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ARCOSANTI TODAYIN THE SHADOW OF THE BIOSPHERE, PAOLO SOLERI'S DREAM SHUFFLES ALONG

BIOSPHERE 2 GETS a lot of ink these days. The project has finally reached "closure." A couple of weeks ago a handful of scientific-looking people sealed themselves inside a big greenhouse near Tucson. For two years, the story goes, they will live under the dome, drink their own recycled pee and dine on cute little imported piglets. The Biosphere hokum machine has been running on high for years. Only in the past few months has the project been subject to any kind of real scrutiny. The recent analyses conclude that what the Biosphere people have done best, so far at least, is mount hype.

And spend money. The cost of the big terrarium in Oracle is said to exceed $100 million. Paolo Soleri, one of the few living Arizonans who might legitimately qualify for the title "visionary," thinks about those dollars and shakes his head. He's been building a futuristic, environmentally sensitive prototype settlement of his own--Arcosanti--for decades. His budget, compared with the Biosphere's, is peanuts. Progress on Arcosanti, begun by Soleri and a small band of true believers on the wall of a large wash near Cordes Junction more than 20 years ago, proceeds at an achingly deliberate pace. Newspaper reporters who came to look at Arcosanti in the mid-1980s were told that the project was 3 percent complete. Journalists who come today are told that 4 percent of the work is done. At this pace, Arcosanti will take centuries to complete. On any given day, Arcosanti's population and work force number about 50. Some are paid employees. Some are students. Some are attending Elderhostel workshops. Thousands of pilgrims have come to Soleri, from all over the world, to get a glimpse at his vision. "I admire more and more the tradition of initiation," Soleri says, speaking in heavily accented English. "To be taken into a discipline, to learn some process, and after years of humbly working at the process, you slowly begin to understand. . . . "

The Arcosantites work at arts and crafts, bake bread, wander Soleri's reinforced concrete villagescape, and dream. Soleri's plan for Arcosanti, if it is ever completely built, calls for a permanent population of 5,000, living on a small piece of the 860-acre plot of high desert. The 4 percent completed so far is but a staging area for the greater goal. His foundation's next major construction project will be to pave the two-and-a-half-mile road that leads from Interstate 17 to Arcosanti's visitor center. Yavapai County's government won't allow more housing for Arcosanti workers to be built until the road--now nothing more than hard ruts--can be made safe for emergency vehicles. Without the road, there can be no more housing. Without the housing, there can be no significant progress toward "critical mass," Soleri's term for the day when 500 people will live and work at the site full-time. The Biosphere's jump-suited environauts dream of science. Soleri and his people dream of asphalt. They pay for that dream by casting and selling wind chimes. DEBRA GIANNINI, a Soleri assistant who specializes in public relations, says that many out-of-state visitors who come to Arizona to see Biosphere 2 or Arcosanti often bring the misconception that the two are officially related. Unofficially, there are a few areas of overlap. Arcosanti planners are working on a greenhouse addition that will heat and cool the existing buildings. Some of the technology for the greenhouse comes from Carl Hodges' Environmental Research Lab in Tucson. Hodges, whose lab has pioneered research on misting systems and cooling towers, also has consulted on the Biosphere.

Arcosanti workers have made official field trips to the Biosphere, and John Allen, the gurulike figure who leads the Biosphere group, was a guest speaker last October at a Soleri-organized symposium at Arcosanti titled "Minds for History."

And the original impetus for the Biosphere allegedly was to develop methods by which space explorers could survive while making the long trip to other worlds. Soleri, years ago, was designing space cities. A large closet at Arcosanti is devoted to plastic mockups of such floating metropolitan areas. Black light makes the unlikely scale models glow like science-fair projects. Among Soleri and his workers, the topic of the Biosphere is a bit of a mystery. Nobody seems quite sure what all the fuss is about. Some seem justifiably jealous of Biosphere's ink. "I don't think there's one of us that really understands what's going on there," says Giannini. SOLERI FIRST CAME to Arizona from his native Italy (where he achieved a Ph.D. and is recognized as that country's laureate in architecture) in 1947, to study under Frank Lloyd Wright at the Taliesin architect encampment in Scottsdale. In 1950, Soleri returned to his home country, where he was commissioned to build a ceramics factory. His interest in earth-cast bells and tiles, media that later would become the economic engine for larger projects, began then. Soleri, his wife Colly and two daughters returned to suburban Phoenix in 1956, and settled in what then was desert scrub land. Soleri moved into an old artist's shack off Doubletree Ranch Road, and for the next dozen years assembled the oddball collection of half-buried structures he would call Cosanti. He began a nonprofit educational foundation. He did some adjunct teaching for the architecture school at Arizona State University.

