The reason we are in Arizona is to see Arcosanti. It is not a big place and in reality it is not worth more than a couple of hours to visit but I have been interested in seeing it for a very long time. I first learned of this ‘urban experiment’ 35ish years ago while at UBC studying architecture. An architect with a vision saw that the way things in our western world were headed was a long road to disaster. Our cities take far too much from the balance of nature and do not return nearly enough to maintain that balance. He surmised a big part of the problem is the automobile. He wanted to build a city that would be carless and address a whole slew of the other things ‘wrong’ with our cities of then and still very much wrong today.
In the early 1970s Paolo Soleri was busy drawing cities and planning how they would function. He was busy test building bits and piece of his vision on his 5 acres of land north of Phoenix, Arizona. The opportunity arose for the purchase of some property north of Phoenix that could provide the backdrop for a full scale model city to be constructed. This is when I learned of his work and was fascinated by an attempt to build a city from scratch. Hopefully this city would not reflect the shortcomings of the cities we now live in and would provide us with a usable alternate for the future.
My impression of Arcosanti in its present state is that it is a bit quirky. The forms are familiar, just because I have followed it on and off for the 35 years it has been under construction. The shapes all make sense from a design point of view but, like the concept itself, are unusual in the world as we know it. The site itself is of course a work in progress, a construction site; that said it is very messy. I don’t know if the unfinished state is the cause the untidiness or if it is the nature of a work/live environment. Things in the communal areas are in need of a good cleaning and minor repairs such as the rehanging of drapery dislodged from the curtain rod. Even though it is a communal environment someone or indeed everyone needs to take responsibility for the shared spaces. The shared spaces are an integral part of how Arcosanti is intended to function. I think it is a remnant of our present way of life and residents future and present have to reprogram themselves to meet the requirements of living in an arcology.
People do live and work there now. The residents are working toward the completion of their city in one way or another. Some folks work in the ‘tourist’ industry, leading tours, working in the café, selling goods in the gift shop. Some make windbells, designed by Soleri and the first source of income towards the start of construction of his vision. Some are construction workers. The city has begun to take shape but it is very long way from reality.
Could I live in a place like that? Not sure. I think I would be OK living there for a short period of time, say 6 weeks, as it is in its present state. Right now it is a very small village. I lived in Whistler, BC many years ago when it was very small and being from the city I was not use to the fact the every person in the village knew more about my life than I did. No secrets, NONE. I think that if the city ever is completed and the planned 5,000 people become resident I think the place would be quite a nice place to live in. Even if several of these small cities are built adjacent to one another there would be substantially less impact on the world than what is now the status quo.
It is only recently in my home city, Edmonton, the planners have been able to overcome their tunnel vision and realize we cannot keep expanding laterally even though our city is built on a never ending plane of flat. The infrastructure required to maintain such a model is crippling. It will soon not be possible to service the citizens as they should expect from an affluent society such as ours.
I’m glad I got a chance to see Arcosanti and hope that some of the things learned from this experiment are absorbed by our system in the very near future. Cities as we know them are doomed and it would be good to start revising our future soon.