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A Dream in the Desert

An architect’s quixotic but enduring quest to change the way we live
February 24, 2009

Atop a mesa in the high desert of central Arizona sit the dozen concrete structures of Arcosanti, the model city conceived by the Italian-born architect Paolo Soleri as an “urban laboratory” for experiments in sustainable living. Founded in 1970, this homespun precursor to Masdar, the much larger project now under construction in another desert halfway around the globe (see “A Zero-Emissions City in the Desert”), was an early attempt to combine innovative architecture with the clean technologies then at hand to conserve energy and minimize waste. It was to be a demonstration of Soleri’s vision for how society could lessen its destructive impact on the environment.

A site to see: The sun sets on Arcosanti in the late 1970s.

A Technology Review correspondent who had spent four months at Arcosanti described the ambition behind Soleri’s project in a 1979 special report:

The key to making cities instruments of progress rather than models of decline is to integrate all of their systems, says architect/philosopher Paolo Soleri. On but 13 acres of an 860-acre tract, he proposes to build a 25-story prototype that will house about 5,000 people and all the needed support systems.

Soleri believes that cities are the environments for the cultural and spiritual evolution of humanity; but he insists that their architecture be firmly based on ecological principles. “Instead of picking up one problem at a time and trying to solve it, we are trying to find a whole solution,” he explains.

Like Masdar, Arcosanti needed to use the desert’s most powerful force–the sun–to its advantage. But Soleri and his colleagues couldn’t draw on vast streams of oil money (Masdar has billions in seed money, while Arcosanti relied on volunteer workers and the proceeds from the sale of ceramic and bronze bells produced on site). It had to be frugal.

Arcosanti, the first “arcology” (Soleri’s word), is now six buildings and several arches that grace a desert mesa 70 miles north of Phoenix. This will be shadowed by a second design, the Two Suns Arcology. …

The plans for the Two Suns Arcology, completed about three years ago, show that it will take greater advantage of new developments in solar energy than the first, cathedral-like model. Two Suns will be “energized by the sun,” grow its own food, recycle its waste for agricultural nutrients, and have its own, largely self-contained economic system. While Arcosanti would employ some sophisticated hardware, Soleri emphasizes that “the application of the technology will be very different.” The hemispheric-shaped building will face south … its roof and structural overhangs tilted like two “blades” which will act as huge, passive solar collectors during the winter months when the sun is low in the sky and as providers of shade during the summer months of high sun. …

Electrical energy will be provided by whatever solar-cell technology is available at the time of major construction. The specifics of Two Suns’ transportation network have not been worked out; but as an outspoken critic of the “asphalt ­nightmare,” Soleri has designed a miniaturized city that does not include cars, in which rapid ­vertical transportation will tie things closely together. …

Though Soleri’s holistic approach suggests intriguing possibilities, designing and building the main structure of the arcology awaits massive funding.

The funding has yet to materialize, and today the project remains unfinished, with only a few dozen full-time residents. Yet the site draws thousands of tourists and volunteers who invest their time, effort, and money in the project for weeks or months at a time. Soleri, who received the National Design Museum’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2006, is still an active presence at Arcosanti. But even in 1979, he was resigned to the fact that he would not live to see his dream fulfilled.

At age 60, Soleri has begun to acknowledge that his city-in-the-sky may not be completed in his lifetime. But his vision of a human environment that produces its own resources, rather than eating up someone else’s, is in our future. It is Soleri’s insistence that man must evolve cities that give new life to the land and to the people in them.

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