Sam McManis

Dreaming-big Arcosanti has yet to rise like the Phoenix

Guests keep their carbon footprints small at Arcosanti, an urban laboratory in Arizona best explored without a car.
Guests keep their carbon footprints small at Arcosanti, an urban laboratory in Arizona best explored without a car. WASHINGTON POST

Something about the desert, that vast expanse of nothingness, leads to Utopian thoughts. Here is where you can take a stand. Here is where you can make things right, correct society’s ills and begin again with a blank slate. Here, you can create.

The problem is, in much of Arizona, the desert isn’t deserted anymore. Sprawl has leached out on all sides of the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, like spilled milk on a counter top, an ever-widening arc of housing tracts, strip malls, light industrial and starkly verdant country clubs. Few are the places left for the dreamer, the visionary, one bent on changing ways of thinking as well as manners of living in tandem with the environment.

Once, the ambitious idea that is Arcosanti, designer Paolo Soleri’s melding of architecture and ecology into what he called “arcology,” seemed farther, much farther, away than 65 miles north of Phoenix; it seemed a whole other world to be constructed on the rutilant basalt mesas halfway to Flagstaff. Over the decades, though, as the architect’s vision of a self-contained live, work and re-create center slowly, excruciatingly incrementally, took shape, Phoenix and its hydra-headed suburbs exploded and steadily encroached on this communitarian idyll.

Now, visitors venturing forth to see what really is just the prototype of Soleri’s early 1970s grand scheme must traverse two serpentine freeways past vast swaths of planned developments and outlet stores, medical complexes and fast-food emporiums, and hardly get to see much of the wide-open high desert before making the turn off Interstate 17 and wending a dusty way to the site overlooking a steep canyon.

This irony was not lost – oh, most assuredly not – on my traveling companion, the Skeptical Matriarch.

She lives amid the sprawl west of Phoenix in something of a communal habitation environment (a.k.a., an “independent living retirement community”) and likes it just fine, yes siree. She was a tad wary of visiting a place that dubs itself an “urban laboratory focused on innovative design, community and environmental accountability.” Sounded a little hippyish to the Skeptical Matriarch, who was already married and saddled with three squalling young’uns when the height of the ’60s hit.

“For a place that doesn’t want cars, it’s sure a long drive,” she said.

Well, I told her, that’s the thing: Arcosanti was supposed to be so complete and self-contained that not only cars but streets were not needed. In a way, I added, trying to sell the place to her, it’s a lot like your place with the other seniors. Everything you need is there without having to travel great distances. The only difference is, you’d also have offices for working and retail stores for shopping at the same location.

Silence from the Skeptical Matriarch. I could tell the whole thing sounded fishy, vaguely socialist, to her. I tried to quell her qualms by saying, brightly, that we could have lunch in Arcosanti’s cafe if we didn’t get there at the top of the hour, when the public tours commence. Maybe a nice soup and salad.

“I won’t have to eat granola, will I?” she asked.

In many ways, I gamely pressed on, Arcosanti was ahead of its time. It presaged today’s urban-planning buzz words such as “live-work lofts” and “smart growth” and “walkable communities.” Only this was a community writ-large, originally meant to be a prototype of a large metropolitan city. About 5,000 people were to live at Arcosanti, had it come to full fruition, in a densely built, hive-like space that took up only 15 acres.

“Uh-huh,” the SM grunted. “How many people live there now?”

When I told her, about 50 to 60, she gave me that I-told-you-so curt nod. But it gets a lot of curious visitors, kind of like Biosphere II down near Tucson, I added.

Other Arcosanti skeptics abound, I’m sure. But, remember, back in the 1970s, Utopian communities weren’t met with universal snarky eye rolls. And Soleri, a prominent Italian architect who died in 2013 at age 93, was hardly a crunchy back-to-the-lander. Both an architect and an artist (his Soleri Bells, made of brass and clay, remain big sellers and help pay for Arcosanti’s upkeep), Soleri had nothing against big cities. He just wanted them condensed and with a smaller ecological, low-energy-consumption footprint. Build up, not out, and make use of every inch of space – that was his overarching philosophy.

Still trying to woo the Skeptical Matriarch, I told her that, according to its website, thousands visit Arcosanti each year, and that many architects and urban planners encamp for workshops on how to build sustainable cities.

“But only 50 people live there, right?” she asked.

We had just made the exit off I-17 and were negotiating a bumpy 11/2-mile dirt road leading to the site. The SM fretted about her car’s steel-belted radials. I knew what was coming.

