You don't build the City of Tomorrow in a day. In fact, not even in 25 years, as it turns out, but Paolo Soleri's vision of Arcosanti has not wavered since he first broke ground for his "urban laboratory" at the basalt cliffs near Cordes Junction in 1970.
The beautiful, space-agey Arcosanti, which has been called by Newsweek "probably the most important experiment undertaken in our lifetime," is just one of the 76-year-old Soleri's "arcologies." Soleri's designs blend architecture and ecology in compact, vertical, automobile-free urban habitats that contain the city and co-exist with nature, rather than inviting expansion into the surrounding environment. Soleri is no fan of the suburbs. Arcosanti aims to rise to an eventual 25 stories and house 215 people per acre (New York City averages just 33 per acre), figures that have rubbed some privacy-wary critics the wrong way. Yet Soleri continues to think big, and he has the reputation to do so. He has been called "an urban visionary." The New York Times has called him "the prophet in the desert," and he has an international reputation as one of the leading contemporary urban theorists.
He sees the sprawling suburban megastructure of Phoenix as wasteful, and has theorized that the city could be reconfigured into "ministructures" that would create a taller, more visibly stratified landscape occupying only a fraction of the space. Soleri came to Arizona in 1946 to study under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, but went back to his native Italy soon after differences of opinion on the direction of architecture came to a head. In 1956, he returned as a professor of architecture at Arizona State University, and 14 years later began work at Arcosanti. Lack of funds, however, has meant minimal construction at the site in the ensuing years. Soleri's dream town--designed to support 500 to 600 residents by the early 1990s--currently houses about 60. Construction is funded solely by Cosanti Foundation educational programs and the sale of the bronze and ceramic wind bells that have become one of Soleri's trademarks. Yet Soleri remains true to his vision. And, despite critical naysayers, Arcosanti slowly continues to rise.
These days, Soleri spends most of his time between Arcosanti and his Cosanti Foundation in Paradise Valley. On May 12, he received a Distinguished Service Award from the School of Architecture and Environmental Design at ASU, where he also gave the commencement address. New Times: What originally influenced your ideas to build cities with an ecological edge?
Paolo Soleri: I don't think I can pinpoint. An influence may have been that I was very attached to natural things when I was very young. I used to go mountain climbing with my father in the Alps. That gave me a different perspective; at the same time, I was very much an urban creature. I was born in the city, grew up in the city.
The one thing I remember is the wonderful contrast. When I was 10 or 11, I finally got a bike, and I loved going out into the country and the notion of coming back into the city. It left me with a feeling of the city being very real. And possibly one of the most wonderful things we ever invented; at the same time, nature was this magic element that was everywhere and overwhelming.
NT: You call your "arcologies" or cities of the future "imploded cities." Isn't it ironic that you are building Arcosanti so close to one of the most rapidly expanding city/suburbs in the country?
PS: Well, yesterday I was coming down from Arcosanti and I took a detour. Even though I knew Phoenix was expanding, I didn't know the extent of what is going on north of here. It's really depressing. You drive miles and miles and there is this very uniform development of housing. One or two stories. I am not a nature lover or a person that believes nature is benevolent. Nature is totally indifferent to us. But this notion that we can expand endlessly to create our pleasant little places--this is a great misconception. We have to try to restrict our impact on nature by reducing our spreading out, and that can only be achieved through the city.
NT: People describe the land development in Phoenix as a cancer eating the desert--the city keeps moving farther and farther out.
PS: It's not the city. It's the suburbs. It's the Los Angeles syndrome. It's the abandonment of the idea of the "city" for the sake of a suburban notion. And the consequences will be tragic because once what you call the American dream is exported outside this country--the house, car, the suburban lot--everyone will be consuming the way Americans consume. And that will be the end of life as we know it for both us and nature.
NT: You've got to have a car in Phoenix and L.A.
PS: The magic of the automobile is very real. Everybody loves cars, I love cars. But putting no limits on our consumption of cars is not being a realist. We want to ignore the purely regulatory facts of life like gravity, thermodynamics, basic physical facts. We want to ignore them and say we are superior to them. It doesn't matter.
For everyone to continue to consume their cars, land and so on, it means invading the solar system so that the billions of people that are now destroying the planet through consumption can colonize other territories. But we do not have enough time. The world population is doubling. There is not enough time to export enough people to all have the American dream. Though exporting life elsewhere, going elsewhere is both legitimate and imperative.
NT: Do you think that humans will move into space?
PS: Yes. Unless we self-destroy. By self-destruction I don't mean the species will be eliminated, but might go back to a precivilization or tribal condition where you have to kill in order to survive.
NT: Do you think the so-called American dream was flawed from the beginning? PS: My answer is a mix of trying to understand how a certain concept like the American dream develops and to be aware of how a concept can change in space-time. What is valid at a certain time naturally may not continue to be valid.
