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Arcosanti: A Revolutionary Model of Super-Dense Urban Living

In the middle of the high deserts of Arizona, 110 kilometers north of Phoenix, stands the small city of Arcosanti. Conceptualized by the famed Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti became the prototype for Soleri’s most famous invention: arcology— the combination of architecture and ecology. We’ve discussed arcology previously on this channel, including a few real-world examples and potential future applications. Yet, Arcosanti is the purest expression of an idea meant to address some of the most severe problems facing humankind.

The living area is dense, entirely walkable, and mostly self-sustaining despite standing in one of America’s driest deserts. Still, construction has proceeded at a glacial pace, and the project has never come close to achieving the goal of its creator. In recent years, the creator has been pushed aside as terrible allegations regarding his personal life have come forth. But, the ideas inherent to arcology live on and are perhaps more relevant than ever. Arcosanti stands today as a revolutionary model of what future super-dense cities may look like.

A Young Visionary

Paolo Soleri was born and raised in Turin in northern Italy, where, as a young adolescent, he became interested in architecture and urban planning. By 1946, having earned a master’s degree in architecture from the Polytechnic University of Turin, Paolo showed real promise as an upcoming craftsman. His ambition was rewarded when, in December of ’46, Soleri secured a fellowship with the world-famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright. 

Wright was already one of the most famous and celebrated architects of his time when Soleri began working with him, and the old master made a lasting impression on the young Italian. For starters, Wright’s winter studio was in Arizona, and Soleri felt drawn to the environment. The state would eventually host much of Soleri’s work. More importantly, though, was Wright’s dedication to building structures in harmony with their environment. He prioritized creating spaces that encouraged human connection. This so-called “organic architecture” became critical to Soleri’s later style.

Over the next decade, his reputation grew throughout Italy and the United States following a series of eye-catching builds. Then, in 1956, Soleri returned to Arizona, setting up his own shop in Scottsdale. While he designed a handful of notable structures in the area, the most important work he did was to solidify his own ideas for architecture. Despite his blue-blood education under the likes of Wright, Soleri’s ambitions expanded far beyond simply designing buildings. In 1969, after years of planning, writing, and designing, Soleri published a book called “Arcology: The City In The Image Of Man.” Not only would the book thrust Soleri onto the international scene of creative visionaries, but it laid the groundwork for the community at Arcosanti.

Arcology Explained

Soleri’s environment-based design drew directly from Frank Lloyd Wright’s style, but Paolo’s vision for the future of human living spaces actually rejected some of Wright’s ideas. Wright saw America’s cities expanding outwards, sprawling on in a low-rise, car-dependent suburbia. This created more room to interact with nature. Soleri saw it the other way around, though. The best way to connect with nature was to limit the amount of space that cities ate up. By building vertically, humans could live in more confined spaces.

So, Soleri introduced arcology as a means of combatting the American-led move towards urban sprawl. His first assertion was that cities had to be planned with an end goal. As small towns expanded, they inherently grew outwards in an inefficient manner. Arcology insists that the only way to build a livable, sustainable city was to start with an end in mind. Soleri’s book contained six fundamental design principles that came to embody arcology’s efforts to build such an ideal city. 

The first principle is “Urban Scale as Human Scale.” The goal of this principle is to build a pedestrian-friendly environment. Currently, living spaces are based so heavily on cars. Not only do automobiles harm the environment, but they create a need for expensive, ugly infrastructure. Across America, major cities devote about 50 percent of their land area to roads, many of which are congested and inefficient. People living in those cities spend 5 to 10 percent of each day traveling to and from work. A successful arcology project erases this need by creating a walkable environment by placing residential and commercial spaces close together.

The second principle is “Food and Energy Nexus,” or urban agriculture. As cities have expanded over the past few centuries, farmland has been pushed further and further away from population centers. Now, some cities get the majority of their food from other states or provinces. Not only does this require expensive, car-based transportation, but it creates a disconnect between humankind and the food that sustains them. Soleri saw the modern city as a place that used water efficiently and relied on technology to grow food in or near the urban environment. 

