Arcosanti-A Bizarre Place

About 70 miles north of Phoenix, literally out in the middle of nowhere, is Arcosanti, the brain child of Paolo Soleri. I stopped by there once and I hope that I never have the misfortune of going there again. I felt like I was in a cult compound or an Alcatraz surrounded by desert. arcosanti31 Arcosanti was an experiment to test Soleri’s theories about architecture and ecology, or arcology as he called it. If your idea of good architecture is living in dome shaped mud hovels with spiders then this is the place for you. Personally I find it aesthetically offensive. I love cities, specifically dense cities. I believe cities are one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments. But to build a master-planned community miles away from civilization in the middle of nowhere and call it “urban” because there are no cars doesn’t jive with me. An urban area (i.e. a city) also requires industry, technology, culture, and intellect. There is no benefit to being able to walk to work if there are no jobs. I understand that only a fraction of the project was ever built so I suppose one could argue that the vision was never fully realized. I tend to think that the rest was never built because the part that was completed, failed. I admire Soleri for thinking outside the box. But I do reject the notion of treating human-beings as some foreign entity that is to be merely tolerated while trying to live “as one” with nature. Humans have specific needs in order to survive since Nature has not endowed humans with the ability to simply adapt. Man has to discover what he needs and alter his background to produce it. Walking around Arcosanti, I felt like I was some unnatural phenomenon, defiling the earth for existing.

While there I stopped into the local bakery and the most illuminating conversation ensued between me and the crazy lady, excuse me, the baker, who was working there.

“Do you live here?”

“Yes.”

“Do you ever… leave?” I asked.

“Sometimes I have to go up to Prescott Valley, when I have to.”

Awkward pause.

“So what do you do for fun around here?”

“We have a symphony.”

Awkward pause.

“So where are you from?” She asked.

“Phoenix.”

“Ugh. It’s just terrible what they do down there. They built that Hohokam Expressway and tore up the desert and built over all those Indian burial grounds! And that Tempe Town Lake is such a waste!”

“I like Tempe Town Lake.” I told her. “It makes my life more enjoyable. I like to watch the sun set there, I like the civic events that happen there. It makes life more exciting and fulfilling.” I didn’t say that I also like how it is a billion dollar economic engine that brings a lot of people to our city and has resulted in in-fill development and more sustainable living within an already existing urban environment.

“Well, what do I know. I’m just a baker.”

I hurried back to my car and turned down the dirt road leading away from Arcosanti with no plans to ever return. I prefer a skyscraper in a truly dense and urban core over a futuristic hippy compound in the middle of the desert any day.

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12 Comments
  • Seminary
    March 11, 2010

    Hi Seth, you might be interested in visiting our seminary . There are a lot of things that you will enjoy there.

  • Kevin
    October 2, 2010

    Seth,

    I applaud your visit to arcosanti and your subsequent blog. I like to encourage young writers as my son is a writer. Suggestion: don’t write about (or judge) something until you have fully researched it.
    Try reading Soleri’s Arcologies, study his sketches, read what other architectural critics ( such as Lewis mumford or buckminster fuller)) have to say about the subject of cities in history and then return to arcosanti one more time with eyes of understanding. If, like me you do not come away a true believer such as the baker you conversed with, you will perhaps at least gain some inspiration or insight into the concepts of a man who had the genius and courage to look beyond the age he was born in and envision solutions to an inevitable reality: that the models for growth and development that cities like Phoenix, Las Vegas, and LA follow are undeniably unsustainable. Arcosanti; if judged a failure, is a magnificent failure who’s time is not yet.

    • J Seth Anderson
      October 2, 2010

      Thanks Kevin. I appreciate the comment. I disagree that a person must understand every detail to have an opinion. I do know more about Soleri than the average person. I’ve familiar with his new project in Scottsdale and I’ve been to his house (studio?) in Paradise Valley. Even bought a bell.
      Architecture to me is an art, and like all art, is subjective. The structures at Arcosanti reminded me of some of the structures I lived in when I lived in Russia (i.e. ugly, gray cement in an almost Brutalism style.) The woman I spoke with was clearly insane. And if anyone was judgmental, it was her, telling me how stupid I was for living in Phoenix and about the terrible things the Hohokam Expressway imposed on the Valley.
      I love cities. Real cities like New York and Chicago. Certainly Phoenix, L.A. and Las Vegas are unsustainable in the way they are built now. But Arcosanti is not the answer. Cities require industry and infrastructure and culture and people and ideas, and public transportation that grows in a natural way.
      I was not impressed with Arcosanti. I’ve seen the drawings and I understand the vision. But I don’t like it.

  • Zel
    February 22, 2011

    Seth,
    I peacefully read what you wrote and what Kevin wrote, but I do feel like there might be some perspective needed to respect people’s personal beliefs. Just as the lady you spoke to has very strong beliefs, you do, too. Maybe we shouldn’t call people with strong convictions or beliefs or desires or inspirations “clearly insane.” It is unnecessary. Some people may think you are insane, and to such a thought you may feel ambivalent, but for all due respect for other people involved with what they enjoy, it’s more effective to use kinder words.

