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Arcosanti (wikipedia.org)
230 points by simonebrunozzi on Aug 5, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 71 comments

In 2015 I spent almost a week at Arcosanti volunteering for a small music festival. It was a really weird place and not in a bad way. However, while the descriptions paint it to be some grand experiment in architecture and urban living. In practice it's a lot of concrete domes and vaults with some living spaces tetris'ed together in the desert. They rent out the amphitheater and forge bells. The people I met who lived at Arcosanti were interesting to talk with but made it feel a little strange that all this was going on around what was essentially the residents' porches and common areas.

One of the volunteer coordinators I got to know had lived at Arcosanti herself and while she said the experience was nice (there's a stipend) she mentioned there were, and still are, serious management problems with the non-profit around it. I don't recall the specifics well enough to recount here but the outcome meant the place kind of stagnated and continues to. The visionaries who were there when it started are still there but lost their vision and are resistant to changing how things are done. An urban laboratory it is no more but has become a weird place to have lunch off I-17.

I spent a lovely afternoon there in '16 doing just that and concur about the odd vibe / fascinating but stagnated promise.

My dad took my brother and I in the early or maybe mid 80s. I remember feeling like it was falling apart faster than they were building it and it was a cool spot but didn't seem to be going anywhere. Seems it hasn't changed much. My surprise is actually that it has kept going all this time.

I ran a 100k starting at Arcosanti in winter 2019, which left under heavy black clouds, light hail, and a blinding sunrise that illuminated the tall, white dormant grass on the top of the mesa. It was like living in a sepia-toned version of reality. All in all it was an absolutely surreal experience that I'll remember forever.

In most provinces and municipalities in Canada, you can't even have a yurt on your property without planning permission, and town councils are regarded widely as the worst possible bureaucracies to deal with. This is what prevents experimental living that could actually catch on and create something new and sustainable. You can't even build off grid homes in many places because they are not to code, which is subject to capture by various professions and consultants.

There are so many possible alternatives to sprawl, but the culture of bureaucracy is designed to prevent deviation from creating suburban blight. A set of jurisdictions that supported (or didn't get in the way of) experimental development would be really useful.

In Vancouver, city council preserved site lines of the mountains and public access to the ocean.


IMHO innovation happens in places with lots of contestants. If you look at places with lax building codes or ineffective enforcement, what you get is favelas and similar. On the other hand, many cities have an indigenous architecture due to some kind of regulation or tax code. For example, in Paris the architecture is the way it is because owners optimizes to meet the hight criteria and avoid being taxed for the top floor.

I’m not into architecture but I suspect that architecture firms also specializes on dealing with bureaucracy, which heightens the entry barrier for the would-be builders/architects.

That said, I would agree that there could be a case of over regulation that would lead to dullness.

I'd argue that, at least in Sao Paulo, favelas are the result of overly strict zoning and building codes.

That was fun. And then I clicked through to "Arcology...a field of creating architectural design principles for very densely populated, ecologically low-impact human habitats" and they list, "Begich Towers" in Whittier, Alaska, where I grew up as an example. I guess that's cool if you want the dystopian version, imposing itself on nature.

To me it doesn't look bad on paper. I mean, living in an extreme climate, it makes sense on paper to have everyone in a single building so there's no need to go out for everyday activities like shopping, taking kids to school and so on. And heating of a single building is much more efficient.

How it works in practice is a different beast, of course... if you have some extra time to kill, could you describe why it turned a dystopia?

I remember reading about this place once, sounds like something out of some dystopian novel. How was growing up there?

He posted a bit more detail a few years ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=8841529

Probably where I had read about it as well. Thanks.

I imagine it's like a slightly more comfortable Kowloon Walled City.

Have you written anything about your experiences? I'm very curious to read about them!

What makes it dystopian? The Wikipedia article is sparse on any sort of quality of life info.

I worked on a website for them in the 1990s. The same people who hired us to help on that also invited us to a "digital be in" where we meet Timothy Leary (who had released a CD of Haight Asbury history at the event) and we got to play with an Apple Newton. That was my first trip to San Francisco.