Principle number three is “Marginalized Consumption,” which focuses on efficiently utilizing resources. That means improving water and sewage treatment plants and sourcing building materials in sustainable ways. It also involves incorporating the natural environment directly into structures, for instance, by maximizing natural light. Soleri included several excellent examples of this at Arcosanti.

The fourth principle is the “Urban Effect.” This refers to the close proximity and vibrancy of an urban environment. This belief was critical to Soleri’s vision because it recognized the crucial role that dense cities play in innovation and creativity. Arcology relies on safe, enjoyable public spaces to enhance the sense of a strong community. By creating more opportunities for neighbors to interact with one another, Soleri sought to strengthen the human connection to their environment.

The fifth principle, “Bounded Density,” encouraged the creation of borders within a city. Not only would this be good for the surrounding environment, allowing usable farmland to remain farmland, but it’s also beneficial to the city’s inhabitants. This ecological envelope forces development upwards instead of outwards— a critical component for maintaining pedestrian friendliness and creating a sense of community. 

Finally, principle six is “Elegant Frugality,” or creative resourcefulness. This principle applies not only to the structures themselves but to the people who live within them. Arcology relies on the resourceful use of building space, building materials, and, crucially, living space. Soleri argued that minimalism was essential for creating a sustainable urban environment. In reducing consumption, a well-executed arcology project could reduce environmental strain while bringing people closer together.

With these six principles, Soleri defined the critical components of his ecological architecture. All that was left now was to build a prototype.

Construction Begins on Arcosanti

One year after publishing his arcology treatise, Soleri purchased 860 acres of land in Arizona’s high desert, 100 kilometers north of the large metropolitan area of Phoenix. While the land was cheap and primed for building, it was far from hospitable. The site receives less than 40 centimeters of rain per year, and summer temperatures regularly reach 40 degrees centigrade. The high elevation means that winters are cold, with temperatures plummeting below freezing on the coldest days. However, rather than defects, Soleri saw these as practical challenges to display just how effective proper arcology could be. The plan was to sustain the lives of up to 5,000 citizens in the middle of this arid land. 

Generally, the first step in construction would be to lay a massive concrete foundation. However, Arcosanti sits on the top of a basalt mesa, which provides a sturdy base, removing the need to pour a foundation. Not only did this speed up the building process, but it has a subtle ecological effect. The basalt helps insulate the buildings in the wintertime while cooling in the summer. 

Given its isolation, the site would need housing for construction workers, so Soleri built a base camp on the bank of the Agua Fria River. Each worker was provided with a small 2.5×2.5 meter concrete cube made from modular panels. These 6.25 square meter structures housed all the construction workers until larger residences were completed.

The first structure that the builders put up was the South Vault, an arched structure with an 18-meter diameter. The vault provides critical protection from the sun, a key characteristic of just about every building in Arcosanti. Today, it serves as a sort of town square— an important meeting place for locals to mingle under the cool shade. 

The structures that best display Soleri’s creative yet straightforward arcological solutions are the two apses— the Ceramics Apse and the Foundry Apse. The buildings are home to Arcosanti’s primary business. Since the 1970s, Soleri and his workers have sold high-quality bronze bells created on-site at Arcosanti. The bells are sold to gift shops, gardens, and museums around the country, providing essential funding for construction. However, the defining feature of the two apses is their form and orientation. The quarter-sphere-shaped structures have no indoor area to provide shelter. Yet, the shape of the south-facing opening allows heaps of sunlight to flow in during the winter while completely blocking out the sun in the summer. Critically, the Foundry Apse contains a furnace to fire the bells and other ceramics. So, exhaust heat from the foundry furnace is ducted through the living areas in the winter via concrete heat sinks, providing critical warmth in the winter. 

From the 1970s to the present day, many other buildings have been added to the community, each one serving multiple purposes. For instance, at the community’s center, there is a large amphitheater. The back of the stadium is the East Crescent Complex, a building that includes housing, a community kitchen, a meeting room, studio space, and a gym. However, the location of the structure also means that it provides essential acoustic effects for the amphitheater. In this way, all of the buildings at Arcosanti integrate with the natural and built environment.

