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The city that science fiction forgot

Everyone's got an arcology.

Ever since Niven and Pournelle dropped the cube of Todos Santos in the heart of Los Angeles, arcologies have been a recurring trope in science fiction. City-buildings fill the worlds of authors from all parts of the genre. They inspire people to think of new societies, new ways of living - ways that have far less impact than the current suburban sprawl. But who has heard of Paolo Soleri, the architect and artist who coined the word, blending ARCitecture and ecOLOGY, or of his experimental prototype community of tomorrow, Arcosanti? It's the city that SF adopted, ripped out of the world and into fiction, and then left far behind, a project for idealists and architects.

Deep in the Arizona desert, down a two mile dirt track, sits the nascent arcology. Arcosanti is a slow burn, with parts over 40 years old, and others raised just last month. It's a new cathedral, built by volunteers and a small group of residents. Concrete slabs are cast in silt, and raised up to create human-scale structures that blend into the earth and take advantage of the passive warming and cooling effects of sun and wind. Designed to be a town for thousands, it's a village for a hundred, reliant on the volunteers who pay for month-long courses on Soleri's ideas, on the passing tourist trade and the sale of Soleri's bronze and ceramic bells.

Arcosanti Bells

It's a place I've wanted to visit ever since I read about it in the first edition of Nicholls and Clute.

And this week I got there.


The Black Canyon Freeway rolls through the desert, climbing nearly 6000 feet between Phoenix and Flagstaff. Just short of halfway is the turn-off for Arcosanti. It's a sudden transition, from the speed of the freeway to the sudden judder of a gravel track. That's the Arcosanti experience in a nutshell: sudden transitions. The next one comes when you pull into the Arcosanti parking lot, and look down at the edge of the mesa, at a cluster of grey concrete buildings surrounded by green. It's an incongruous sight, something like a mediaeval European city in the middle of the yellow and red desert.

Arcosanti Views

You can't explore the site on your own. After all, it's a working community that casts molten bronze and works with tonnes of concrete at a time. We joined up with a small guided tour at the end of the day.

Soleri's architecture is very human, mixing art and utility. The concrete apses protect workers from noonday heat, and give the most light possible at the end of the day. It's hard to believe that this cathedral curve is a working bronze foundry.

Arcosanti Apse

The centre of the site has two huge barrel vaults, made of cast concrete. Steps lead to the top, open to the desert stars and the wide-open plains and mesas.

Arcosanti Vaults

It's a beautiful site, especially when the sun sets over the distant mountains.

Arcosanti Sunset

However I'm left with some disconcerting thoughts.

The society that's grown up around Arcosanti reminds me of the guilds that built the great cathedrals of Europe. It's not difficult to see the arcology as a secular cathedral, a project that will take generations to complete and that will never be what Soleri dreamt all those years ago. Perhaps that's not a bad thing.

One thing did seem clear: it's in the wrong place. If arcologies are to replace the urban sprawl of a city with a new, intentional community on a human scale, then the desert (as beautiful as it is) is the wrong place for Arcosanti. It should be in a city, in a Detroit, a LA, a New York, a London, a Moscow, a Hong Kong. It shouldn't be isolated, a new Taliesin for Soleri's architectural disciples. It should be a visible sign of a different way to live, of a new city. Make it La Sagrada Familia, big, vibrant and reaching in the heart of Barcelona, not a hermitage in the desert.

Still, I've been there now. And it's left me thinking and wondering - and that's the real impact of Arcosanti. The arcology you take away, not leave behind.


( 15 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 25th, 2009 08:14 am (UTC)
Thanks for this - I note Pamela Sargent uses the term in Clones in the mid 1970s, but I hadn't tracked the source. This fits very nicely with what I would've been looking for.
Nov. 25th, 2009 09:03 am (UTC)
A place I would love to visit after reading about it in Nigel Calder's Spaceships of the Mind back in '78 and in numerous copies of Omni.

Was Todos Santos really the first proper arcology in SF? Are you aware of any studies into how feasible it would be to actually build it? I feel that the first arcologies we'll see will be floating ones based on the huge cruise ships that are currently being launched or are on the drawing boards.
Nov. 25th, 2009 10:56 am (UTC)
I can remember the first time I read about Arcosanti, it would have been one of the early issues of Future Magazine (the Starlog spin-off, later Future Life) in '78 or '79. Thanks for the post and the pictures.
Nov. 25th, 2009 12:49 pm (UTC)
A while back I posted a link to a Guardian interview with Paolo Soleri. A friend, of an architectural bent, replied saying she'd visited Arcosanti and thought roughly the same as you did of the location.
Nov. 25th, 2009 04:39 pm (UTC)
Ever since Niven and Pournelle dropped the cube of Todos Santos in the heart of Los Angeles, arcologies have been a recurring trope in science fiction.

With all due respect, Oath of Fealty is from around 1982, right? And William Rotsler, who I will admit is a pretty obscure name now, featured them in his SF (Both Patron of the Arts and To the Land of the Electric Angel, I think) in the mid-1970s.

