Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Arcosanti - City on a Hill

We went to Oak Creek Canyon, north of Sedona, Arizona over the holiday.  It was beautiful. On the drive back to Phoenix, I insisted (over my wife's rolling eyes) that we visit Arcosanti. An experimental town founded in 1970, Arcosanti aspires to fuse architecture with ecology.


The town seeks to provide social interaction and accessibility of urban living with ecological goals ranging from spare resource use to environmental integratoin.  The project-town rests on 25 acres of a 4,060 acre land preserve. Although originally envisioned for 5,000 people, Arcosanti's actual population varies between 50 and 100 people. The master plan envisions a massive complex, called Arcosanti 5000, that would dwarf the current buildings.

Despite Arcosanti's meager population, the underlying land use philosophy - arcology - is intriguing. Although certainly not new, "archology" is Paolo Soleri's concept of cities which compact human necessities in marked contrast to urban sprawl with its inherently wasteful consumption of land, energy and time. Instead of isolating people from each other and the community, the "complexification and miniaturization" of the city encourages and relies on community.

According to promomtional materials,

  • an archology would need about two percent as much land as a typical city of similar population 
  • Archology eliminates the automobile from within the city 
  • The multi-use nature of archology design would put living, working and public spaces within easy reach of each other, and
  • walking would be the main transportation within the city
  • "Arcosanti is probably the most important experiment undertaken in our lifetime"

Our visit to the town was uninspiring.  It did not meet the rhetoric above.  The bronze and ceramic wind bells Soleri sells were nice, but the edifices themselves were ill kept and uninspiring. We did not get a tour of the entire town, so perhaps judment should be reserved. 

Still, why only 50 residents (mostly students /educators) in a "city" that envisioned 5,000 way back in 1970?  Why does Soleri himself live in Scottsdale, Arizona (a sprawling well-to-do suburb)?  To me it tracks what James McWilliams calls "a problem endemic to modern environmentalism."  I agree with McWilliams's suggestion that "concerned consumers are flush with noble intentions, but too often these intentions succumb to external realities."

McKay Cunningham

Architecture, Community Design, Environmental Law, Green Building, New Urbanism, Suburbs | Permalink

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