Ecology and Architecture Meet in Arcosanti's Past Futurism
Arcosanti, as construction stands today.
CREDIT: The Arcosanti Project.
In the desert north of Phoenix, Arizona, the skeleton of an experimental town rises. The complex was a testing ground for self-sustaining towers tufted with greenhouses that filter water and recycle waste, theories that cities operate like huge, buzzing life forms and that urban life and the natural world need not exist in mortal combat.
These are some of today's most cutting edge ideas in architecture, engineering and social science, but the town, called Arcosanti and designed by architect Paolo Soleri, isn't the first step of a futuristic millennial green community. It is a living relic, founded in 1970 and only five percent complete after 40 years of work.
[See our Infographic: Arcology- The City of Tomorrow ]
But though the city has yet to (and may never) bring Soleri's full design to fruition, Arcosanti's founding principlesthat density and efficiency in urban deign can bring about both better living and better environmental stewardshiphave found a lasting legacy in modern architectural concepts.
"He played the opening card," said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, an architect and curator at the National Building Museum in Washignton, D.C. "Anyone who talks about passive solar, density, urban agriculture all of those things common in the discussion now, Soleri has been drawing and writing about and building for decades."
Arcosanti was intended to house 5,000 residents, and demonstrate the idea of "arcology," a term coined by Soleri from the words architecture and ecology to paint the two as parts of the same whole. Currently the yearlong population is about 100 and Soleri, who is now 91, is the final arbiter of all work that goes on. But Jeff Stein, Chair of the board of the Cosanti foundation, which oversees Arcosanti hopes that as the project chugs along into its next 40 years new innovations will be incorporated.
At the Arcosanti site, inhabitants live mostly in dorm-style housing and the general atmosphere is diverse and somewhat summer camp-like, according to Stein. Daily life is devoted to a variety of pastoral and fairly mundane activities. Building, maintaining, gardening and craft projects are assigned, and residents lead tours for visitors, throw parties and play sports. Construction creeps along.
Arcosanti's physical plan is purposefully dense, reflecting arcology's vision of cities as akin to biological organisms, where greater density equals greater complexity and efficiency.
"Imagine if our brains were five cells thick. They'd spread out hundreds of feet and it would take yards of cloth to make hats and years to realize you're thirsty," said Stein. "So instead of Houston or Phoenix or Miami, wouldn't it be better to coordinate this latest organism, the city, in a way that takes notice of the way the rest of nature has evolved in this dense, 3D, complex way."
In addition to density, energy efficiency is also a primary feature especially in the use of the apse, a kind of spherical lean-to that provides cool shade in summer and absorbs heat energy from the low winter sun. Arcosanti's plans include other passive energy savers including ducts that capture waste heat, and eventually a car-free layout.
Over the last 40 years, construction has been completed largely by laypeople paying tuition to study Soleri's theories and build additions to Arcosanti during 5-week residencies. But the grandest plans are still just images, and residents have to drive in and out to get supplies.
"Grand experiments don't always work the way they're supposed to," Palladino said. "And no city is ever finished anyway."