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From the Archives: American Classic: Arcosanti Rings in the Future

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arcosanti bells Amidst the chiming of Soleri’s famed windbells, Arcosanti offers a tranquil utopia. Photo by Kerrick James

In June/July 1992 Worth featured Arcosanti, the futuristic desert city in Arizona that was conceptualized and designed by architect Paolo Soleri. Now, 47 years after the project began, and four years after its creator’s death, it remains incomplete; only about 25 of its 860 acres have been developed thus far. Yet the guests keep visiting, by the thousands every year. For information, and to book a tour or a stay, visit arcosanti.org.

Even in its incomplete state, Arcosanti challenges the visitor’s imagination. Conceived by 73-year-old Italian-born architect, sculptor and philosopher Paolo Soleri as a working prototype of the city of the future, it rises from the high chaparral 65 miles north of Phoenix like a set designed for Star Wars, a hive of stacked cubes and vaulting arches, with windbells suspended from the courtyards and terraces.

Is this how we still live, come the 25th century—in a self-sufficient, energy-efficient, ecologically balanced urban habitat?

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Arcosanti was begun in 1970 as an experiment, an attempt to redefine man’s place in the environment. Unlike the cities of today, with their sprawling suburbs and crammed freeways, Arcosanti was planned to maximize human interaction while minimizing the use of energy and raw materials. The community’s 5,000 residents would live within walking distance; there would be no need for cars and no use for fossil fuels. The community would be compact, with 10 acres of buildings surrounded by 860 acres for farming and recreation. It would be self- contained, heated by the sun and fed from solar greenhouses. And it would nourish the soul, with music studios and performance spaces, an amphitheater for concerts, and al fresco café and a ceramics workshop and foundry for the famous Soleri windbells.

Originally Soleri, “blessed by blissful ignorance,” he says, believed he could complete a fully functioning community within his lifetime. But the work has gone slowly; building is done by volunteers who pay a modest $400 to $500 to live and work with “the prophet in the desert” for a month. And money is tight; constriction is financed by students’ fees, a modest visitor’s charge and sales of Soleri’s celebrated ceramic and brass windbells, which range from $15 to thousands of dollars each.

From left: Interior of Arcosanti’s main building (Photo: flickr/mandymooo); Arcosanti’s archways highlight architect Paolo Soleri’s style (Photo: flickr/Jamiriquai)

Today, 22 years and $7 million later (not including volunteer labor), Arcosanti is still only about 4 percent complete. But that is beside the point to over 50,000 visitors who come each year to watch Soleri’s dream project take shape among the cacti and olive trees. Even unfinished, Arcosanti is vast and inspiring, a provocative experiment in urban architecture.

Realistically, Soleri admits, Arcosanti may never be finished at all. But that no longer seems important to him.

“I’m not the one who’s being unrealistic,” he argues, shaking his finger toward Phoenix. “Look at western cities like Phoenix and Los Angeles, with their smog and their waste. Horizontal cities are the product of a flat intellect that will result in a rubber-wheel species. Tall buildings cannot capture the sun, and subterranean cities would be a humanistic disaster.”

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Besides, Soleri says, he has a larger purpose, a reflection of his shift “from environmentalism to theology.” He is not just creating a city; he is changing the way we live.

“You know, all the great architects had strong religious feelings, what we now call ‘cosmic.’ For me, God is the offspring, not the creator. All human design is conceived around a longing for perfection,” he says. “And man keeps creating the blueprint as he goes along.”
At Arcosanti, that work goes on, stone by stone, day by day, accompanied by the chiming of bells in the wind.—John Mariani

Reprinted from the June/July 1992 issue of Worth.


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