“Architecture is an art that thrives on argument. The silent battles that poets and sculptors wage with themselves, architects need to articulate. Because a skyscraper costs so much more than a sonnet, because in the end others will build it, and because the finished product won’t stand isolated on a page or a pedestal, people who design buildings expend their creative energies suggesting, defending, criticizing, revising, and adjusting to a thousand external needs."
Justin Davidson, New York Magazine
About an hour and a half north of Phoenix, down a long, windy road, sits Soleri’s greatest architectural achievement, as well as his biggest failure.
First proposed in Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, Arcosanti is the sole arcology that Soleri ever truly realized. But its history and evolution — plagued with tragedy and slow momentum — is a story in and of itself.
A story perhaps best told by Soleri’s colleagues, friends and followers, who have helped him to construct it since its inception 46 years ago.
THE INSIGHT, THE EUREKA
“Paolo never got with the program. He was always doing his own thing,” says Arcosanti co-president Roger Tomalty as he flips through old photographs on a sunny desert morning in late spring. “He didn’t just look at the building. He looked at the entire forest.”
Tomalty is in the Red Room at Arcosanti — a makeshift presentation space characterized by its massive skylights and faded red floors. He’s holding up photos to a group of a dozen students who sit on long wooden benches nearby. They’ve come to the town to learn more about its history and development, and are listening attentively as Tomalty dives deep into Soleri’s background and character. “He was a real wordsmith,” he continues, “and he absolutely loved television. He watched Love Boat almost every night.”
Tomalty has brown eyes and dark, rough skin that’s evidence of a lifetime spent in the sun. His colourful descriptions and vivid expressions reveal the power of his storytelling, while his knowledge on Arcosanti speaks to his long history on site. He first met Soleri in the 1960s when he visited his studio, Cosanti, in Paradise Valley, Arizona.
Cosanti — an anti-materialist term derived by Soleri from the Italian words anti (against) and cosa (things) — was constructed on five acres of land that Soleri purchased in 1956. Drawing on the Taliesin West model created by his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright, Soleri’s studio and non-profit foundation was intended as an architectural research and teaching compound. Students would enroll in workshops, contributing to design, model making and construction in exchange for a hands-on learning experience with the architect himself.
“If you were in the workshop with Paolo, you had to be in good shape. He was a powerhouse,” says Tomalty.
Architect Will Bruder studied with Soleri at Cosanti in the 1960s and remembers the political events occurring at this time. President Kennedy had just been assassinated, the first Chinese atomic bomb was created and the Vietnam War was in full swing. “We would protest at the federal building every week,” says Bruder, referring to the 1968 protests on the war. “Paolo would drive us into the city, but he never forced us to go.”
These events inspired many people to promote and implement change. American counterculture became a powerful movement that embraced hippies, women’s rights, sexual expression and new celebrations of music and culture. “These were the days of Woodstock and the Age of Aquarius, of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young exhorting the masses to get back to the garden, and Joni Mitchell lamenting the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot,” wrote Kathleen Vanesian in a biography on Soleri in the Phoenix New Times.
Environmentalism was also a rising trend associated with the American counterculture movement, and it was in this context that plans for Arcosanti took root.
“I had this insight, this eureka,” Soleri said, referring to the moment in which he decided to turn his dream into a reality. Driven by a desire to test his concept of arcology, Soleri purchased a second plot of land in Yavapai County some 100 km away, and began construction on Arcosanti in 1970. The town would become an “urban laboratory” where experiments on sustainable city planning and frugal living could be implemented and explored.
ARCOSANTI = AR(COLOGY) + COSANTI (AGAINST THINGS)
Soleri paid $340,000 for the 860-acre green space, and afforded the land as a result of his rising popularity worldwide. That same year, Washington’s oldest privately-owned museum — The Corcoran Gallery of Art — organized an exhibition in conjunction with the release of Soleri’s Arcology book.
The Architectural Visions of Paolo Soleri — which travelled to California, New York, Chicago and Ottawa — was received with tremendous success. To this day, the exhibition holds the highest attendance record in the prestigious gallery’s history.
Following this accomplishment, Soleri expanded his reach — and his wallet — by lecturing at nearby institutions. Book royalties and donations to the Cosanti Foundation increased as more people became interested in his philosophies. Soon, hundreds of individuals from around the world were enrolling in Cosanti’s workshop program, which was eventually extended to the site at Arcosanti and continues today.
Frugality and leanness
Soleri’s original design for Arcosanti was grand. He planned to have several structures that would be entirely sustainable — using the natural resources to their full advantage — and would arrange them on 25 acres of land.
Arcosanti would be an entirely walkable city; without vehicular traffic, air pollution would be reduced. More than that, greenhouses and gardens would allow residents to live off of the land. Lastly, structures would be naturally heated and cooled through the use of specific construction techniques — an immense feat for the Sonoran Desert’s extreme temperatures.
Working, living and recreational facilities would be combined in this single, hyper-dense location, where approximately 5,000 residents would live social and materialistically frugal lives. “There is a notion of ‘frugality’ or ‘leanness’ that overlays the Arcosanti project and much of Soleri’s work,” says Arcosanti co-president Jeff Stein. “The idea, embodied by Arcosanti’s architecture, is that life is in the thick of things. It’s about connection to nature and other people, not ownership of unnecessary products or things.”
“It’s about being able to live a really rich life, while being materially very frugal.”
Ottawa’s Elfriede Jeller experienced this notion of frugality when she visited Soleri’s apartment at Arcosanti. “It was a real shock,” she says. “You expect certain things from a man of his accomplishment. That there would be medals and things on the walls. But there was nothing. It was just empty.”
