Arcosanti: urban laboratory or forgotten utopia?

Driving through the deserts of southwest USA makes one wonder what the seemingly endless space could be used for. The desert has been an inspiration for countless people, which in turn has lead to some interesting experiments. One of these experiments is the town of Arcosanti, located in the Sonoran desert in Arizona. Turning away from the freeway and arriving to Arcosanti feels a bit like arriving to a utopian ghost town – but once inside one starts to realize how alive the place is with ideas.

Arcosanti is a prototype eco-city envisioned by architect Paolo Soleri in the 1970s. Soleri wanted to fight urban sprawl (a very prominent problem in the United States) and to create a car-free, high-density city where resource use and human interaction were maximized. However, the small cluster of buildings and the community that exist today are only a small fraction of Soleri’s vision. But instead of a failed experiment, Arcosanti has proclaimed itself an urban laboratory, a place that demonstrates an alternative to our current car-centric urban planning.

Visitor center at Arcosanti
This visitor center, shop and restaurant – one of only a handful of existing buildings at Arcosanti – is open to visitors and has tours every day.

Arcology and the car-free city

Arcosanti is based on Soleri’s concept of arcology, the combination of architecture and ecology. A key element of arcology is the elimination of the car from the city. Soleri realized that cars and urban sprawl have a negative effect, not just on the environment but also on people. Urban sprawl separates people and destroys neighborhoods and communities that used to be the heart of the city.

Arcology design displayed at Arcosanti
The restaurant at the visitor center has a display of some futuristic arcology city designs.

Soleri designed hundreds of arcologies through which he wanted to show that the social benefits of cities can be achieved with minimal impact on the environment. Arcologies are meant to be self-sufficient communities with a human scale, meaning that everywhere is walkable. The city is squashed together into a miniature version which saves land, energy and resources. Mixed-use complexes contain homes, shops, offices, schools and cultural facilities, which minimizes commutes and increases security. Longer distances would be traveled with elevators and moving walkways.

Common space at Arcosanti
Arcologies have mixed-use, multipurpose and communal spaces that aim to maximize human interaction.

From vision to Arcosanti

Soleri is definitely not the only architect to have developed a plan for the ultimate, utopian city. What makes Soleri different is that he actually tried to turn his vision into reality. In 1970 he began constructing Arcosanti, the first arcology. Arcosanti was designed to be a self-sufficient town of 5000 people that would demonstrate an alternative to urban sprawl. The seemingly endless desert and sagebrush acts as a buffer zone between Arcosanti and the metropolis of Phoenix one hour south. The design is futuristic but energy use is optimized, for example through the use of passive solar techniques.

Vaults and public square at Arcosanti
These concrete vaults were the first structure to be built at Arcosanti. They were a call to action and today function as a public square and meeting place for the community.

The reality differs greatly from the design. Over 7000 volunteers have participated in the construction of Arcosanti, but only a few percent of the original design has been built in the last 46 years. Instead of the projected 5000 inhabitants, the population varies seasonally between 50 and 100 people. And although there is some electricity and food production on site, the community is far from self-sufficient.

Model of Arcosanti
This model shows how Arcosanti could look like if it was finished. The small gray part at the bottom is the structures that exist today.

What about fighting urban sprawl? Arcosanti is certainly walkable, and the mixed-use and multipurpose spaces bring functions and people closer together. But because so little of Arcosanti has been built, it is hard to imagine how the ideas would function on a city scale. Meanwhile, urban sprawl is more real than ever, and the suburbs of Phoenix are getting closer and closer.

Arcosanti is mainly kept alive by artisans making bronze bells and ceramics. The bells have been an important part of Arcosanti from the beginning. The sale of bells gave Soleri the economic freedom to pursue theoretical work and develop the ideas that eventually lead to Arcosanti. The sale of bells continues to be a major part of the economic sustainability of Arcosanti today.

Making bronze bells at Arcosanti
The artisans here are pouring bronze wind bells that are Arcosanti’s main source of funding.

There is certainly a paradox between the vision and the reality, and it is tempting to say that Arcosanti is a failed experiment. And yet it is refusing to die and become a ghost town. Soleri himself died in 2013 but the community is keeping Soleri’s ideas alive. Arcosanti has become an laboratory, a place where people from all over the world come to learn and share ideas. Indeed, 50000 curious people come and visit the place every year, attending workshops and tours. By staying alive Arcosanti is helping spread ideas of alternative urban planning – ideas that are more important now than ever.

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