“Maybe if they paved the road, they’d get more than 50 people,” she said.

I considered issuing an admonition about keeping an open mind about the place, but in the interest of familial concord, refrained. I did jokingly say, as we walked to the main building, the Crafts III Center, that we should don our pith helmets and enjoy this anthropological expedition.

“I just wish there weren’t so many stairs,” the Skeptical (and Limping) Matriarch said with a sigh.

Was it my place to say that elevators, in the schema of Arcosanti, probably constituted a waste of energy, when staircases sufficed? No, it was not. We’ll leave that to the tour guide. I just told her to keep a tight grip on the handrails.

Turns out, we arrived too late for the 11 a.m. tour, and too early for the noon lunch buffet. We had time to browse the gift shop, chock full of Soleri wind bells of varying shapes, sizes and patinas, as well as framed prints of the architectural designs Soleri sketched onto long scrolls half a century ago.

“I used to have one of those bells,” S(L)M said.

I asked what happened to it.

“Gave it away in one of our moves,” she said. “Wish I’d kept it.”

Any hopes that I was winning her over were dashed when we gingerly descended a steep staircase to the cafe, on the second floor of this concrete edifice overlooking the canyon. It was early December, with temperatures in the mid-60s, and neither of us thought to bring coats. We saw that the Arcosanti residents and guests were all wearing several layers of clothing, much of it wool. A few even had gloves on.

Come to think, it was a bit on the cool side. In any other building in the state, central heat would be humming. Here, well, at least it kept the salad bar nice and crispy. As I piled on the lettuce and vegetables, the Skeptical Matriarch asked for a sandwich.

“The bread’s over there,” the dreadlocked brunette behind the cash register told her.

“Where’s the meat?” SM asked.

“Meat? Um, no, we don’t have meat.”

She chose the salad, instead. A word about the Arcosanti residents, who filled the cafe’s tables, but who, it turns out, we’d scarcely see during the subsequent tour: They were mostly younger (20s and 30s), dressed casually in many layers of natural fibers, some sporting provocative piercings. All exuded a distinct bohmenian chic vibe, a whiff of patchouli added to the mix.

SM mostly stared at the multi-hued canvas tube hanging from the ceiling and just picked at her salad, saying she was too cold to eat much.

Back upstairs at the gift shop, we paid $10 each for the tour and were the only participants. Anne-Marie Vaduva, a naturalist from New York who was doing a residency at Arcosanti, sat us down and first showed us a brief video detailing the site and Soleri’s backstory.

An earnest narrator spoke of urban sprawl and its “detrimental effects on communities and the environment,” as images of traffic jams and crush of pedestrians streamed by, then contrasted it with a mock-up of Arcosanti, saying, “Soleri envisions the city as a complex living organism.” Soleri’s bushy-browed visage appeared and warned, in a charming Italian accent, “We’ve become increasingly isolated from the natural world.”

When the video talked about how “an arcology” would “have most of its heating and cooling needs met through passive solar techniques,” the Skeptical Matriarch guffawed and said the cold was such she could almost see her breath. Later, when the video reported that Arcosanti planned to have a “system of elevators, escalators and moving walkways that would promote convenient pedestrian travel,” I got an elbow in the ribs and a whispered, “Where is it?”

The video ended on a happy note, saying that all the features a city dweller would want – “privacy, cultural facilities, closeness to retail, closeness to libraries and city services” – would be at Arcosanti.

I noticed that the narrator used the future perfect tense often. One of the first things our docent, Anne-Marie, made sure we knew right off was that only about 5 percent of Soleri’s grand plan for Arcosanti was actually built. She led us to a scale model, where a dozen buildings were in gray (those are built) and a swooping, semi-encircling series of edifices around it were in white (yet to be built).

“Think of an arcology as the human body, right?” Anne-Marie said. “Everything that’s needed to make the body run is inside of us. But of course, we need food and other things from the outside. We’re connected to nature. Within these structures, you’d have everything you need.”

Uh-oh. The Skeptical Matriarch had a question: “Does everyone live together or are there, you know, apartments?”

“It’s like residences in any other community,” Anne-Marie said. “We have apartments of various sizes, equipped with kitchens and bathrooms. … The lifestyle, the way it’s designed, gives people options like anywhere else. But the idea here is not to tell people how to live their life but to encourage them by how you arrange the space to run into each other more often, so there’s a sense of community. We don’t all need a pool. Or a piano. If you share, you need less things and you take up less resources from the Earth.”

I couldn’t help but cut in: “In many ways, it’s like where you live now, Mom.”