    I hope you continue to enjoy the things you love! It’s cool to read that you see architecture as an art. I’m glad to read a blog about Arcosanti, too, since there are so few.

    Best regards,

    Zel

  • ps
    March 21, 2011

    Thanks for the post. I’m largely in agreement, though perhaps 20 years ago I would have admired the developer more and thought you blind. But you’re right, arcosanti is probably a huge waste of resources, and a blight in its own right on the land. I’m fascinated by how cities begin, though…and I wonder how many of these ideologically driven cities still exist. Does Salt Lake City count, for instance, as a model of someone’s Utopia, since it was founded by a religious group? How much ideology can be seen in SLC? It’s a grid, like Phoenix so if there’s an ideology on display, it must be simply ‘growth at all costs.’ ? I don’t know. Back to the promise of arcosanti, it’s an odd juxtaposition we live with here in Phoenix, and in most of the country. That is, we like the amenity of urban areas, but with density comes higher prices (see the bid-rent curve). Part of what makes this place great is the *chance* to own a piece of land and a home, which is largely out of the question in Manhattan, for instance, except for the most upwardly mobile types. So while Paolo chants “density”, he is arguing that we should have to pay more for that density, is he not? (Or is his vision a communitarian one?)

  • Kev
    August 8, 2013

    Planned environments are by nature utopian and cult-like. They neglect or impose on the needs of the individual in favor of an unrealistic view of society. Basically, you have a lot of people humoring a deluded – maybe rich – person’s vision of what society should be and how people should act and think, not how things truly are.

  • Craig Sibley
    March 13, 2014

    Hi Seth,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog, and the subsequent contributed comments. I concur with you completely. Isn’t it funny how sometimes “geniuses” feel they have life so completely figured out… they deem it necessary to inflict their ideals on the “lesser enlightened” denizens? I am an artist, and have always been an votary student of architecture. My thought is that more than likely, what you were felt that day and what brought to mind your stays in Russian concrete/mud hovels is the totalitarian nature of the place. I had much the same feeling after visiting either of the Taliesin compounds. Even though I am a consummate fan of Wright’s work, the places left me a bit creeped out. Perhaps as a creative, I fundamentally NEED my environ to reflect MY creative spirit… not that of some self proclaimed visionary autocrat (even though the autocrat’s vision may be aesthetically pleasing) . I believe true creativity comes from the soul, and is a reflection of the influences we perceive and assimilate. Loyal apostles of Soleri, Wright or the Bauhaus (or other “schools” but I’ll avoid the subject of institutionalized academia for another discussion) need to submit their creative will to their chosen demigod… with their life’s “creative” endeavors surrendered to carrying on the work and vision of their masters (I like to call it the “mini-me syndrome” hehehe). Truly creative thought is impossible to come out of authoritarian communities such as this. Which unfortunately, is the reason the work of disciples of Wright, Soleri, etc. are never recognized as artistically significant on the world stage. In contrast “students” (such as Rudolf Schindler and Richard Neutra) escape creative dictatorship before going obtaining deserved recognition.

    I liked what you said about your belief that “cities are one of mankind’s greatest accomplishments”. While there may be blight and disharmony in urban centers… there is also life and dynamism that cannot and will not ever be present in theoretical communities such as Arcosanti or Wright’s Broadacre City.

    As I mentioned, I enjoyed your blog. It helped me think through the feelings I have experienced in other “cult-like” compounds. (Esalen Institute, Scientology’s Golden Era Productions Facility, etc). Thanks for the thought provoking work!

    Please check out my work at http://www.craigsibley.com. I too like interesting people, and hope you will stay in touch!

    All the best,

    Craig Sibley

    • J. Seth (I go by Seth) Anderson
      March 23, 2014

      Being from Phoenix, I can’t escape the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright. The whole debacle to raze the house in Paradise Valley began about the time I moved to SLC. I understand that he’s important in some circles and considered a genius by others, however I can’t help but refer to him as Frank Lloyd Wrong. lol I’m just not a fan. Taliesin West was also not my style. But hey, to each his own.

  • Craig Sibley
    March 13, 2014

    Please forgive the glaring typos in my previous dissertation… I was writing from a “chain of consciousness” perspective! lol

    • J. Seth (I go by Seth) Anderson
      March 23, 2014

      No need to apologize. I appreciate your thoughts. :)

  • Larissa B.
    January 3, 2017

    Hello! I am doing a bit of solo-traveling at the moment and actually stayed the night at Arcosanti. I came across your blog when researching more information on the place – the aerial shot and perspective are great. My experience can be summed up in two words: eerie and interesting. Anyway, just wanted to drop a note to let you know that years later your post is still relevant! – Larissa B

    • J. Seth (I go by Seth) Anderson
      April 10, 2017

      Hi Larissa!
      Thank you for the kind words! (Please accept my apology for the late reply to your comment.) I’m glad you had a good time at Arcosanti. Eerie and interesting is a good way to describe it. :)

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