Intelligent Design

words by rachel cassandra

photographs by arianna lago

An experimental fusion of architecture and ecology, Arcosanti was built on a bedrock of the best intentions: creativity, communal living, and reconnecting to nature. But what began as a beacon for those wanting an alternative to urban sprawl became a battleground between harmony and hubris.

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.

We will never know whether Soleri truly believed the arcology would come to full fruition—as Rob Jackson, director of Arcosanti says, “You have to have a compelling vision to draw people in.” And Soleri brought them in, in droves. Over the course of its existence, Arcosanti has had 8,000 volunteers, many of them coming in for what became Arcosanti’s classic entrance: the (pay-to-play) five-week, hands-on workshop during which volunteers constructed buildings in the larval city. And word was that if you wanted to stay after, you could find a way.


People came to learn about Soleri’s designs and how to build in his method. And when they arrived, they found a tight (if constantly shifting) community that called each other family. According to one long-term resident, volunteers took psychedelics and threw regular dance parties. As David Tollas, an almost 40-year resident of Arcosanti, told me: If you liked working, the whole thing was pure fun. Residents often cite the architecture as the reason they came and the people as the reason they stay. The population has always had a decent amount of turnover, and the current residents are a mix of old timers (some of whom have had kids and raised them onsite) and fresh blood.


Participants who came for the five-week workshops cast concrete walls directly in a bed of silt from the area. The “town” has several south-facing apses (half-domes) that maximize the sun’s warmth in the winter and offer shade in the summer. Many structures have art embedded in them (such as mosaics or pigments), and the buildings incorporate many circle cut-outs, unifying the architecture across the project. Many who came to study Arcosanti moved on to pursue degrees in architecture or urban planning. Its influence has trickled out into the world.

Many who came to study Arcosanti moved on to pursue degrees in architecture or urban planning. Its influence has trickled out into the world.

Arcosanti proper reads as a bit sterile, with its big, sweeping concrete lines. But down the hill, “camp” holds eight-foot cement cubes, the first buildings onsite to house workers. “Camp”is considered temporary but has acted continuously as a kind of suburb to the central part of the community (something metaphorically against the original aim of centralized, dense housing).The units in “camp” are painted in many colors, with plants and bits of art stuck to the edges and hanging from rooftops. There are cats, chickens, and feral peacocks, as well as a fire circle surrounded with lumpy chairs and forgotten books. Occasionally, a cow from a nearby ranch escapes to wallow in the mud by the creek that runs behind the area. “Camp” houses a mix of short-and long-term residents, drawn to the more communal lifestyle and open architecture.


Arcosanti is an expensive project. At first, Soleri received funding from the Xeroxcorporation and from a beneficent rancher. To further finance the project, he began designing hand-made bells. The bells—cast ceramic and bronze, each one unique—became the economic lifeblood of Arcosanti. I watched residents pour glowing molten bronze into sand molds, and as I wandered the grounds, the tinkling sound of finished bells ringing in the wind echoed from the trees surrounding the community.


Arcosanti is a tiny version of mixed-use architecture (there are apartments above the bell foundry, library, and amphitheater) that abuts cottonwood trees and cacti and is populated by over 200 species of migratory songbirds, who sing in the background of every conversation. Asis, it’s a glorified company town: Each resident must have an on-site role, such as tour guide, gardener, or foundry artist. The pay is low, but residents don’t pay rent, just a $300-a-month “co-use” fee, whatever their accommodations (which range from the eight-foot cement cubes to more standard multi-bedroom apartments).

It’s a relatively quiet existence—stunning yet simple architecture, a small 80-person community, proximity to the breathtaking surrounding high desert. Absent are the sounds of traffic and construction. And Tollas says, “You [are]n’t subjected to the hypnotizing effect of the market like you are when you’re in the urban environment.” One-year resident Ana Vazqueztells me she can’t remember the last time she bought something nonessential: It’s a long drive to get to the nearest grocery store (much of which is on the bumpy dirt road that leads into Arcosanti). Vazquez says that you can’t escape the inner workings of the community, which encourages conscientiousness.Residents take turns sorting their trash before they take it off site.The swamp that processes sewage water sits near a community garden. There’s a palpable peace that comes from being connected to the systems that affect you and removed from the toxicities of urban society.


