arcosanti

The first time I saw the word Arcosanti was driving north from Phoenix on the way to the big canyon that is emblematic of the American West. On our way up I-17 N, through the Sonoran Desert, I saw a green exit sign with that baffling assortment of letters. My friend Simone knew much more about design communities (she and her husband are Marfa homeowners) and hinted what this road led to, "It's some kind of artsy town designed by an architect a while ago."

Like the places that go on my to-go list, it didn't take much to spark my interest. Her few words and some cacti on the highway intrigued me. We sped north to the Grand Canyon, bypassing the Arcosanti exit.

After our trip, I kept wishing that we would have turned off to see what exactly Arcosanti was.

I often hear things like, "You always need a reason to come back." This sentiment doesn’t sit well with me. I can fixate on what I’m missing out on. What if I never to have the opportunity to go there again?  

Luckily, Arcosanti was different. My travels brought me back there just 18 months later. Another friend of mine, Heather, needed to see the proverbial canyon, and I made sure we scheduled Arcosanti into our itinerary.

With a strange magnetic pull, idyllic images came appeared in my Instagram luring me to visit. It looked like a space age Garden of Eden.

The utopic photos looked like nowhere else I had ever seen. A little futuristic town, made from concrete, sat on top of a hill. The buildings were streamlined and modern, full of simple shapes with the background of a barren landscape.

A process called silt casting was used to make the impressive amount concrete. Dirt from nearby was used in the concrete mixture, so the color of the walls would blend in with the surroundings, giving it a dusty hue.

Circular windows looked out to the expansive flat desert and tall green Cyprus trees. Then big dome structures painted in ochre and saffron triangles dotted the landscape. An oasis of a swimming pool waited for visitors.

I had to go there. Was this what the future looked like?

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In the mean time I learned that Arcosanti is a portmanteau, invented by Paolo Soleri, an Italian architect, who blends form (architecture) with nature (ecology.)

Arcology seeks to radically increase population density, in order to conserve the surrounding natural environment. Dense living would eliminate the need for cars, thereby reducing pollution. Food would be grown on site, making the town sustainable. Soleri also believed this setup for a city would allow for more human connection. It all sounds pretty good to me.

Construction of this experimental town began in 1970 and is ongoing. Population in Arcosanti fluctuates but is usually around 50 people. Original plans were for 5000 people.

It's funny going to a place that I've spent time obsessing over. It looked exactly like the images I had poured over, and then felt nothing like them in person.

After pulling off the highway, the dirt road to Arcosanti is wash boarded and rough, and despite its flatness, it takes a bit of coaxing to get the car to the experimental town. The winds blow lots of tumbleweeds and sand in this country. The sun hangs heavy. It’s strikingly quiet and barren.

We met two old women giggling in the parking lot, struggling to get their rolling suitcases out of their rental car. They seem to be the only sign of life in any direction. These women also came to the middle of nowhere to see what Arcosanti means, what it looks like.

The welcome sign looks as though it has been sandblasted and reaffirms the idea that we are at an “urban laboratory.” Resembling a set from a science fiction movie, there is a large concrete tower that stands tall. On closer inspection, it looks like it needs some renovation. Wooden window frames crack and splinter. The concrete is weathered.

Upon arrival, we are invited to go to the cafeteria, down several flights of stairs. And by no fault of any of the citizens of Arcosanti, we feel out of place. The tour of Arcosanti would take place in an hour. “Go get some lunch,” were our instructions.

The cafeteria is lit up like a piece of art. The Arizona sun was happy in this high ceiling-ed room with its several story windows shaped like keyholes, long lunch tables, and tile floor. Strings of bells dangled down from the ceiling. Someone watered the many plants that grow in pots around the common space.

In the large two storied room, there is a piano and artists journaling, listening to headphones who don’t seem to notice us simple tour attendees.

We don't care to try whatever casseroles are inside the large metal pans of the buffet. Instead we pay a nominal amount for coffee and tea, for something to do while we wait. The tea bag was dry and I placed it in one of those mass produced brown glazed mugs most likely from a 1970s breakfast diner. Heather’s coffee mug was white with daintily painted flowers.

We look around the cafeteria hoping that no one notices us outsiders, waiting for direction with how to see this place, what to think.

An older hippie, who presumably spent many years in this desert enclave, hit play on a documentary for the visitors. The film chronicled the life of Paolo and his somewhat unrealized vision. It reinforced the little I knew about this urban laboratory. Spending less time in the car and living very closely to one’s neighbors, this simple philosophy could combat all the evil that is suburban sprawl. I guess the argument against this environmentally responsible utopia is the potential for loud neighbors.

After the completion of the introductory film, we walk among the bells that Arcosanti produces. The beautiful bells are sold to fund the disappointing upkeep of this place.

The bells are made from pouring bronze or clay into a mold to achieve the oblong hollow shape. When the wind blows, the metal ball will strike the copper side and produce a pleasing noise.

The bell foundry is located in an apse, a quarter sphere, where volunteers and residents make these pieces. The sturdy bells are sculptural pieces with a green patina.

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As we walk around the property looking at the residents’ apartments, gym, library (with National Geographic issues spanning from 1968-1990), and amphitheater, I’m left somewhat in awe. All of the design is thoughtful and minimal. For instance, the amphitheater is cooled in the summer by filling up channels with water.

Despite its modern shapes, and brilliant design, this place is falling asunder. Wood panels on the outside crack. Curtains over circular windows yellow.

I love a good decay, human built places that begin to return to the landscape. Old miner cabins that have withstood too many winter storms and lightening, these places interest me. It speaks to the impermanence of humans and how things change.

But Arcosanti is so different. This places makes me feel uneasy, with it falling apart. It is unsettling because of what it represents. An environmentally responsible space port in the hot Arizona sand is eroding, while suburbs, strip malls, and fountains of Phoenix continue to grow.

Arcosanti asks us humans to change our lifestyles to better our world. This urban laboratory begs us to think differently, to take action, to fight against climate change. But I don’t think we are ready for this challenge, if the weathering of this futuristic place offers any clues.

After the tour, where we accidentally come across the smoking lair of Arcosanti, where people sit down in a somewhat hidden area and smash cigarette butts into the ground.

Then we take a trail across a ditch and climb up to the other side to look back at this compound in its entirety. The concrete glows pink reflecting the descending sun. It’s easy to see what Paolo envisioned and how it is coming up short. It needs a breath of fresh air, more resources; a new generation to preserve, improve, and build.

Visitors are able to spend the night at Arcosanti, in different guest rooms. We splurged to stay in the Sky Suite, the nicest of all accommodations. It ended up being a difficult palace to find, even with a map.

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We walked up to the top of one of the apses to gain a vantage point and saw a friendly painted sign with a background of a blue sky and white clouds,indicating the location of the penthouse. It was a little apartment with two bedrooms. A big landing lay underneath the circular window where the sun was setting. 

I saw this window before.

In one of the most beautiful photos of Arcosanti, an internet stranger who occupied the room had peeled the mattress off the bed in one of the back bedrooms to place it under this perfect circular window. In the photos, the sheets were messy. Presumably they slept there underneath the Arizona sky.

I hope whoever was in those sheets, under the Milky Way, dreamt of a world where people were ready, no eager, for a civilization like Arcosanti.