Oct 29, 201311:00 AMPoint of View


An Emerging Arcology

An Emerging Arcology

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In the summer of 1975 I was sitting in a late afternoon forum at Arcosanti, the experimental urban oasis created by architect Paolo Soleri just north of Phoenix, Arizona. The temperature was unexpectedly cool in the concrete apse, which was used as a studio for the production of ceramic bells during the workday, and a place for meetings with workshoppers in the late afternoon.  My colleagues and I had just spent hours in110-degree desert heat, erecting concrete formwork for the new Crafts III building.  Now it was time to talk about it.

These dialogues with Soleri always included some lively discussions around his vision for Arcosanti, a massive urban megastructure and self-sustaining urban oasis meant to be built on a 25-acre footprint plopped smack in the middle of a 4,000 acre desert wilderness preserve.  To hear Soleri describe it, future residents of Arcosanti would wake up in the morning, grab a cup of java, and after a 15 story elevator ride down to the first floor would soon be enjoying a morning stroll among the majestic boulders, cactus shrubs, seasonal wildflowers, and widespread wildness of Arizona’s high desert mesa country. Later they might meet up with some friends in the elegant communications lounge, where they would seamlessly connect through state of the art video-conferencing tools to the outside world.  Then back up to your place for a short nap, an afternoon swim, an early evening jazz concert in the open-air amphitheater, followed by some bedtime reading in a favorite lounge chair under the grand vaults of the community commons. And you shared this place with 5,000 other residents. 

This, we were told, would be the first of many cities to come. Each one producing its own food and heating and cooling itself through techniques designed to work in harmony with, not against nature.  No automobiles, only elevators.  Soleri dubbed these cities arcologies, a word he derived through a blend of architecture and ecology. He envisioned that other versions of these high-density urban megastructures could even double as colossal dams, and some day (buckle your seat belts) even as man-made space stations circling the earth. 

As we talked, the conversation brought to mind a densely packed colony of termites, with those tall self-ventilating mud towers that you see in pictures from the Amazon rainforest.  Or perhaps it was more like a hive of bees, with a super-sized honeycomb superstructure out in the middle of a field of wildflowers.  At one point I asked Paolo if he had ever studied the lives of bees. His awkward reply seemed a little off guard, a reaction that I didn’t understand at the time. 

Now, 40 years later, on the eve of the autumnal equinox, more than three hundred friends of this first fledgling experiment of an arcology had swarmed in from far away places to commemorate Soleri’s passing, and to celebrate his 93 years of creative prognostications.  Most of the attendees had spent time at Arcosanti workshops. Some had stayed on to become part or full time residents of the place. The celebration included status reports, personal meditations, a starlit concert in the outdoor amphitheater by Sonya Lee, a talented classical pianist, and a documentary film chronicling Soleri’s lifetime achievements.  One group created a procession to Soleri’s nearby gravesite—in the searing desert heat—which was only partially mitigated by the same paper parasols that long time resident and site coordinator Mary Hoadley remembered as Paolo’s favorite personal shading device.

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