Life develops toward complexity, away from dissemination. Like a computer chip which contains incredible numbers of transmissions in the small space--a complex system is by necessity an imploded system. The city seems to be an expression of this law within the context of society. The suburban sprawl seems to be the opposite. So maybe this rapid spread was okay when there were only a few million people, way back there when our demands on the environment were rather minimal, when only the despots were rich and the peons were not such great consumers. Now everyone wants to have their own kingdom. It's a self-destructive process we're going through.
NT: So are human beings instinctively self-destructive? PS: Every species in its own development tries to find an opportune way of survival. That has been very successful. Bloody--but very successful. Our opportunism has become personal rather than that of the group, and that has been our blessing and our curse. A blessing owing to the fact that all the great things we have created--art, science, philosophy--arose from that. It's a gift. The other side of the coin is that this opportunistic drive puts no limits on our demands for more. Greed has become a prime moving force, and, of course, most of what we do in terms of consumption and waste is greed. It might be hidden greed, but that is what it is.
NT: Some people toss off Arcosanti as some sort of hippie-relic utopian community. How do you feel about that?
PS: Well, to be flippant, I am the only realist. The utopia is Phoenix. Phoenix is going to fail because utopia is bound to fail. A utopia seeks perfection within a segregated kind of environment, certain conditions, so that by necessity is going to fail. The only utopia is that of the entire cosmos possibly becoming desirable. What we are witnessing in Phoenix is that the American dream is in the making and that it is totally out of touch with reality.
I mean, the situation is becoming critical, and even the Phoenicians are starting to wonder what is going on. There is almost a nostalgia. I hear things like, "We are developing the land, but maintaining the desert." I mean, what kind of notion is that? If you take a hundred acres of desert and build a housing project on it--then you do not care for the desert. The desert is eliminated. So let's at least dwell in reality and move on from there. NT: How is the construction financed now?
PS: The bells. That's why it is so slow. NT: So you're not out knocking on corporate doors?
PS: Oh, boy. We tried that. They want products. In science you have laboratories where you test things. But they don't want to test. They want success. No work. So we go on slowly. The construction might accelerate, who knows? (He laughs.)
NT: What architects influenced you?
PS: Besides Piero della Francesca? NT: The painter?
PS: Yes. And when I was in architecture school in Italy, it was Walter Gropius [20th-century German architect and co-founder of the Bauhaus]. And when I discovered Mr. [Frank Lloyd] Wright's work, I was excited. But now, now I almost have a rage against Mr. Wright. NT: Why?
PS: Because he glamorized the idea of the suburb, like the Levittown concept [development clusters of single-family homes]. That was the beginning of real suburbia. Mr. Wright came up with this--two acres for a single family--it's suicide. So in that way, his influence was pernicious. And it has caused what we see now. He put an accent on very good architecture. He designed what I call "wonderful flowers." When he got to the forest, he lost it.
NT: There really doesn't seem to be the demand in Phoenix to centralize.
PS: Increasing complexity is progress. It's the rule by which matter becomes mind. If we ignore that, then we will become simply more ignorant. So you have two choices: stagnate or evolve. In Phoenix you see a divesting of complexity for the sake of a romantic notion that life is simple and pleasant and no problems, and, in reality, it is very, very harsh.
But there is a beauty in this harshness--and when you face it, you become more self-aware and creative. So we are giving up a lot, really giving up a lot, and we might find out that we cannot turn back around. So my perspective is very pessimistic for the short run; however, I feel that the mind is incredibly powerful.
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NT: So you think that society can turn things around?
PS: We have to . . . you know, we are telling people that they are ruining things and that isn't very kind, not very diplomatic. But I have to say what I think.
"Milk," an extravaganza of Mater-related performance and art by a bevy of Phoenix female artists, is at the Icehouse at 429 West Jackson. You can see the artwork by appointment by calling 256-6333 or by stopping by on Saturday for some Primal Stew. The always-gut-wrenching cult heroes Crash Worship and local band LifeGarden will play, and local artist Rose Johnson will perform "Creation--Creation," a performance piece that examines the existential choices confronting the female artist--to make art or to make babies. Rose will make babies--but you have to come to the show to see what kind.
The Shemer Art Center has a very cool show running through June 9. The show features the work of fiber artists Ann Keuper, Bozena Conroy and Barbara Brandel. If you are thinking bargello and macram, you are in for a surprise. The show features wall hangings, costumes, sculptural forms made of silks, wool, lace, animal gut and stuff you never even imagined as "fibrous." Conroy is even bringing a throne with her, so bring your crown.
While you are there, venture into the sculpture garden to see Larry McLoughlin's fantastic figure sculptures; they make the Venus of Willendorf seem sylphlike. My favorite is the cherub engulfed in swags of fat, sitting daintily on the garden wall. Thunderous thighs primly crossed with a head the size of a chestnut, it is akin to godhead.