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.

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Bettie Rinehart