“Paolo was more of an idea than a reality,” says Will Bruder, as he reflects on Soleri from his Arizona home.
It’s a Saturday morning, but Bruder has a busy day ahead. After viewing original sketches by Michelangelo at the Phoenix Art Museum, the architect and his wife Louise are attending a black tie dinner at Taliesin West. “The life of an architectural junkie,” he says, laughing candidly before steering the conversation back to Soleri.
Bruder worked as a summer student at Cosanti in the late 1960s and witnessed the birth of Arcosanti first hand. He says that while many individuals have shown interest in the project, the city has failed to motivate large-scale change. Soleri’s urban model has not been imitated beyond the walls of Arcosanti, nor has it inspired the widespread movement that he and his supporters genuinely hoped it would.
Arcosanti resident Ron Chandler says that Arcosanti failed to inspire large-scale change because of a general misunderstanding of the project. “People think we’re just a bunch of hippie freaks,” he says, “and we’ve been trying to get rid of that image for 40-something years.”
Indeed, those who are unfamiliar with or unaccepting of Arcosanti often refer to it as a cult-like organization or a silly commune run by free spirits; and while “intentional communities” and the hippie trend was certainly popular in the United States when Arcosanti began, it does not define the town’s social construct today. Many of Arcosanti’s residents are eccentric characters, but the large majority are highly educated and motivated individuals who simply share a deep passion for the values of the project.
“We’re just a group of amateurs gathered around a really powerful and interesting idea of how communities might be formed that could work better than they do now,” says Arcosanti co-president Jeff Stein, who is himself an award-winning architect, writer, former Harvard Graduate School professor and former Dean of the Boston Architectural College.
Nonetheless, some people continue to dismiss Arcosanti’s residents as hippies and are often uninterested in exploring what makes the town relevant and unique. Newsweek declared in 1976 that Arcosanti is “the most important experiment undertaken in our time,” but other reviews and writing on Arcosanti have not been as serious or kind.
Travelcraft Journal, a travel blog, published an article in 2014 titled “The myth of Arcosanti: Are there angry naked hippies living in the desert?”. Instead of debunking this false claim, the writer simply perpetuated the myth. She drove into the town at night and immediately left after hearing a flute that she assumed was the basis of a “spirit-summoning ritual.”
“We got back in the car and drove back towards the freeway lights,” she wrote. “I was still unsure if the place was filled with lonely hippies or New Age nudists or militant flutists or what, but I was relieved that we hadn’t been confronted by anything more than the sound of an otherworldly flute over the silent desert.”
A similar article published in Vice in 2013 referred to Arcosanti as a hippie commune in its headline. The reporter joked that the town’s urban laboratory descriptor “makes it sound like a church-run program to trick inner city kids into becoming Christians.”
“Paolo wasn’t trying to change people’s political ideas, religious beliefs or anything like that,” says Richard Register. “The people who live at Arcosanti are free. They can believe and think whatever they want.”
But clearly, myths on Arcosanti continue to run wild — discouraging people from visiting and thus limiting its potential for impact. The unknown can certainly be scary, but angry naked hippies are much, much worse.
Myths and claims aside, Stein says Arcosanti has failed to have a significant impact because it confronts the consumerist culture of the West through promotion of a lifestyle that continues to be foreign and undesirable to many. “There are powerful forces in charge, telling us that the economy is all there is to culture, telling us that how much we make is what we’re worth in the world as humans,” he says. “That’s tough to get around.”
Stein says many individuals know they should adopt more frugal lives, but the simple and honest reality is that the majority will not. People possess a comfort in the familiar and an inherent desire to continue pursuing materially rich and consumptive lives. Capitalism and globalization trump community and frugality. Soleri advocated for the reinvention of the American Dream, but could not provide a desirable alternative for the average citizen.
“Paolo thought that people would read his books, listen to his lectures, experience the spaces that he created and change,” says Stein. “But they didn’t. His influence hasn’t been that great.”
In a way, Soleri knew Arcosanti would not be easily accepted. By coining the town as an “urban laboratory” in 1970, he anticipated its struggles and justified the purpose for pursuing the project at all.
“In chemistry, in physics, in technology, we have laboratories,” he said in 2001. “The laboratory is where you develop an experiment, and then you take the experiment to the breaking point so that through this failure, you learn about the subject.”
His goal was never to establish an unachievable utopia or a laid-back hippie commune. He wanted to use Arcosanti as a testing ground for sustainable concepts that could be achieved elsewhere — and through the workshop program, inspire individuals to pursue similar, meaningful change.
“The notion of education for Paolo was a powerful one,” says Stein, who continues to promote Soleri’s workshop despite his passing in 2013. “The most important thing you can learn here is that you’re an actor in the world,” he says. “You’re not passive. You have the capacity to build life and community.”
Although Arcosanti failed to establish a widespread movement, hundreds (and perhaps thousands) of individuals have been genuinely impacted by his work — including the famous George Lucas, whose Star Wars desert scenes are said to have been inspired by a visit to the site.
Those who have been curious enough to participate in the workshop program say they have often felt inspired by Soleri’s attempts at establishing an "urban ideal." Many have even adopted Soleri’s values and applied his concepts in their own life’s work.
The success of Arcosanti therefore lies in the quality of impact that it produced. Though Soleri’s influence wasn’t as grand or as wide as he had hoped, it was clearly profound. His legacy is not simply the unfinished arcology that he left behind, but the people who have been — and continue to be — inspired by his mission.
Ultimately, Soleri achieved the most important aspect of his ambitious goal: he was a catalyst whose visionary ideas pushed many people to pursue similar change.
The following individuals represent a small handful of the people who have been changed in concrete ways by their experiences at Cosanti and Arcosanti. They seek to carry on Soleri’s legacy in different ways, serving as evidence of his success and lasting impact on a significant human scale.