70 miles north of Phoenix, in central Arizona lies an experimental town created by Paolo Soleri, intended to house 5,000 people. Arcosanti is the study of the concept of arcology, which combines architecture and ecology. The intensions of this community is to form a gestalt that houses the relations and interactions that living organisms have with respect to each other and their natural environment.
One of the most imaginative thinkers of our time, Paolo Soleri has dedicated his life to addressing the ecological and social concerns raised by modern urban existence. Soleri’s career contains significant accomplishments in the fields of architecture and urban planning, and his groundbreaking philosophical writings on arcology, the co-presence of architecture with ecology, continues to garner interest globally.
Born in 1919 in Turin, Italy, Soleri spent his earliest years absorbing the European landscape, culture, and architecture. He received his Ph.D. in Architecture from Torino Polytechnico in 1946. Soon after graduating, Dr. Soleri moved to the United States to attend Frank Lloyd Wright’s apprenticeship program at Taliesin West in Arizona.
Soleri returned to Italy in 1950, where he was commissioned to design a large ceramics factory, Ceramic Artistica Solimene, which is now an Italian historical landmark. During this time he began working as a ceramic artist, acquiring the ceramics knowledge he would later apply to producing windbells. Over the next fifty years, these ceramic windbells, along with his explorations in metal casting with bronze windbells and sculptural commissions, would serve as the major source of funding for the construction that would test his theoretical works.
Together with his wife Colly and their two daughters, Kristine and Daniela, Soleri moved to Scottsdale, Arizona in 1956. There they established the not-for-profit Cosanti Foundation and began work on the group of buildings that bears the same name, Cosanti. It is at Cosanti where Soleri began his initial architectural experiments with various earth-casting techniques.
In 1970, Paolo Soleri embarked on what is his most ambitious work, Arcosanti. Located in the high desert of central Arizona, Arcosanti is being constructed as a prototype arcology. Arcosanti is a materialization of arcology theoretics; the community embodies Soleri’s vision for a sustainable urban alternative. Since its inception in 1970, the development and construction of Arcosanti has been at the center of Soleri’s life and work.
Arcology is Paolo Soleri’s concept for cities that embody the co-presence of architecture and ecology. The arcology concept proposes a highly integrated and compact three-dimensional urban form that is the opposite of suburban sprawl, with its inherently wasteful consumption of resources and tendency to isolate people from each other and the community. The miniaturization of the physical environment of the city enables effective conservation of land, energy and resources.
Traditionally, an arcology is a set of architectural design principles aimed toward the design hyperstructure habitats of extremely high human population density. An arcology is distinguished from a merely large building or habitat in that it is supposed to sustainably supply all or most of the resourses for comfortable life: power, climate control, food production air and water purification, sewage treatment, etc.. It is supposed to supply these items for a large population. Also, an arcology would need no connections to municipal or urban infrastructure in order to operate.
Arcologies were proposed to reduce human impacts on natural resources. Arcology designs often apply conventional building and civil engineering techniques in very large, but practical projects in order to achieve economies that are difficult to achieve in other ways. Frank Lloyd Wright proposed an early version with his Broadacre City.
His plan described transportation, agriculture, and commerce systems that would support an economy. Similar to Soleri’s Arcosanti, Broadacre City faced critics who said that their proposed solution failed to account the realistic problems that come with sustaining a habitat of a large population and also they tried to assume a more rigid way of living and democracy than that of independent means and that of a formalized government.
“The problem I am confronting is the present design of cities only a few stories high, stretching outward in unwieldy sprawl for miles. As a result of their sprawl, they literally transform the earth, turn farms into parking lots and waste enormous amounts of time and energy transporting people, goods and services over their expanses. My proposition is urban implosion rather than explosion”.
-Paolo Soleri, Earth’s Answer, 1977
Today’s typical city devotes more than half of its land to the function of the automobile. In anarcology, automobiles are eliminated from the confines of the city. The multi-use nature of the buildings in arcology design place living, working and public spaces within easy reach of each other, thus walking becomes the main form of transportation within the city.
An arcology’s direct proximity to uninhabited land provides the city dweller with immediate and low-impact access to rural space, as well as allowing agriculture to be situated near the city. In turn, this maximizes the logistical efficiency of food distribution systems. An arcology uses passive solar architectural techniques such as the apse effect, greenhouse architecture, and garment architecture to reduce the energy usage of the city, particularly in relation to heating, lighting, and cooling.
Overall, arcology seeks to exemplify a “Lean Alternative” to hyper-consumption and wastefulness through more frugal, efficient and intelligent city design.
“Arcology is capable of demonstrating a positive response to the many problems of urban civilization, those of population, pollution, energy and natural resource depletion, food scarcity, and quality of life. The city structure must contract, or miniaturize, in order to support the complex activities that sustain human culture and give it new perception and renewed trust in society and its future. A central tenet of arcology is that the city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind”.
-Paolo Soleri, Earth’s Answer, 1977
In 1970, Paolo Soleri and the Cosanti Foundation began construction on Arcosanti, an urban laboratory in the high desert of central Arizona. Designed according to the concept of arcology, Arcosanti will house 5,000 people when complete, demonstrating ways to improve urban conditions and lessen our negative impact on the earth. Its large, compact structures and large-scale solar greenhouses will occupy only 25 acres of a 4,060-acre land preserve, keeping the natural countryside in close proximity to urban dwellers.
Urban sprawl, spreading across the landscape, causes enormous waste, frustration, and long-term costs by depleting land and resources. Dependency on the automobile intensifies these problems, while increasing pollution, congestion, and social isolation. Arcosanti attempts to address these issues by building a three-dimensional, pedestrian-oriented city. Because this plan eliminates sprawl, both the urban and natural environments keep their integrity and thrive. Arcosanti is a prototype: if successful, it will become a model for how the world builds its cities.
According to Soleri’s theory of arcology, at Arcosanti many systems work together, with efficient circulation of people and resources, multi-use buildings, and solar orientation for lighting, heating and cooling. In this complex environment, apartments, businesses, production, technology, open space, studios, educational and cultural events are all accessible, even while privacy is paramount in the overall design.
Arcosanti is an educational center. The five-week workshop program teaches building techniques and arcological philosophy while continuing construction. Volunteers and students come from around the world, experiencing Arcosanti through hands-on participation in its growth and development. Many are design students and some receive university credit for the workshop. However, a design or architecture background is not necessary.
At the present stage of construction, Arcosanti consists of a dozen mixed-use buildings constructed by 6,000 past workshop participants. These buildings house 60 to 80 residents, who are continually working on the construction and maintenance of the built environment. These longterm residents are workshop alumni, and work in planning, construction, landscaping, maintenance, cooking, carpentry, metal work, ceramics, gardening, communications, and administration. They produce the world-famous Soleri Bells and are visited by 50,000 tourists every year.