In the field of architecture, there’s a concept of “paper architecture”—buildings and plans that are ambitious (and potentially utopian) but, due to limitations like money and time, are never constructed. Architects win awards and fame for drawings that were never meant to become buildings in real life. These plans drive the field of architecture forward, but they only affectcurrent and future environments in a sort of trickle-down effect.
Paolo Soleri, an Italian architect, sought to take one of his paper architectures (for which he’d garnered notable fame) and make it real—with clay and concrete and labor and people. The concept was enormous: a 5,000-person “arcology,” a term he invented for the marriage of architecture and ecology and which he had promulgated in his book Arcology: City in the Image of Man.
Soleri wanted to create a dense architecture (reaching skyward, towering) that was merely a few feet from raw nature. He talked of miniaturizing things: retaining the complexity of connections but reducing the space they require. Someone living in an arcology would walk a short distance to work, shopping, leisure. No cars. No long commutes. No out-of-the-way errands. Just a giant, concentrated architecture of mixed-use development. Because of this radical density, nature could be respected and preserved.
The beauty of paper architecture is that it bypasses budget limitations, legal and bureaucratic hurdles, and all of the dramas of human relationships. On one of the pages of Soleri’sArcologyexists a version of Arcosanti untouched by the human faults that would lead to its interruption—the colonial missteps and abuse, and the spending that plummeted the place into debt. But in order for anyone to learn from a project, the paper architecture must be translated into reality.
In 1970, the United States was full of anti-war protests and psychedelics, and architects were critical of suburban sprawl, which had surged in the 1950s. The rising countercultural tide included a back-to-the-land mentality critical of a cookie-cutter, nuclear-family, single-home model. Soleri started building Arcosanti based on a design in his book, capitalizing on his fame and vision to bring in volunteers and minimum-wage labor.
Soleri chose a spot on a mesa north of Phoenix, a sprawl capitol. He promised to build aspace that could meet all human needs: work, play, nature, love. He offered participation in the next version of society, one that would outlive urban sprawl and environmental degradation. Soleri didn’t say the word “utopia,” but at that time, the concept haunted any high-minded vision removed from larger society.