Over Christmas, I traveled to Arizona to visit family, and took a half day trip north of Phoenix to tour Arcosanti. I have visited several iterations of back-to-the-land communities and green building centers in the geographic and political cradle of the hippie and green building movements – Northern California. I was curious to see how these values played out in a more extreme climate than our Birkenstock-friendly latitude. It turned out to be a disconcerting experience – a bit like watching a digitally remastered edition of the original Star Wars movies. Some elements of Arcosanti (including the solar panels and the meager staff and tourists onsite) were clearly of this era, yet the site’s bones remained firmly embedded in the 1970’s stratum from which this project arose.
Arcosanti is the futuristic model of architect Paolo Soleri, who envisioned lowering our environmental footprint by raising the ceilings on residential and urban development. By building up, he reasoned, we could minimize terrestrial impact and take advantage of solar power, passive solar heating and cooling, and high density vertical infrastructure systems.
Arcosanti was to be a real world demonstration of how 5,000 people could live together on just 25 acres of land, utilizing greenhouse gardens, concrete towers, mass transit, and “super structures” to create an urban lifestyle in the middle of the Arizona desert. The remoteness of the location matches the extremities of weather: 70 desert miles from Phoenix, surrounded by no other significant cities or even modest development, and facing lows of 20 degrees on winte nights and highs of 120 degrees on summer days, the site is dependent on one water source (the Agua Fria River watershed) and a lot of optimism.
The project broke ground in 1970, but never completed. Architectural work continues to this day but moves at a snails pace, as best I can tell. Far from 5,000 residents, the site has averaged less than 100 people (mostly design and artistic interns) at a time over the years. The interns stay for a number of weeks onsite, learning how to work in the bronze foundry or the ceramics studio creating the famous (and income generating) wind chimes that Soleri crafted from skills learned from his ceramicist father in Italy. The interns come from all over the world, and have the option to work in the cohousing fashion for their tuition fees, take on personal research projects, and apply for more permanent jobs onsite once their stint is up. Two families have lived there long enough to raise their children from toddlers into high school years onsite.
There was and is a strong emphasis on the arts and music – much of the completed work on the largely incomplete site is dedicated to music performance spaces (there are at least 2 performing auditoriums and several smaller musical spaces onsite) and artistic projects (the bronze foundry and the ceramics studio are the most lively and productive parts of the community).
The core living areas have been built, all in concrete, over several decades. The site was most interesting as a walkable history of concrete building history. The original 1970’s communal living tower was freezing cold – its thermal mass resolutely refusing to warm in the wane winter sunshine. In the 1980’s the dorms were built with hydronic heat in the floors and the first attempts of adding insulation to concrete in the walls. Since there was snow on the ground the day I toured the site, our group appreciated the stop over inside the radiant-floor-warmed common house. The most recent buildings utilized ICF (insulating concrete forms)construction and recycled denim insulation around the mechanical systems to augment the passive solar building modeling.
It was fascinating to see the preliminary green building techniques of the 1970’s –which did serve as a foundation for future research and improved technologies – still providing a dated version of habitat 40 years later. The solarium-style greenhouse was designed to vent warmed air through the adjacent residential quarters via a horizontal concrete ventilation shaft – however the surface area of the concrete shaft seemed to suck all of the heat out of the tiny greenhouse instead. Although the community site, buildings, and shade structures were all oriented for passive solar heating and cooling, the sheer mass of concrete made winters almost unbearable, as evidenced by the grumbling of our tour guide, the heavy wool layers of the few staff onsite, and my own frozen body during the tour. A prolific writer, Soleri has compiled tomes of architectural and philosophical theories for solving our communal living problems. Yet, aAccording to our tour guide, when asked what he might do differently if building Arcosanti again, Soleri answered with just one word, “Insulation!”
The foundational values of this 1970’s vision now feel anachronistic rather than groundbreaking. Like the domes dorms here at UC Davis, the Soleri envisioned a “coexisting” city, not an independent commune. He never strove for energy independence – although solar arrays are being slowly added to the site, they are more of a remote necessity than a political or ecological statement. Likewise, food independence and organic, small scale farming are not emphasized at Arcosanti the way they are in other modern communal living projects. The site plan included extensive onsite farming to feed those 5,000 inhabitants, but the reality is that farming is more of the interns’ personal hobby or landscape byproduct (Soleri planted many Mediterranean fruit trees onsite) than any sort of envelope-pushing endeavor. This was not a back to the land experiment – it was an architect’s vision for how we would live in the future. Sadly, it appears that the future has passed Arcosanti by without much fanfare or consideration.
I admit that in the scarcity of a holiday break (most interns traveled to see family and friends for the week that I visited), it felt more like the post-apocalyptic remnants of a cultish commune rather than the innovative mixed-use complex that Soleri wanted us to experience. I was more disillusioned than inspired. At the same time, reflecting on my visit reminds me that sometimes we can only learn by doing, putting theory to the test of reality. The reams and reams of architectural theory written by Soleri (all available in the gift shop of course) cannot compare to lessons learned by building and living in this enormous concrete experiment in the desert. Seeing the scale model of the communities master plan, with the meager grey “actually built” sections, and witnessing in person the evolution of concrete building science reminded me that we are still part of a process – and that it takes bravery, vision, and more than a few failures to move forward into the future.