The late revolutionary architect, Paolo Soleri, famously once said, “The use and consumption of the earth and not of its capital, is essential if we want to keep our options open for the future.” His vision of aesthetic architecture that harmonizes with nature would culminate in the marriage of two Italian words when he began the Cosanti Foundation in 1970. Cosa meaning “things” and anti meaning “before” (or against); together the two mean before (or against) things. From this idea sprang forth Arcosanti, another of Soleri’s word combinations; this one of arcology and cosanti. During an era of realistic discussion of space travel, underwater hotels, and microscopic bloodstream robots, the idea of utilizing construction methods that synergize with and in fact employ nature seems almost counter-intuitive; but it is far from that. Arcology, not to be confused with Archeology, is the unification of architecture and ecology to yield monolithic sustainable dwellings meant to house a large population while emitting a low-carbon footprint. Construction of the futuristic hub of domesticity, Soleri’s brainchild began in 1970 and continues to this day. The inception of this elegant idea has since inspired similar projects, such as Masdar City in Abu Dhabi, Dubai and Crystal Island in Moscow, Russia. The concept of arcology has even been utilized in the ever popular Entertainment Arts game series, Sim City.
Located 70 miles north of Phoenix, Arcosanti sits comfortably in the Arizona desert, looming over a canyon. Residents of this “urban laboratory” live and work in harmony in a way that only utopian science fiction novels have captured before. Unlike other large-scale construction projects of this caliber, Arcosanti’s ongoing construction is funded by the on-site production of Soleri wind bells and volunteer workers, who eventually become residents of the ecocity compound. The projected glory of a finished Arcosanti, currently 3 percent complete, is meant to house a maximum population of 5,000 individuals. It’s current population, a glaring contrast, is around 60 adults and children with numbers fluctuating based on the season. The dream of Arcosanti promises a life much different than past generations have experienced. In the age of social networking, when introverts can find comfort behind a glowing screen, life at Arcosanti offers a warm contrast in its community feeling. A city without streets, Arcosanti’s domestic living spaces instead center around communal and semi-communal locations, such as an amphitheater. Residents take turns working in the cafe and cooking group meals while many apartments have shared kitchens. While Arcosanti is not completely self-sufficient, the inhabitants utilize recyclable materials and reuse wasted products. The futuristic Arcosanti does not have a traditional heating or air conditioning system, but instead boasts unique architecture designed to regulate the temperature of the dwellings. In the winter, the heat from the bronze bell foundry is ducted through the living spaces in addition to specially designed solar collectors. In summer, vertical ventilation keeps the buildings cool.
Current Chairman of the Cosanti Foundation and resident of Arcosanti, Jeff Stein describes cities as Earth’s newest living organism; claiming that they simply have not been around long enough to evolve properly. “If our brains were only a few cells thick,” Stein says, “Like most American cities which are only a few stories tall, like Phoenix, Arizona – 900 square miles of one story buildings; the amount of time it would take for an impulse to go from one side to the other [would be] too long. We wouldn’t be a life form at all. We wouldn’t have survived all this time; and yet we have, and it’s because of our design. Cities are going to survive too, and be useful to humans because of their design. So, Arcosanti is meant to be the futuristic embodiment of the idea that cities, going forward, could be compact, complex, and three dimensional. And we’re trying to build a prototype here very slowly and intricately to see how that would work.”
Arcosanti, the living prototype is a far cry from finished, but it attracts a substantial number of approximately 35,000 visitors per year. While it serves as more of a curiosity to the general public, the residents of Arcosanti have a much more romantic view of their home. An unnamed female resident of Arcosanti was interviewed for the short film, Living and Dreaming at Arcosanti, “I think it’s the diversity of the day and the intelligence of the people, and the beauty of the space, and the opportunity to enjoy nature outside that is just so symbiotic. It really makes me feel like I’m living and I’m not just punching in hours for something that is not going to benefit the future. I myself may never see this place completed, but that doesn’t matter to me, I’m just enjoying the music now and it teaches you to enjoy the moment.”
Arcosanti does not have a projected date of completion, but willing participants are welcome to fill out the necessary forms for a chance at becoming a part of assembling this revolutionary compound. When Arcosanti finally is completed, the experiment will truly begin; could arcologies like Arcosanti be the futuristic setting man’s of domestic life?
By Faye Barton