I think this is referenced in the sci-fi book Fall of Endymion by Dan Simmons, where some characters spend time in a historical desert town built by a community headed by an architect.

I always thought it was some sort of Frank Lloyd Wright reference, because I didn't know anything else, but this fits the reference better.

The "creator" of Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri [0], was an Italian-born architect, who then moved to the US, and was a "student" of Frank Lloyd Wright in 1949.

I visited Arcosanti in 2013. Unfortunately it's an unfinished, incomplete project - Soleri's goal was to reach a population of 5,000 people, a number he thought it would make the community completely self-sustainable. I think it reached ~100-150 at its peak.

[0]: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paolo_Soleri

His arcology sketchs was fittingly published in a huge 19x12 book. My university archive had an even more version, maybe 30 inches+ in the oversize department. I got to reference it for research, good times.

In the early 80's, on the second floor of the memorial union building at ASU they had a number of his drawings hung in frames on the wall. These were fairly large, 20-30 inches on a side. His vision, based on the drawings, was to have cities made of a large structure that combined living, work, recreation, shopping and whatever else, in a dense stack which minimized the impact on the surrounding land (at least from the city itself, not whatever agriculture was needed to support the city.) In looking through the Arcology, Soleri and Arcosanti wikipedia pages I see nothing like the drawings I saw at ASU. Today's Arcosanti is just a fraction of the completed structure which, if I remember correctly, was to span the valley that Arcosanti is on the edge of.

Soleri was also a weird, creepy person. Years later his daughter found the courage to denounce his abuses: https://www.google.nl/amp/s/amp.theguardian.com/artanddesign...

It is entirely possible that these traits of Soleri are at the root of the stagnation of Arcosanti

Not his creepy traits per se, but certainly Paolo's ego impeded Arcosanti's development. Typical Founder's Syndrome: a general unwillingness to take on external ideas and relinquish control. When challenged, he would often tell people to get their own mesa and build their own arcology. This was always said with a smile and a laugh, but also, he meant it.

This was a huge problem. If there's any one thing which defines "what a city is", it's that it arises from a multiplicity of visions, not from a singular ideal. And Arcosanti needed multiple visions, because Soleri's vision was certainly incomplete. His understanding of economics, for example, was not just naive, but nonexistent.

Source: I lived at Arcosanti for 5 years in the mid 90s, and knew Paolo well.

Edit: but perhaps you're right, and there's some root psychological defect which manifests as both egotism and sexual abuse.

Thanks for your first-hand account, indeed all these personality disorders summed up can explain the reckless courage and egotism that made Soleri do and undo. Tragic

it would have been self-sustainable. If there was any water there.

Water isn't a problem there. They've got wells tapping into the Agua Fria river, which is half a mile away. Its subsurface flow makes it the third largest river in the state.

They are big on water re-use, greywater and such. The arcology idea is islands of self container cities that are self sustainable isolated ecosystems that recycle water etc. These are islands in a new wilderness around. Some arcologies are in space, some are in jungles, some in deserts. Like noas ark.

However much i like the visuals of solieris vision, concrete, hippie and brutalist architecture in general, i find the idea of life a city that cannot grow but inwards pretty grim.

Well, water is relatively cheap, if your "community" can produce and sell high-value stuff, like "art". They sell bells, for example [0].

Not enough, I'd guess, but you could afford basic water and food if you can sell something else at a high enough price.

[0]: https://cosanti.com/

or commerce

There's a limit to how many ceramic and brass bells they can sell, and compared to a local college/University it is not very accessible for their paid workshops.

Getting to self sustainability always suffers from bootstrap problems, and closed loop living systems of this sort, even at 5,000 people, would suffer from lack of domain expertise or specialized resources to be truly self sustainable. At least unless they either target a low technological level of life or pick the exact 5,000 people needed to keep things going.

That's not meant to be a criticism of this project. If anything the project has strong value in helping to understand roadblocks to small self-sustaining communities, while also contributing to the zeitgeist of fascinating, quirky niche communities that enhance our culture in valuable ways.

