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Arcosanti (wikipedia.org)
113 points by riffraff on Feb 19, 2015 | hide | past | favorite | 28 comments

Well well! Funny to see this on Hacker News. This is something I can speak towards: I lived at Arcosanti for five years, and knew its founder well. I wrote his obituary in Architectural Record: http://archrecord.construction.com/news/2013/04/130419-Remem...

If you're curious, Ask Me Anything.

Nice to see another architect on HN.

I only visited Arcosanti once, and in my brief visit (around 2005) I found the intellectual environment to be pretty dogmatic and deeply skeptical of technology. Being an architect with a strong technical background I found this strange. It seemed like if there were a place that could be thinking deeply about how architects can productively use technology Arcosanti would be the place.

The environment you describe in your other reply makes me think that perhaps this wasn't always the case. Could you talk a little more about the intellectual climate during your stay? Was there a period where people were able to see Soleri's thinking as more of a springboard than a rigid system?

The intellectual climate at Arcosanti waxes and wanes quite considerably. It has gone through numerous ups and downs since my time there. I visited for a couple of days last summer and found it to be mid-swing -- couldn't tell if it was on the way up or on the way down -- but when it's up, it can be very diverse and lively, with many seemingly polarised subgroups. Depending on who you talk to, you can come away from Arcosanti thinking that it's a bunch of Žižek-spouting primitivists, Kurzweil-spouting extropians, mildly paranoid right-wing survivalists, or reasonably dispassionate architecture graduates with a somewhat environmental bent who were just looking for a stimulating internship.

One of Arcosanti's strengths is that it can accommodate all of these types simultaneously. But tour guides are given/take quite broad latitude in terms of how they present the project, so depending on who shows you around, you can come away with an impression that it's only one of the above subgroups, when in fact it's all of them. From what I could see, that tradition continues today, although not quite as vibrant as during my mid-90s tenure.

Although Arcosanti accommodates many different modes of thought, paradoxically it's been relatively hostile to people who want to push on the boundaries of urban planning and design. When I came there, I was quite enamoured of Soleri's "arcology" theory (and today I still am) -- but ultimately, I disagreed with him that cities could be designed as fixed objects; I argued with him that cities were processes, not objects, and that what we really needed to be studying was what kind of processes would lead to arcological outcomes. Soleri, however, was quite defensive and dogmatic about his theory, so I had to leave to pursue that particular thread. Ideas which don't particularly impinge upon the built form are far more welcome there. This has been a shortcoming of the place for decades. I'm hopeful that it will be able to reinvent itself, post-Soleri, to overcome this limitation.

Thanks for the thorough response!

I went to visit a friend who fell in the 'reasonably dispassionate' category for a few days. Perhaps that's what influenced my exposure. It is, of course, a beautiful place and I enjoyed my time thoroughly. I remember being constantly paranoid about having a centipede attach itself to my body somehow.

What you describe in your final paragraph reminds me of the failures of other significant voices from that generation that I have encountered. It's strange, isn't it, that it's so difficult to get these people to see just a bit past the horizon. Architecture exists at a boundary between writing and listening — it's a response to culture and it shapes culture. It's strange that the titans of the late mid-century became so dogmatic, but we do get to take the good parts and move forward.

I learned about Arcosanti from the arcologies in SimCity 2000, and have maintained some curiosity since. How does it feel to live in Arcosanti, compared with life in a "regular" city?

It's very different. Much of this is due to the fact that it's a very small population (fluctuating between 60-100 people during the time I was there) living about 35 miles from anywhere remotely consequential. So much of its flavour is due to simply to being relatively deeply embedded in nature. When I moved back to a "regular" city (in this case, Phoenix), the two biggest shocks were the loss of the night sky, and the fact that "regular" cities are straight-up engineered to kill you. The failure to look both ways before crossing the street is a death sentence; this made walking around a city feel like an exercise in continually dashing between some cold-war-era Berlin-wall no-man's land. Took me years to become habituated to this, and it still bugs me if I think about it.

In many ways, Arcosanti is like any other small, rural, company town. Everybody is always up in everybody else's business; the politics of the company are all-pervasive and often petty; and if you want to achieve aspirations which aren't within the scope of the official agenda, you leave. On the other hand, living there is extraordinarily easy: the pay is low but the expenses are practically nil. The average American spends 2/3rds of their earnings on housing and transport; at Arcosanti, those things cost $150/month. I earned minimum wage and could still afford to go skydiving every other weekend. I've never had so much leisure time or disposable income since.

It's a place of weirdly limited and expansive horizons. Like I said: if you wish to do something other than what the company is doing -- start your own full-time business, take your concept of "arcology" in a different direction, etc. -- then you can't do that there. It's not a real city: it's a company town. On the other hand, it attracts a constant stream of quite high-calibre, globally-connected people; late night conversations around the fireplace can be pretty special experience. I recall getting into good-nature drunken arguments with folks like Stephen J. Gould, Jaron Lanier, and Terry Riley. Not a bad place for a teenage hacker to grow up.

I recall reading about it in Omni magazine, many years ago.

What are their goals these days? If I recall correctly, originally it was to be a proof-of-concept for a new way of building cities, to demonstrate that you don't have to have suburbs to have a livable home.

