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  • Interiors
  • Issue 38

Home Tour:

Sci-fi lair, Mediterranean village, utopian ecosystem: Tim Hornyak peers inside Arizona’s experimental desert community.
Photography by Justin Chung.

“In the desert you become a discoverer,” the Lebanese American author Ameen Rihani wrote. He was alluding to the desert’s power to spark spiritual awakening, but it can also produce other transformations. Situated in the Sonoran desert in Arizona, Arcosanti was founded to reconceptualize how people can live together. 2020 marks the 50th year of this bold attempt to create a new community. 

Arcosanti is a collection of whimsical structures atop an isolated mesa about 60 miles north of Phoenix. There are modular block units, Romanesque half-domes and oculus windows looking out over the valley below. Circular and semicircular motifs recur in the expanse of weathered concrete. Viewed from certain angles, it could double as the lair of a Bond villain—in fact, it served as the location for the 1988 sci-fi film Nightfall—but overall it resembles more a Mediterranean hilltop village with a modern twist. That was part of the legacy of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, who founded Arcosanti in 1970. He conceived it as an “arcology,” a concept yoking architecture and ecology, with the goal of building a compact settlement based on ecologically sound principles. 

Born in Turin in 1919, Soleri moved to the US in 1947 and apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Scottsdale for 18 months. Most of his work was done in the American Southwest, and Arcosanti is his magnum opus. During his lifetime, he received numerous awards and fellowships from organizations ranging from the Guggenheim Foundation to the Venice Biennale of Architecture. The New York Times’ architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable hailed his philosophical and environmental awareness and described Soleri as “the prophet in the desert.” 

When he died in 2013, he was widely eulogized. Four years later, however, his daughter Daniela Soleri publicly accused her father of sexual molestation and attempted rape when she was a teenager. “Every human endeavor is marked by at least some people whose contributions are significant and enduring but whose behaviors were, or are, anywhere from unpleasant to horrific,” she wrote. The Cosanti Foundation, which oversees Arcosanti, has encouraged people to reconsider Soleri’s legacy while acknowledging that “to support great ideas is not to condone the conduct of their creator.”

It’s impossible to entirely separate the mesa from the man, because Soleri’s ideals were what shaped Acrosanti. His 1970 book, Arcology: City in the Image of Man, denounced the urban blight of the day and dreamed of arcologies that included fantastic communities in the ocean and outer space. “Arcologies are architectural organisms of such character and dimensions as to be ecologically relevant,” he wrote. “They are that architecture which is the ecology of reflective life.” 

With its surroundings of craggy mesas and tall Mediterranean cypresses, and its Escheresque origami of domes and cubes, Arcosanti is designed for reflection and introspection. It’s both part of the ecology, especially given the fact that its concrete structures were cast using earthen molds, and very much a human landscape. “From the perspective of an architect, the site is not only formally beautiful, but empirically opportunistic,” says Kevin Pappa, a onetime Arcosanti planner who worked on interior renovations during his tenure. “There is a large disconnect between architects in the field and architects in the office, and my work at Arcosanti has given me the experience to bridge the gap.” 

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.”

“Arcosanti represents a kind of triumph of the imagination."

“Arcosanti represents a kind of triumph of the imagination."


This story is from Kinfolk Issue Thirty-Eight

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