A science fiction-like wonderland of domes and apses on a desert mesa 70 miles north of Phoenix, Arcosanti is Paolo Soleri's rejoinder to the American ideal of a house with a lawn and a two-car garage. "The single-family house is the single most consumptive and segregational habitat that we can conceive," proclaims the 85-year-old architect, who has long fought a losing battle against suburbia and what he views as its shameful squandering of land, water, energy and (if you count long commutes) time. Since 1970, Soleri has been building his "lean alternative" to sprawl. Arcosanti (the name derives from architecture, ecology and cosanti, Soleri's coined Italian for anticonsumerism) is a prototype community designed to provide housing and facilities for 5,000 people on 25 acres—about 10 percent of the space that a like number of inhabitants would typically occupy in suburbia. It has no roads or garages, and all but minimal landscaping. Residents walk to the foundry, to peach and apple orchards and to greenhouses where they grow herbs and vegetables.
If the place sounds idealistic, it is not a commune or even a utopia in the usual sense. Rather, Soleri says, it's a "laboratory" for testing his theory that compact, high-density communities are necessary for our long-term survival. "The choice is clear," he says. "The single-family home, and suburbia with it, goes—or we humans go." The results from his lab so far are mixed. After three decades, Arcosanti is only 4 percent completed and has only 75 permanent residents. It may be that Americans are reluctant to give up their cars and creature comforts—in which case, according to Soleri, we're all goners. Or it could be that a shortage of funds has held back the project, as he maintains. Either way, the place is one of the nation's longest-running experiments to base a community around ecologically sensitive architecture.
Down two dusty unpaved miles off Interstate 17, Arcosanti comes into view with a tall construction crane hulking over its array of towers and domed rooftops. About ten concrete buildings, most of them interconnected, appear to spill down the mesa. Two vaulted archways soar 80 feet above a central courtyard. A few yards away is an amphitheater. A minute-long walk ends at an open-air foundry and workshop (for making ceramic and bronze bells designed by Soleri and sold in the visitors' center and in gift shops). A few grass islands, none more than about 100 square feet, and a scattering of Italian cypresses and olive trees soften and shade the concrete compound.
Most residents get lodging and access to community facilities in exchange for working on the site and paying a fee of $110 a month. They tend to be single and in their 20s, but some have been with the project almost from the beginning. Arcosanti's only child was born there seven years ago.
Uzair Quraishi, a 23-year-old architecture student from Karachi, Pakistan, on a four-month internship at Arcosanti, says he was predisposed to favor Soleri's approach to high-density living: "I come from a city where houses are connected to each other, people interact, so I feel comfortable here." In adhering to the philosophy of minimizing waste, all the buildings in this "arcology," as Soleri calls it (combining architecture and ecology), serve multiple purposes. The five-story building we are standing in contains a café, an art gallery and a bakery as well as apartments. Some are concrete cubicles with a common kitchen, but there are also five-bedroom apartments.
Orchards and fields of garlic and blue corn fan out along the cottonwood-lined Agua FriaRiver. The produce is sold in the café. Residents also barter with nearby Hopi communities, but they get the bulk of their provisions from a supermarket eight miles away. Conserving energy is a priority. A tunnel system is in place to channel solar-heated air from a ten-acre greenhouse (not yet built) to the entire complex. To combat the summer heat, small ponds outside building entrances provide evaporative cooling to interiors. Even so, a few apartments run air conditioners on hot afternoons. A fraction of Arcosanti's electric power is generated by solar panels and a windmill, but most comes from the electrical grid.
Soleri, as it happens, doesn't live in his laboratory. He lives 75 miles away in Scottsdale, in a two-bedroom ranch house he bought in 1956. He has since added several buildings to his five-acre property, including a bell foundry, student housing and a gallery. He goes to Arcosanti once a week to check things out and answer questions from visitors and students, many from other nations. Born and educated in Italy, he came to the United States in 1947 and apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright. Soleri first earned acclaim in 1948 for a bridge design exhibited at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. In the 1960s, he bought 860 acres in Arizona to test his virtue-in-density ideas. On the day we met at Arcosanti, the wiry and bright-eyed octogenarian wore rumpled khakis and flip-flops and scrambled like a fireman up a ladder to his loft. His voice is soft, and his statements, like his prose, can be dense. He compares Arcosanti to an instrument: "I say to my friends that I have invented the piano so that you could perform your music." He then admits with a smile that people are beginning to wonder when the instrument will be played. "We cannot afford to build it," he says. Proceeds from selling bells and books by and about Soleri don’t cover Arcosanti's million-dollar annual budget.
But a lack of money may not be the only thing keeping Arcosanti from booming. It could simply be that a lot of people prefer the trappings of suburban life. "I admire Soleri's emphasis on true urbanism of a responsible and frugal sort, his caring about the land," says David Arnold, an architectural historian at the University of New Hampshire. "But I think most Americans prefer a more generous, spreading, privacy-oriented version of urban living."
For now, Soleri seems content to challenge architects (as well as the rest of us) to do more with less, to preserve nature and conserve resources in the bargain. Architect David Tollas is an 18-year Arcosanti resident. "Who knows if arcologies will be built all over the place," he says. "But I feel privileged to work on it."