Jeller says Soleri had a small kitchenette, a chair, a bed and a television — but not much else. “He said to me, ‘I don’t need anything else. I have everything else. Look outside!’ And he opened the doors. ‘What more do I need?’”
“He was incredibly frugal, and it was just really, really inspiring.”
ARCOSANTI IS LOCATED IN YAVAPAI COUNTY, ARIZONA
A fantastic little beginning
Richard Register remembers the precise day that Arcosanti began, as well as the series of events that led him to Soleri in the first place.
It was 1965 and Register, then 22, was driving through Arizona with a friend who had decided to make a pit stop at Cosanti along the way.
“When we arrived, Paolo was running around in this little Italian bathing suit and flip flops, carving a pattern into a mud dome in the hot sun,” says Register. “I picked up some of his papers to read, and I was very impressed by his ideas.”
Five years later, Register couldn’t shake the memory. “I got curious. Paolo kept saying that he was going to start working on a city, so I called him up and asked when,” he recalls. “He said, ‘tomorrow morning at six o’clock.’”
"I WAS VERY IMPRESSED BY HIS IDEAS."
Compelled by the sheer luck of his timing, Register immediately bicycled from his home in Venice to a friend’s studio in downtown LA. “We hopped in his beat-up old Ford and took off at sunset for Arizona.”
“I was there on the first day of construction,” he says, smiling as he remembers his first assignment at Arcosanti. He was asked to build a two-by-four plastic barrier to protect construction materials from the rain.
“We had this shelter up when suddenly a big thunderstorm came. It was pretty dramatic,” he says. “Hail and rain came pouring out of the sky and filled up this sagging plastic roof that we had just built.”
But the storm didn’t hinder his spirit. “As it was clearing up, a rainbow came out and some of us took little cups and drank a toast to the new city,” he says. “There with a rainbow, drinking water from the sky.”
“It was a fantastic little beginning.”
Fits and starts
Register’s colourful memories of the first day of construction are striking, but are somewhat disheartening considering the slow progression that Arcosanti subsequently faced. For the next four decades, the experimental city developed at an unpredictable and unsteady pace. What exists today is only a fraction — a mere five per cent — of what Soleri originally intended.
“Arcosanti moved with such fits and starts. It never got the momentum going,” says Will Bruder. “When you look at the models and see what was built in the shadow of what was to be, it’s bittersweet.”
Bruder describes two tragedies that Arcosanti faced in the early years of its development. “The first was the great fire,” he says, referring to the time in 1978 when more than 120 cars — parked in a grassy field while their owners attended a festival at Arcosanti — suddenly went up in flames. For the next several years, an investigation into the fire and an insurance settlement cast a dark and slow-moving cloud over the project.
“They never, ever recovered from that. It was devastating,” says Bruder.
CLICK THE PHOTO BELOW TO VIEW A VISUAL
RECORD OF THE 1978 CAR FIRE AT ARCOSANTI
PHOTOS BY MITCHELL WEINSTOCK
Four years later, Soleri’s wife, Colly, passed away from cancer, slowing development even more. Soleri met Colly in 1950 while working on his first architectural commission — a residential project called the Dome House in Cave Creek, Arizona. Colly was the daughter of Soleri’s client, and the two were later married in the home. They had two children, Kristina and Daniela, who were raised at Cosanti.
“Paolo and Colly contrasted each other so amazingly,” says Bruder. “She was very beautiful and had great manners. She was everybody’s mother and everybody’s concern.”
“But her death was very quick, very painful and very tragic,” he continues, “and Paolo never really recovered from that. It was a tremendous loss.”
While these tragedies certainly hindered construction at Arcosanti, the primary reason for its sluggish development has always been a steady lack of funds. Despite continued public interest in the project — with more than 30,000 visitors per year — Arcosanti has been unable to raise the money needed to pursue the original plan.
“This place has received no government funding, no philanthropy to think of, no outside angel investors,” says Stein.
The majority of the project has been funded through book royalties, the workshop program and the sale of bronze and ceramic wind bells on site. Soleri began producing bells while living in Santa Fe with Colly in the 1950s. His method consisted of casting bells using natural materials from his surroundings — a simple and small-scale representation of his arcology idea.
The handmade chimes eventually became synonymous to Soleri’s work. Production continues at Cosanti and Arcosanti, and the bells have proved to be a source of income for the project itself. While tourists typically purchase bells as souvenirs for under $100, larger assemblies are sometimes sold to organizations for several thousands of dollars.
But Arcosanti still struggles. Soleri originally estimated that construction would cost US$500 million, equivalent to over three billion today. By 1989, construction had already reached US$12 million, though it was still only three per cent complete. At that time, the project was earning only US$500 thousand a year in revenue.
Soleri had the vision to solve the problems that plague modern cities, but couldn’t find a clear solution for Arcosanti’s financial woes. He struggled to raise the money needed to fund the project in its entirety, and thus Arcosanti remains largely incomplete.
While Arcosanti has yet to become what Soleri originally intended, construction continues.
What exists today — a handful of sustainable structures — is the product of hard labour undertaken by thousands of volunteers who continue to believe in the potential of the project.
“The city is unfinished, but it’s functioning,” says Arcosanti co-president Tomiaki Tamura. “We’ve succeeded in the sense that we’re still here, 46 years later.”
Approximately 50 residents currently live on site, including many of Soleri’s original followers — but a new generation is also involved. Arcosanti’s youngest resident, Rowan, is only five years old. He has long blonde hair and light blue eyes, and refers to himself as the town sheriff.
“Be nice to each other,” Rowan says as people pass him in the streets, “and let the trees grow.”