There's also Robert Silverberg's Urbmons from The World Inside (1971). Those were several kilometer tall structures, each with about a million people, with fairly compact societies within each of them.

I'm not sure if TJ Bass (The Godwhale, Half Past Human) or Arsen Darnay (A Hostage For Hinterland) were drawing on the idea of arcologies when they wrote their books. H Beam Piper wasn't when he wrote Four Day Planet; he just arrived at a similar solution independently.
Nov. 25th, 2009 05:04 pm (UTC)
Thinking about it, I'd say OoF was one of the last SF books directly inspired by Soleri, the culmination of a trend rather than its seed.
Nov. 25th, 2009 06:36 pm (UTC)
Clarke's Diaspar also has nothing to do with Arcosanti (predating the idea of the arcology by quite some time) but it parallels the basic ideas. The people in Diaspar do have the significant advantage of a substantially more sophisticated technological toolkit than the folks out in the Arizona desert.
Nov. 26th, 2009 04:54 am (UTC)
the Urbmons had all the farming, factories and processing outside; I think a true arcology has at least some of the means of production inside. And Niven and Pournelle weren't the first, but weren't they the ones who made it fashionable/almost an assumption for a certain kind of future society?

It's not as if it's that different from any walled mediaeval city and guilds; what I think Soleri has done is fuse those traditional European notions of city with Le Corbusier's city as machine for living and Gaudi fusoin of design into architectural features with American tropes like Lloyd Wright's intentional design community plus Mies van der Rohe and Chicago school techniques with the look of 70's concrete spaceships. Some Cesar Manrique/New York Factory influences too, I think... all brought to a head in opposition to the sprawliest sprawl you ever saw in Phonenix. It's so big, so empty - no wonder the suburbs spread out so much here...
Nov. 26th, 2009 06:44 am (UTC)
the Urbmons had all the farming, factories and processing outside;

The farming, yeah. I don't recall anything about the location of the factories and processing. There should be room in the Urbmons; weren't they 1000 stories tall? Although I don't seem to be able to find how much area each floor had.

I think a true arcology has at least some of the means of production inside.

Well, real cities do.

And Niven and Pournelle weren't the first, but weren't they the ones who made it fashionable/almost an assumption for a certain kind of future society?

I'm deeply resentful happy to be corrected but what are the examples of the works copying Oath of Fealty? Offhand, nothing is coming to mind.

Le Corbusier


Edited at 2009-11-26 06:47 am (UTC)
Nov. 25th, 2009 05:48 pm (UTC)
I too have heard of this before, probably from reading The Whole Earth Catalog in the '70s. Didn't one of the later Sim Cities introduce arcologies, too?

I haven't read about it in quite a while, though, so all your photos are news to me (i.e., not just pretty to look at). Yes, arcologies belong in cities, but I can see why they picked a cheap, remote location for the prototype. Must visit it someday, myself.
Nov. 25th, 2009 06:19 pm (UTC)
The land may be cheap but the remoteness can't help the cost of building the place. This, in addition with some notable inefficiencies in the funding process, presumably contributed to the glacial pace at which the place is being built.

From Alex Steffen's Recycling Arcosanti:

"Well, we've had some problems with the funding," she begins. She glances quickly around the room to make sure we're alone, then goes on in a quick, low voice, a total I'm-dishing-the-dirt voice. First they thought they'd be supported by grants from large foundations and government support, she says, but that never quite worked out. Then they tried holding festivals. At the first festival, a grassy field was turned into a parking lot, and "something – we don't know if it was a catalytic converter or a cigarette" caught the grass on fire. "Over one hundred cars blew up," she tells me, nodding. "So we didn't really make any money off that one." At the next festival, the concentrated activities on the banks of the nearby Agua Fria river. Unfortunately, it has rained upstream the night before, and a flashflood came and carried off all the tents, exhibits and kitchens. "As you might imagine, that wasn't much of a profit-maker, either." She smiles a tiny little wry smile as she recounts this story. Bernadette's not so bad.

[snip] It turns out that about 3% of the city has been built in the last 30 years, and about 70 people, not 6,000, live there.

Nov. 25th, 2009 08:41 pm (UTC)
I was thinking more that they'd have fewer building regulations to deal with in a remote area than they would in a city of any significant size and age.

Poor planning, as you noted, can happen anywhere.
Nov. 25th, 2009 08:43 pm (UTC)
(Sorry, the anonymous post was me.)
Nov. 25th, 2009 11:51 pm (UTC)
I am jealous; I've wanted to visit there since I first heard of it. One of these days! In the meantime, thank you for your photos and your thoughts.
Nov. 27th, 2009 11:43 am (UTC)
This sounds like something Ken Campbell should have told us about - but I can see why you'd want to visit for yourself. A wonderful set of photos...
( 15 comments — Leave a comment )