Life at Arcosanti

The earliest inhabitants of Arcosanti were also the first builders. In that tradition, living at Arcosanti has long been a lifestyle rather than a simple residence. Instead of hiring professional construction workers and craftspeople, Soleri hired young people who would champion his ideas. They were generally paid around minimum wage but saw the opportunity as a sort of internship. Some residents work construction, others build bells in the foundry, or work in the community garden. Other tenants contribute skills less directly, like doing web development for the town website.

Throughout the campus, the housing is vertically dense, focusing on building outwards instead of upwards. Nowadays, the living spaces have expanded considerably from the 6.25 square meter rooms to around 13 square meters. Despite purchasing hundreds of acres, the town stands on just 25 acres of land. Much of the surrounding area is dedicated to landscaping and gardening, including food to sustain the residents. Aside from aesthetic and nutritional purposes, plants are chosen for their ecological impact, like absorbing heat and blocking out the sun. Synthetic fertilizers and pesticides are entirely banned from the property. 

In recent years, a greywater system was built to preserve clean water for reuse. This includes water from washing machines, showers, bathtubs, and bathroom sinks, but not from kitchen sinks, dishwashers, or toilets. Given the dry climate, this system is essential in achieving Soleri’s goal of creating a self-sustaining property.

Today, many of the residents speak about the unique opportunity to be within nature while still in an urban environment. For decades, Arcosanti was the only man-made structure in sight. Even today, as an interstate highway has encroached on the territory, the area is relatively untouched, providing residents with the opportunity to explore nature by simply walking out their front door. More modern recreations are available too, like a large swimming pool.

Yet, despite these amenities, Arcosanti has never come close to achieving its ambitious goals. Soleri initially set out to build a space for 5,000 residents, yet the population has never surpassed 200. A total of 1,700 residents shuffled in and out of the community over the first decade, but the numbers have decreased as Soleri’s star slowly faded. Based on the original designs, the entire structure is only about 5 percent complete. Whether progress will ever reach the point that the designer sought has yet to be seen.

A Complicated Legacy

Soleri’s inability to complete his vision has been seen as a shortcoming in his vision of arcology. Construction has proceeded at a glacial pace and will likely never be completed at the current rate. In recent years, a new, young group of enthusiastic residents has moved in, but there are many problems with the space. Though remarkably efficient in its use of energy and water, the area has never been genuinely self-sustaining. While it achieved the goal of creating a walkable town for residents, those same tenants must drive the 100 kilometers to Phoenix to buy their weekly groceries. 

Soleri personally recognized that Arcosanti never became what he envisioned, but he seemed to be at peace with that fact. He maintained that Arcosanti was a prototype— the first attempt to alter how cities are designed and built. Near the end of his life, Soleri affirmed that his vision was solid, but his inability or unwillingness to recruit more supporters damned the project. By most accounts, this is entirely true. 

Soleri saw himself as a creative visionary. As his concept came to life in the 1970s, he became something of a dictator at Arcosanti. He shunned the advice of qualified collaborators and kept others away that could have contributed more. In a dark twist, several former residents have alleged that Soleri took advantage of his status within the small community to sexually abuse the female inhabitants, including his own daughter.

As a result, the community and the foundation that manages Arcosanti have distanced themselves from the deceased creator in recent years. Yet, they hold onto his vision. As climate change continues to alter the global landscape, more and more of the world is becoming desert. While Soleri’s decision to build in the Arizona desert was initially seen as a mistake, it has become infinitely more relevant today. Ecologists posit that the future of humanity’s existence on earth will depend on our ability to exist in dry, hot environments like the one that Arcosanti inhabits. 

Altogether, while Arcosanti is not necessarily a successful implementation of arcology, and while it’s become challenging to celebrate Soleri as a person, it seems that he was onto something. As the world deals with problems like climate change and overcrowded cities, we need to see more prototypes like Arcosanti to lead the way in testing what the world’s urban environments could look like in 100 years. Will it look like Arcosanti? We don’t know. Without more efforts like Arcosanti, we may never know.

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