>> "...to demonstrate that you don't have to have suburbs to have a livable home."

Hasn't that already done by literally everywhere that isn't the sprawl-blighted, car-centric parts of North America and Australia?

My fiancee and I visited this place several years ago. We had never heard about it (we aren't even from Arizona), but decided to pull off of I17 and check it out after seeing a roadside sign for it on our drive back to Phoenix from Sedona. For whatever reason - maybe a combination of the strange architecture and there not being a lot of other people around at that time - the place had a real eerie vibe. As we approached some visitor center type place, something else freaked us out, maybe bells ringing; we then got convinced we were stumbling across some type of cult and so we literally ran back to our car and drove away!

Later that evening back in Phoenix we met friends of ours for dinner. We told them about our escapade and they laughed, mentioning they had visited Arcosanti, and knew all about the place. Six months later we received a package from them - one of the Arcosanti bells as a wedding gift. We still have it hanging outside on our porch.

Strange, most of the photos on the page appear to be HDR'd for that dreamy effect. I think the place would look pretty interesting without altering the photos that way.

Strange to see this pop up on HN with no context. I've been to Arcosanti a few times; it's a fascinating place. During the last couple years, we've held a few weekend-long hackathons up there.

I ended up on the wikipedia page by some random navigation, felt interesting.

Seems like a pretty interesting concept of "city", so I thought the HN crowd might appreciate :)

I would like to join a hackathons at Arcosanti, I live fairly close. Do me a favor and send me an email (see my profile) with information on future events.

I had Soleri's book as a youngster in the 70s, and I was quite influenced by his ideas. I even taught a class to my fellow middle-school students called "City" where we built a model of a single structure city, to be built in the desert. What can I say, it was the 70s. My Mom has lived out in Arizona for many years, and as I was getting ready to go visit her for the first time a few years ago, I realized that Arcosanti was just down the road from her house. She had never heard of it, despite being a bit of a counter-cultural type herself. We took the tour... it was a little shabby, but quite interesting. Of course it is just a pale shadow of the dreams of that wild guy. But it is a working experiment, and has lasted. I was pleased to see a poster advertising that young women were invited to be sketched nude by Paolo and they could keep some of the drawings. Pretty nice setup for the old guy.

I attended a school (relatively) nearby in the 1970s. We took many field trips out to Arcosanti, which was under construction. Were told, "When you grow up, you'll live somewhere like this!"

When I visited as an adult, I noticed Arcosanti seemed like an offshoot of environmental architecture, rather than an influence: for instance, I was surprised they didn't have graywater recycling out there on the mesa. It'd be interesting to see some of Soleri's concepts expressed with an urban infill project.

My dad took my brother and I there back in the late 70's or early 80's. My impression at the time was that it seemed to be falling apart faster than it was being built.

Over the years it is the place I point out to my kids as we are headed up or down I-17. But I've never been inclined to go back.

"the concept of arcology, which combines architecture and ecology"

The first things that comes out at word deconstruction are "arc" (bow, curve) and "logos" (science), which suggests some kind of discipline on curves. Very far from "ecology and architecture combined".

'ecotecture' would be better, I think.

I live an hour drive north of Arcosanti so I have been there many times, and I had a few interesting conversations with the architect Soleri when he was still alive.

I love the low environmental impact philosophy, and Arcosanti could be a future pattern for habitation in the future. That said, my wife does not like the place (except for going to concerts there and having a meal) because the place is not always kept tidy.

Soleri admitted that not nearly enough people live there, so there are problems. I do really like the place and I suggest visiting Arcosanti if you are in the area.

If there's one lesson I take from Acrosanti's architect, Paolo Soleri, it's "think big".

Fun fact: Arcosanti's prototype, Cosanti, was a big influence on George Lucas. You can see tons of Soleri-style work in the film's sets, particularly Tatooine.

I visited Arcosanti in February 2014. I have been a big fan of Paolo Soleri and his creation.

However, when I was there for just half a day, my impression is that his original goal (5,000 people living in this community) will never be achieved. Numbers oscillate between 50 and 100, and don't seem to go up.

There's something fundamentally wrong in how the project is supposed to scale. Very sorry to see this not growing the way he anticipated.

I visited in 1996 and while I thought it was an impressive piece of architecture; I got the distinct impression that even then it had already ossified into a monument to itself.

Which is really too bad, because the Arcology idea is quite beautiful and compelling; but to make it work in practice would require a distinct and difficult balancing of the functional megastructure and providing the inhabitants with the freedom to modify the spaces within for their own purposes.

I spent many hours poring over the original arcologies book as a child and still think it's one of the better pieces of design science fiction that I've ever read. But the idea of the Arcology, of the city as an organism with a structure to support it to maximise the health and happiness of it's inhabitants needs to break free of the fascistic hero worship that has so far kept it from expressing itself as anything but a heroic monument to it's designers rather than the living creation of it's residents.

I go to school (Embry-Riddle) about 45 minutes drive from Arcosanti and I have to say while I pass the signs for it I haven't been up there. I remember one of my professors mentioning the project during my Alternative Energies class so I thought it was some sort of solar project.

People interested in alternative ways of living should read about Auroville, India.

If you are ever driving north from Phoenix, you can stop by and take a tour.


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