Anne-Marie: “Definitely, it’s not a new idea. It’s addressing how to create this on a large scale.”

The SM, puffed up: “We have 156 people living at my place.”

Anne-Marie: “You have more than we do right now.”

The SM nodded with satisfaction. Anne-Marie pressed on, telling how all the buildings are facing south to be aligned with the sun, curved so they will be naturally shaded. She took us back down the stairs to the cafe and had us stand under the canvas pillar stretching from the skylight on the ceiling to nearly the floor.

“When it’s sunny out, heat comes into the buildings from all these (south-facing) windows,” Anne-Marie said. “Some of that heat, of course, rises to the top of the building. The top of the building is not where we need the heat. So the idea is to attach this fabric tube and, with a fan, keep more warm air down. We don’t need other heaters to fill up this whole space with arm air.”

I shot a glance at the Skeptical (and Shivering) Matriarch, willing her not to comment on what she undoubtedly felt was the utter failure of the so-called Greenhouse-Effect heating plan. Rather, S(S)M asked, “What do you do in August?”

“In the spring, we turn the fan off and cover up the skylight and windows with whitewash,” Anne-Marie said. “It reflects 80 percent of the sun’s rays. Roofs are white. … It saves energy.”

In other words, no central AC.

She then led us outside to where the bells are made. Both foundries, for bronze and clay, face south and feature a quarter-sphere ceiling called an apse that shades the artisans in summer and keeps the wind out in winter.

Hewing to Arcosanti’s mandate of “no wasted space,” the excess heat from the foundry furnace is captured and sent, via air ducts, into the adjoining apartments to warm the residents. At first, you don’t see the apartments that are, essentially, built into the concrete walls curved around the quarter sphere. Likewise, the ceramics studio can transform itself into an amphitheater for concerts.

“The idea,” Anne-Marie said, “is to make it multifunctional from the start so you can move from one kind of activity to another quickly. The benefit of multifunctional design is that you’ll need less buildings in your city.”

A few more stairs to ascend, and a few more blocky concrete-slabbed buildings to pass, and we made it to Arcosanti’s town square. They call it The Vault. Actually, there are two, and they were the first structures built by Soleri and his workers in the early 1970s. Ringed by olive and cypress trees, the Vaults not only provide shade, the imposing concrete arches make the acoustics perfect for outdoor concerts. Tucked away behind the red-, brown- and gold-painted pillars are a convenience store and storage areas. No wasted space. No wasted potential income, either. Anne-Marie said Arcosanti harvests its olives and makes olive oil to sell.

Beyond the Vaults was … another amphitheater. But this, Anne-Marie promised, is the big one. It’s the Collie Soleri Music Center in the center of a crescent-shaped concrete structure called, fittingly, East Crescent. It can seat 500 people (on concrete benches) and could double as an open-aired market. Plays and concerts run from April to October. Ringing the amphitheater are artists’ studios, a library, community center, apartments and Soleri’s vast architectural archives. Below ground is a tunnel that, Anne-Marie said, conducts heat from the greenhouse on the property’s south slope to heat the buildings.

I ventured a look over at the SM and she seemed … impressed.

Anne-Marie led us back to the visitors center, telling us that Arcosanti’s current financial situation only allows it to maintain its current buildings, not expand on Soleri’s original plans. She said Arcosanti’s board is working on a two-year “strategic plan” to bring in more funds, but in the meantime, people can spend the night in one of their rooms or suites, ranging from $30 to $100 a night. We both looked at Skeptical (but Impressed) Matriarch at that moment, but her well-practiced poker face betrayed no emotion, good or ill.

Might S(I)M really be considering a relaxing, solitudinous long weekend at Arcosanti?

I got my answer back in the car, vehicle of scorn to Arcosantians. As we bounced along the dirt road back to I-17, she turned to me and said, “Do you really want my opinion?” I took a deep, cleansing breath, said, yes, that’s why I brought you.

“Well,” she said, “it’s nice, what they’re doing. But Americans won’t go for it. They want their own yards and places for their own stuff. It’ll never work.”

I’m thinking of renaming her the Brutally Frank Matriarch.

Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis

ARCOSANTI

Location: Interstate 17 and Arcosanti Road, near Cordes Junction. (Follow unpaved road northeast from Arcosanti Road.)

Hours: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. daily

Tours: 10 and 11 a.m.; 1, 2, 3 and 4 p.m.

Cost: $10 donation

Overnight stays: $30-$100; (928) 632-7135 or guests@arcosanti.org

Information: arcosanti.org

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