The site hosts twice-yearly festivals (both the music festival FORM and the building conference Convergence) and many large community events. But its main marketable feature, says Jackson, is the story behind the place. As he told me, “There [is] an almost myopic focus on the past.” And there’s a steady trickle of a market for those stories. While I stayed there, tour groups walked the grounds every day, albeit at a limited capacity due to the pandemic.


Beyond architecture, Soleri mused openly on a range of facets of life, from the relay-like structure of generational change to equitable consumerism. He published a series of “cuadernos,”which spelled out his thoughts and teachings. They’re opaque (like reading a Google Translate document), and Soleri makes up his own words when he wants. Jackson tells me that “brilliant architectural minds” used to create study groups to try to figure out what it was that Soleri was trying to say. But Soleri felt his work tied him to God. He followed the teachings of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a French priest and scientist, who posited that the Church would change humanity and bring it to the Omega point (a universal point of evolution), where matter becomes spirit. But instead of religion being the force for change, Soleri thought the architect would usher humans into a higher level of being.

This narcissism carried over to Arcosanti as a whole, steeping it in a colonialist mindset. As Vazquez describes Arcosanti’s history, “Some European guy com[es] to the desert, adoptinga lot of Indigenous architecture, and setting up shop here, claiming, ‘This is a future. This is the answer to something.’” The mesa itself was territory of the Hohokam tribe and later the Yavapai Apache, and Soleri drew on indigenous building practices like clay structures, rounded edges, and reliance on thermal mass. As far as I could find, Soleri never acknowledged these influences. He wanted to build a new civilization on land he saw as untouched. It all fit into Soleri’s narrative. What is more godlike than creating something in a place where there is seemingly (at least from a capitalist viewpoint) nothing?

Soleri drew on indigenous building practices like clay structures, rounded edges, and reliance on thermal mass.

Rachel Cassandra

Soleri’s image, seven years after his death, is marred. In a Medium article in 2017, Soleri’s daughter Daniela accused her father of a long history of sexual abuse culminating in attempted rape. She writes of how those around Soleri enabled his bad behaviors. A long-term resident said Soleri asked female volunteers to pose nude for him (a request from a revered leader that could be hard to turn down) and was known for his emotionally abusive treatment of those who worked for him, especially those in his inner circle. As Tollas said, “A lot of people look back and say, ‘Oh, we should have kicked Paolo out of here a long time ago.’”

When he started working at Arcosanti, Tollas used to say, “I’m here despite Paolo.” Most people, Tollas said, didn’t like dealing with Soleri. He was rigid and didn’t let workers followthrough with their ideas. When people came forward with thoughts about housing small businesses, Soleri shot them down, saying he didn’t want to distract from the bells. He cultivated a community in which he was the sole leader. As his daughter Daniela says in her Medium article, “Without true peers of age or accomplishment in his inner circle, deference was the default for those living and working with him.”


Arcosanti has stopped building. According to residents, the five-week workshops are on hiatus indefinitely, and the construction team has been fired or reassigned, dueto mounting debt.The community (overseen by the Cosanti Foundation) is in an identity crisis, something RobJackson is addressing in his role as director. But the elders of the community say they’ve seen the place die and come back to life a hundred times. One of the tour guides mused about the choices ahead of Arcosanti: What are we? Are we committed to becoming a 5,000 person arcology? Are we a bell manufactury? Are we a small community in the desert? Are we a host for festivals?


Now, Jackson is toying with ways to bring Arcosanti back to its radical, community-building roots and is working on a plan for the future. Arcosanti had to break off from larger society in order to develop into something different, but in order to metamorphose into its next stage, it may need to strengthen its connections to that same fractured society. As Jackson put it,“What good does it do for a small group of people to create a great life for themselves, far away from everything else?”

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