert ground. Slowly, the city grew.

Arcosanti encompasses dozens of structures today that range from a multi-story tower, which houses a cafe and gallery, to small apartments enclosed in arches and hidden in cubbyholes, like the dwelling places of mythical creatures. A gleaming swimming pool overlooks the desert, there’s a small stadium-style theater, and columned arcades house a library and an infirmary and are intended to one day include retail stores.

In contrast to Phoenix’s dense jumble of city life, Arcosanti’s layout is airy and calm, flowing smoothly between indoor and outdoor spaces. Different buildings fulfill different purposes: the cafe is a de facto meeting place for eating and socializing; a plaza underneath two huge arches forms a public square; and apartment buildings are carefully shaded and have porthole-like skylights for natural illumination.

The cafe.

In his 1923 book Toward an Architecture, French architect Le Corbusier calls a house “a machine for living in.” Soleri has created a machine-like city that takes care of its inhabitants’ every need.

“In nature, as an organism evolves it increases in complexity and it also becomes a more compact or miniaturized system,” Soleri writes in a 1977 book, Earth’s Answer. “Similarly a city should function as a living system.” Yet his living system is not always so lively. Out of the 5,000 residents Soleri planned for Arcosanti, fewer than 100 live there at a time. The shells of half-completed buildings dot the hillside.

I get a tour of the city with DeeAnn Morgan, a middle-school teacher with blonde hair and darkly tanned skin who did a multi-week workshop at Arcosanti and returns often to volunteer. Workshoppers, who pay a fee that covers their room and board, are involved in everything from construction projects and recycling to harvesting plants from the site’s greenhouses. Morgan helped put in a fiber-optic cable that fuels Arcosanti’s speedy Internet service.

“You get a sense of what it’s like to live here and work here. I loved it,” she says. “Once you’ve done the workshop, it’s like an extended family.” That family includes residents ranging from three years old to 70, and from visitors staying for several weeks to permanent participants celebrating decades of continuous residency.

Arconauts gather underneath Arcosanti’s vaults.

Forming a community

To become one of Arcosanti’s Arconauts, the name Soleri gave to his city’s actively involved arcology researchers, you must complete five weeks of workshop training. During that boot camp, you will be taught the philosophy of arcology and the inner workings of the site. Next, you spend a six-month internship in one area of the organization, whether that’s communications, gardening, or anything in between, while living full time at Arcosanti.

Finally, if a permanent position opens up, an initiate can get a paid job. Payment takes many forms, from literal salary to free rent and discounted meals at the cafe. The nearest grocery store is miles away by car, one of the less utopian aspects of Arcosanti.

The prolonged membership process teaches initiates the depth of Soleri’s vision. Richard Fox is a portly, enthusiastic former Arconaut who first moved to Arcosanti in 1972. His red face lights up whenever he talks about his experiences living in the city. The constant churn of workshoppers and Arconauts was “incredibly intense, wonderful, and sad,” he says. “I am the person I am today because of the values I learned from Paolo Soleri.” Fox says he learned about “appreciating community. The value of people looking out for each other.”

Perhaps Arcosanti exists because we need an alternative to normative urban life. It provides an example of what communal life could be like in a world where physical togetherness and cooperative labor are far from the norm. Charles Provine, Arcosanti’s public relations coordinator, notices this contrast as well. “We couldn’t do this now,” Provine says. “The world outside changes; we’re getting more disconnected.”

Conceptual sketch from Soleri sketchbook #07, page 339, May 1971. Photo courtesy of the Cosanti Foundation.

Utopia theory

Humanity’s desire to create a communal space is nothing new. The term “utopia” means “good place” or “no place” in Greek, depending on the pronunciation. It was coined in 1516 by Thomas More, an English lawyer and philosopher who wrote a book by that name describing a perfect, fictional island-republic. Some argue that the ambiguity of pronunciation was More’s attempt at indicating that a utopia was impossible.

A good deal of More’s plan involves architecture. The crescent-shaped island of Utopia is filled with over 50 small, identical cities. “He that knows one of their towns know them all,” More writes of the Utopians. “Their buildings are good, and are so uniform that a whole side of a street looks like one house.” Much like Soleri’s arcology, it’s a repeatable template for civilization.