This is an interesting point. I just rode a motorcycle through southern Utah and was stuck by how much nice housing there was in seemingly ridiculous places. What is the commerce there? Why not Arcosanti with its intentionality and proximity to Phoenix?

Great series! I also interpreted the figure as being Frank Lloyd Wright. IIRC, they explicitly refer to one of Wright's houses (falling water, I think).

fun that there is both arcosanti AND taliesin west

Came here to post this! I don't know much about architecture, but found both well worth visiting. Taliesin West is in Scottsdale, northeast of Phoenix. Arcosanti a bit farther north of Phoenix, but on the way to destinations north and (IMO) worth a stop if you were headed to Flagstaff, Sedona, Grand Canyon, etc.

I stayed at Arcosanti on a cross-country trip and it was amazing. They're on Airbnb[1]. It's pretty far out of the way but it's worth the trip.

[1] https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/33518175?source_impression_id=p...

An architect friend of mine asserts that except for the everything-in-one-big-building thing we already have arcologies, they're just called traditional European (or Japanese) towns.

It's amazing how dense old cities are, despite having buildings usually less than 5 stories. Far less resource-intensive and human-scale than 50-story buildings. The density is essentially free, they just don't have room for everyone to have their own car. That's a good thing though. Personal cars, even electric ones, are unsustainable, and walking or cycling is healthy and fun.

Where does the ecology come into play? At best European towns concentrate humanity so that ecology can exist outside of towns.

Another great visionary in architecture was Hundertwasser. His philosophy was quite to Soleri. What is particularly notable about his work is that he wanted it to be used and practical. The Hundertwasser Haus in Vienna is amazing and used as a social housing project (it also houses the museum so you can get a glims of what it looks like inside). If you ever go to New Zealand I highly recommend to see the Hundertwasser toilets in Kawakawa.

I got to have festivus dinner with the folks at Arcosanti in 2001/2002 after I invited myself onto the solar powered electric golf cart as it was making its way back from a booze run into town. The whole place was staffed by idealistic misfits. There should be a 1000 Arcosantis.

> There should be a 1000 Arcosantis.

So much agree with you.

Kirsten Dirksen Seems to be finding and documenting them on her YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/kirstendirksen/videos

Many are just individuals in alternative living situations or creative housing, but some are communities or -in-the-making:

Earthship community in Taos New Mexico: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wVp5koAOu9M

Back-to-the-traditional-village in Portugal: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgfIxUw-wEU

This place is a great visit. It feels quite cultish though and everyone there seems to be working on making bells for tourists. Super weird and interesting.

Guess I should offer: I lived at Arcosanti for 5 years, and knew Soleri well. AMA!

I hadn't heard of this till now, but I'm fascinated by projects like this.

Others in this thread have said that there are leadership issues currently, leading to some kind of stagnation or decline. You said in another comment that Paolo was controlling in terms of the vision, and it needed multiple visions to succeed.

1) Can you expand on that? i.e., what would it take for Arcosanti to have succeeded? Just Paolo letting people run with it?

2) What, if anything, would it take to "revive" Arcosanti today? Money? Visionaries? Kicking people out?

3) Why did you live there? Why did you leave? Any interesting stories?

Good questions! I'm now living on a different continent, and haven't been able to follow Arcosanti's politics too closely, but my understanding is that the current leadership issues may in fact signal the end of the stagnation and decline, or at least a change in it.

To give a very brief overview of the secret history of Arcosanti: during the 1960s and 1970s, Paolo's radical philosophy took hold with the counter-cultural zeitgeist, leading to a huge influx of energy. At any given time, there might be several hundred people camping in the desert, volunteering for construction. A series of massive music festivals brought in a lot of new blood. But this energy was difficult to manage, and in truth, Soleri himself was not a counter-cultural character. In many respects he was a deeply conservative raised-by-nuns old-world Italian. Giant rock festivals just didn't suit his vibe, and the whole thing felt like it was spinning out of control. In 1978, one of the festivals created a multi-million-dollar liability when a field that had been used for overflow parking caught fire, and hundreds of cars burned.

