North of Phoenix (AZ), just between Sedona and Scottsdale, is Arcosanti.
The city, designed to house thousands of residents, seems like a strange ensemble of structures in the middle of nowhere; it is instead the visionary, unfinished project of the Italian architect Paolo Soleri. This is not just a miniature village, but a prototype of a city of the future according to the architect that, over 40 years ago, theorized and designed it.
Paolo Soleri was born in Italy in 1919. He received a PhD in architecture from the Politecnico in Turin, and then came to the U.S. in 1947 to study with famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright in Taliesin West.
Deeply interested in finding solutions to environmental issues, he started dedicating his career to research and experimentation in urban planning, until the development of his own theory, a possible alternative to the problems of the modern society: he thought that an entire city could be stuffed into a single structure, an independent, coordinated area where people could leave, work, and be completely self-sufficient.
No cars would be needed, nor electricity, since everything would be run by solar power. Food, primary materials and energy would be produced on site, as well as some sort of commercial activity to make the economy of the village run. Big supermarkets, multinational companies, cars and gas, pollution: all this would be cut off from that small world.
Soleri’s first attempt to build such a community is Mesa City, an example of what he calls an “arcology,” a project based on architecture + ecology. His drawings illustrated a series of gigantic urban centers that extend vertically into space rather than horizontally along the ground. “My proposition is urban implosion rather than explosion” he said. The opposite of what the U.S. had just become, an urban society spread horizontally, based on long distances, cars and waste.
Then, in the Seventies, came Arcosanti. Soleri was ready to build a self sufficient community able to host up to 5,000 people. And he did it, he started to build the city with his own hands and with the help of volunteers responding to the call: “If you are truly concerned about the problems of pollution, waste, energy depletion, land, water, air and biological conservation, poverty, segregation, intolerance, population containment, fear and disillusionment, Join us.” Many of those would have settled there, at least for a while.
Today Arcosanti has a foundry, a garden, a ceramics lab, a studio, a common kitchen with a cafeteria, an amphitheater and a pool overlooking the beautiful desert landscapes, all built by the many that during the years stayed in the village. Yet, the project is far from being what it was meant to be. Under construction for half a century, it currently hosts only 50 permanent residents, but many others get there every year to experiencing for a few months life in Arcosanti.
Unfortunately, due to the low number of inhabitants and the slow progression of works, sometimes Arcosanti looks like the ruin of a never finished project; only the 5% of the initial plan has been accomplished. Yet, there’s something magical in that place. Forty years after, that unique desert city really makes you wonder if Soleri’s project was a mere utopia or rather the only possible solution to our consumer society.
Paolo Soleri passed away last April 9th, at the age of 93, after having inspired generations of architects. He will be buried in Arcosanti.