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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.


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.)