This is all long before my time, but my understanding is that in the late 70s -- I think it was 1979 -- there was a kind of purge, afterwards remembered as the "Thanksgiving day massacre", wherein an inner circle of managers seized control and informed most of the volunteers that their services would no longer be needed. That made things more manageable, but it was the first of two major steps towards stagnation. The second was in 1983, when Paolo's wife Colly died. From what everyone has told me, she was the real power behind the throne; to the extent that there was any organizational competency at the top of the hierarchy, it came from Colly, not Paolo. When she died, all construction came to a halt, and the population declined to as low as 30 people. I believe 1990 was probably the low point.

Since then, Arcosanti has gone through successive waves of renewal and stagnation, roughly counter-cyclical to the outside economy. The population has oscillated between about 50 and 100 people. When I arrived in the summer of '92, a boom was starting. A recession at that time was pushing people to look for alternatives to capitalism and consumerism and such, and enough of those ended up at Arcosanti to bring it back to life. These people were quite intrinsically motivated; they weren't disciples of Soleri. But few people stayed long; the horizons were just too limited. Arcosanti has never evolved beyond being a company town; you're free to pursue your own initiatives in your spare time, but if you want to do your own thing full-time, you have to leave. So most people with a scrap of ambition, did. That's certainly why I did.

> 1) Can you expand on that? i.e., what would it take for Arcosanti to have succeeded? Just Paolo letting people run with it?

Kind of, yes. Although a more viable philosophy at the core of it would have helped. Paolo had some real insights into the nature of consciousness-emergence at urban scales being driven by complex interactions, and how the design of the physical environment could facilitate that. But he totally failed to realise that the economic environment also needed to be complex; he had no understanding of economics at all. Furthermore, he conceived of cities the way that architects conceive of buildings: as a object to be constructed. He needed to think in terms of processes rather than objects. A city's form is the emergent result of a system of rules, so if you want to change the form, you must change the rules -- not simply stipulate an alternative form, and ignore the rules entirely.

"Letting people run with it" might have sorted a lot of these issues out organically, but it could have been better conceived in the first place.

Ultimately, though, the problem was that Arcosanti was constrained to being a company town, unable to develop the necessary socio-economic complexity to become anything more. The resistance to being more than that came from two places: Paolo and his handful of upper managers. Paolo's reason, I believe, was that he had become comfortable being a sort of Jeremiah character: a prophet whom no one would listen too. He enjoyed saying "I told you so" as the world started to discover the appeal of things he'd been talking about decades earlier. But it's easy to have this attitude when your ideas haven't truly been tested. If Arcosanti had been allowed to develop to critical mass and beyond, then this would be a risk to the sort of ideological purity he enjoyed wallowing in, however lonely.

On the other hand, his core group of upper managers weren't at all ideological, but simply had comfortable lives which they didn't particularly want to see disrupted. Arcosanti growing to its full potential would have knocked them out of a lifestyle which they'd enjoyed since the early 1980s. So they were resistant to change.

As I understand it, however, there's been something of a coup, and those upper managers have just recently -- as of a few months ago -- been kicked out. I'm a bit sad about this, because personally I got along with them well, and Arcosanti's unlikely persistence over the decades is, in large part, due to them. On the flipside, however, Arcosanti's failure to develop into more than it is, is also due to them. It'll be interesting to see what happens now.

> 2) What, if anything, would it take to "revive" Arcosanti today? Money? Visionaries? Kicking people out?

The latter has evidently just happened. The first is definitely required. Not sure about the second; visionaries can be a three-edged blade.

If the current revolution there results in a community wherein people can pursue run their own businesses, live their own lives, and pursue their own agenda -- and if this is coupled to an economic model which facilitates the development of additional infrastructure, that is coherent with the overall masterplan -- then this is as much as I could hope for.

> 3) Why did you live there? Why did you leave? Any interesting stories?

I moved there when I was 16, because I was enamored with Arcology theory and wanted to learn everything I could about it. I left because it was time to go get an architecture degree and start my own career and life, which I knew would be too confined there.

