Arcosanti bills itself somewhat ironically as an urban laboratory. An antithesis to the modern city and its sprawl, it’s designed to be as compact as possible—some residents have commutes of only 30 seconds to their offices—with a small environmental footprint thanks to the use of passive solar energy for part of its lighting and heating. For example, the south-facing Ceramics Apse, an open-air workshop, features shade in the summer and solar warming in the winter, when the sun is at a low angle in the sky. Some residential units are connected to greenhouses that supply them with heat as well as food. The complex grows vertically instead of horizontally and eschews roads in favor of walkways, courtyards and other public spaces: The midpoint feature of the site is the Vaults, a large arched vault that serves as a meeting area and performance space. Another open space is the Foundry Apse, where liquid bronze is poured into sand molds to create wind bells, a major source of income for the project.
The most recent structure in Arcosanti was dedicated in 1989, and the settlement is nowhere near the scale initially envisioned. Instead of 1,500 inhabitants, it is home to about 80. A few have been there for decades, while others are there temporarily for internships and workshops on subjects like metalworking and silt-casting; some 25,000 people from around the world visit annually. Architect Jeff Stein was an early convert in the 1970s, lured by Soleri’s utopian vision and the commune-like atmosphere when volunteers came together to build the initial structures.
“Arcosanti represents a kind of triumph of the imagination,” says Stein, a member of the Cosanti Foundation board of directors. “Cities, perhaps the newest form of life on Earth, and certainly the biggest and most expensive cultural artifact humans create, need to perform as efficiently and delightfully as the rest of life does. So, what if we could design cities in a way that conforms to how the rest of life is designed: an enormous quantity of events inside smaller and smaller quantities of material and time? Arcosanti represents a first try at this, attempting to build an understanding of ‘complexity’ and ‘compactness’ in urban design to sustain communities so we humans might thrive in them.”
Ali Gibbs arrived as an education, agriculture and design student on a workshop, later staying on and working as cook, bartender, guest services steward and foundry staffer. The high desert landscape proved enthralling: “The experience of my first monsoon here, a true force of nature dumping inches of rain on the parched earth in a span of 15 minutes, giving way to a sense of relief backed by towering clouds painted in pastels, cemented my desire to continue my life in the desert,” recalls Gibbs, now a bronze jewelry artist and sculptor. “I was immediately plunged into the residential community at Arcosanti, and welcomed with open arms by the ragtag group of artists and makers that have made their lives here.”
It’s clear that this settlement is more than just a fanciful architectural experiment in the desert. As it looks to its next 50 years, Arcosanti’s significance will take on greater resonance while the world struggles with climate change and the need to reinvent communities as smart cities.
“What any visitor to Arcosanti should take away is the sense that it is not a localized anomaly. It is a testament to the capacity of humankind,” says Pappa. “While Arcosanti is often misrepresented as utopian, it is not meant to be idealistic. It is the seed that, when given the right nutrients and care, can be grown in any corner of the world.”