Also like Arcosanti, More’s city has a structured social system in which labor is distributed. “Besides agriculture, which is so common to them all, every man has some peculiar trade to which he applies himself,” he writes. Utopians undertake weaving, carpentry, or metalsmithing; likewise, Arconauts grow food, build homes, and manufacture bronze and ceramic bells that Soleri designed, selling them to provide income for the project.

I grew up in suburban Connecticut, but the suburb was more rural than anything else. Trees surround and isolate each house. It’s impossible to avoid driving, and that further separates neighbors from each other. The town, New Milford, didn’t have much of a center or a downtown, so there was little social space for a restless teenager to hang out in a safe manner, and not much more for adults.

Arcosanti seems the exact opposite of my childhood’s social surroundings. It encourages interaction and gives people a reason to live together, work together, and share their experiences. “It is the fear of want that makes any of the whole race of animals either greedy or ravenous,” More writes. If the suburbs are designed to protect individuals from each other, a separation born of greed and want, than Arcosanti is here to reassure us that it’s okay to trust and depend on our fellow humans.

The city in the Arizona desert is not a true utopia. Its hippie-like idealism and lack of adequate funding or governance make it difficult to believe the project will ever be completed. Arcosanti still relies heavily on the outside world for its existence, in the form of imported food and the income from selling the bells, which, as traditional and creative as the instruments are, are still a resolutely capitalist commercial enterprise. Yet it provides a communal home for a handful of residents, allowing teaching to continue.

Soleri’s personal home, Cosanti.

Camping out

The night I plan to stay at Arcosanti, I leave my car in the parking lot and join the hum of a party in memory of Paolo Soleri under the city’s vaults. I was promised a spot to sleep in Camp, which is a site filled with small cubic structures some ways off “downtown” Arcosanti, out at the end of yet another dirt road extending into the desert where Soleri and his crew lived while the city was being constructed.

I start to get nervous — the desert is pitch black, though dimly lit by stars gradually filling the clear sky, and I have no idea where I’m going. I meet two women who have a tent near Camp — a former Arconaut from California and a local teacher — and they agree to guide me there.

When we arrive in Camp, the scene is utterly silent, like the ruins of an abandoned cult. We walk among the low buildings, peeking in doorways, but each cube is occupied. My nerves are jangling. I’m 60 miles away from what I think of as normal civilization, and it’s too late to find a hotel in Phoenix. The only empty cube contains a bare, mildewed mattress on an insect-covered dirt floor.

To my great relief, the women offer to lend me one of their spare tents and we walk out into the brush to set it up. I throw a few pillows that I’d gathered from Camp’s common space onto the nylon floor, wrap them in Mexican blankets, and promptly fall asleep.

Sunrise wakes me up and I clamber out of the tent, walk back along the dirt trail, and look up at the curving roofs and angled towers of Arcosanti glowing on the hilltop in the early morning light. From a distance it looks perfectly unreal, like rising from a dream and finding that the dream is still right there in front of you. I’m grateful for the tent and for the communal spirit of the place that sets it so far apart from anywhere I’ve been before. Unfortunately, it’s also time to leave.

The future

Driving up the dusty highways back into Phoenix is like waking up and having the remnants of a pleasant dream slip away between your fingers. But the memory stays with me as I arrive at the airport for an evening flight. I notice the square-cornered buildings, the shopping plazas surrounded by parking lots, and the rivers of fellow cars. No one is walking. Without the benefits of Soleri’s passive-cooling design, Phoenix burns its residents and visitors to ashes outside.

Arcosanti provides a paradoxical lesson. The city shows that dreams, no matter how outlandish, can become reality given enough tenacity and charisma. But traveling there in the post-Soleri era makes it clear that dreams also require constant upkeep and sacrifice to persist. The towers and arches are castles made of sand that seem destined to sink back into the desert.

But perhaps that impermanence doesn’t matter. Soleri’s trial utopia has already accomplished what it needed to simply by existing. As the tour guide DeeAnn Morgan told me, “Even if this place closes at some point, the idea of an arcology is in the atmosphere now. People have been here; they know it’s possible to do this.”

Photographs by the author except as credited.

Kyle Chayka is a freelance writer on culture and technology who lives in Brooklyn. He has contributed to publications including the New Yorker and The New Republic, and is the author of an e-book, The Printed Gun.

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