As for interesting stories: yes, loads, but that's for another time. :-)

I love Arcosanti. That's where I go when I need to get away for a coding breakthrough. I wish I could live there and help build it, but my family would never agree to move there with me.

I expect arcologies (the sci-fi concept, as seen in SimCity etc., not current implementations) to be the ideal habitat for futuristic civilizations, but I wonder how they would fare with infectious outbreaks.

Complex closed systems are susceptible to cascading failures, infectious outbreaks would be one possibility to begin such a cascade. Or imagine a minor HVAC issue: a small build up of moisture. If not caught right away, it leads to mold, possibly "sick building" syndrome, stresses medical resources, moisture damage to structures, etc. Structural damage harms other resources, takes them off line, and more humans are needed to fix those problems, in and on.

Sure, you have things like that with buildings now. But they're not closed systems: You have problems like the above, you ramp up resources dedicated to the problem, bring in outside help to remediate, etc.

I think the higher the desired quality of life, the larger a closed system would need to be. Think a few hundred years ago: a small village could be self sufficient. The average town in Western society cannot be. Even a farm town, with it's reliance on heavy machinery and agricultural industrial complex, isn't self sufficient.

Cruise ships didn't do well. I think compartmentalizing HVAC in dense spaces will get a big rethink after this. People are already questioning the long term viability offices and cities. Seems premature it's good to be prepared, sometimes you need to hammer environmental intervention because people are unreliable at scale.

Tokyo is doing fine, and referenced in the article.

I have enjoyed many evenings there. The music amphitheater was designed for great sound and the vegan meals were tasty. I got to have a long talk once with the architect Soleri.

A good idea many years too early.

Nice! Would you mind sharing more about your experience with Soleri? A small regret I have is that I never met him. I would have loved to ask him a few things (in Italian!)

He designed the music amphitheater for his wife, who had passed away before I met Soleri. We talked about the slow uptake of people wanting to live in low-resource communal living areas like Arcosanti - that was a disappointment to him.

I like the idea of low-energy and environmental impact living at places like Arcosanti but my wife said no way!

If you search for his work, he did some awesome stuff.

Arcosanti architect Paolo Soleri also started a gallery for bronze and ceramic arts near Phoenix that is still open:


That used to be his house. The construction technique was interesting: make a pile of dirt, pour/spread concrete over it. When the concrete cures dig out the dirt.

and a HN discussion 2 days ago: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=24052413

Arcologies in real life are way less cooler than the Simcity 2000 version.

It would be pretty neat to see a single enormous building with self-contained housing, commerce and industry for 20k-50k people. Not to mention the optional space launch capability. The design population of this is what, only 5k people? And it's a bunch of buildings? And it also hasn't been able to move out of the development phase for 50 years? Laaame.

I went to FORM:ARCOSANTI some years back. It’s a festival at the site curated by Hundred Waters.

I will never forget the surreal experience of seeing skrillex do a back to back set with fourtet (those genres still don’t add up). The amphitheater is actually pretty great.

doomed, static vision of development detached from the realities of life and commerce

Arizona has an amazing architectural history that the broader Phoenix area ignores.

Indeed. Phoenix is one of few places in Arizona where the uniqueness of the area is neglected. It's full of the damn non-native palm trees and overuse of swimming pools, air conditioning, and misters. It's just another consumerism-driven major city.

The people are great and a lot of people love it for what it actually is, and not what developers try to turn it into. It's a difficult battle to preserve its character though!

Wow. I didn't knew such a place could really exist. I thought arcologies were never actually implemented.

What are all the engineered (or different from what an ordinary city usually is in some other conceptual way) cities anyway?

pretty cool! we learned about this in a utopias class I took. one of the interesting books in that class was "Two Hundred Years of American Communes" by Yaacov Oved.

I've owned an Arcosanti bell for 25+ years.

Me for six years. Lovely little piece of art.

I prefer floating cities.

I cannot immediately see how this approach has less environmental impact.

I have thought that underground structures could have less environmental impact. Leave the surface for animals and plants, and live underground.

Heat increases as you approach the center of the earth, so you get free heating. Seismically it may suck, though.

Or, live inside mounds, like the Cahokia.

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