At Cosanti, Soleri's philosophy of an environmentally sensitive lifestyle gradually took form. The typical Soleri roof is poured over a mound of dirt, which is then dug out to make a room. At Cosanti, the buildings are capped by concrete clamshells. The south-facing, half-bowl apse, which provides shade from the sun in summer and traps solar heat in the winter, became a signature.

A disdain for refrigerated air would become another. Summertime relief from heat at Cosanti is accomplished via shade, below-grade shelter, dips in the compound swimming pool and a handful of small evaporative coolers. The rich Scottsdale neighborhood that grew around Cosanti has successfully managed to shut out the nature Soleri prefers to live with. The pink stucco mansions appear deserted on summer afternoons. The inhabitants emerge only for games of late-night tennis on their lighted courts. The bright-green Camelback Golf Club rolls nearby.

The Cosanti land is a sand trap in this neighborhood, a hot, dry patch in the artificial oasis. Publicist Giannini, who works full-time at Cosanti, says (not too defensively) that the buildings and grounds are pleasant for all but a few weeks every year. Employees survive the August dew-point crisis by wearing shorts to work, occasionally dropping everything for a midafternoon swim, and by the cool knowledge that their thinking on the topic of energy conservation is S.C.--Soleri Correct. When this society collapses, this is how our descendants will learn to live. Most of the work on Cosanti ceased in the late 1960s, by which time it had become clear to Soleri that his life's greatest work would occur in Cordes Junction. The Scottsdale project has changed little since then. Bells are peddled, offices are staffed, Soleri continues to reside part-time in the old artist's shack (he's not sealed inside his experiment--Soleri commutes to Arcosanti midweek, driving a white Nissan Sentra, then returns to Scottsdale for the weekend). The founder doesn't allow any money to go to improving his own living conditions, or any of the structures at Cosanti. Cosanti is merely the urban annex of the real operation, according to foundation spokespeople. An apse near the south end of the Cosanti buildings was damaged several years ago, when dynamite was used in constructing the surrounding subdivisions. The area is cordoned off to visitors and staffers. The centerpiece of the concrete arch appears to be ready to fall at any minute. During a recent afternoon scorcher, a tourist family of Californians unloaded into the visitor-center structure. Dad headed directly for a swamp-cooler vent, where he stood for several minutes, to no apparent effect.

ARCOSANTI, the "urban laboratory," was founded in 1970, when concerns about the environment were, for the moment, running high. The project was to its era--the dawn of environmental concern in America, the time of the first Earth Day--what the Biosphere's marketeers hope the new greenhouse will be to its own. More than $7 million has been devoted to Arcosanti in the ensuing decades, according to Scott Davis, another Soleri assistant. The mound-made apses and vaults, the blocky visitor center and residence buildings are partially visible from I-17.

To Arizona locals, the project is perhaps best remembered as the site of several rock concerts in the late 1970s. Jackson Browne headlined one such show; a parking-lot brush fire late during that weekend festival consumed more than 100 vehicles.

Soleri the architect designed Arcosanti as a workshop, a boilerplate for his philosophies as a builder and as, well, a philosophizer. Even confirmed proponents of Soleri's theories admit to not understanding some the finer points of those ideas.

"Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory?", a pamphlet sold in the project's visitor center, attempts to explain the "arcology" concept in Soleri's own words. Here are a few of them: "Process implies extension in time. Temporal extension is warped by living stuff into acts of duration. A possible resolution of `living time' is the metamorphosis of time into pure duration, i.e., the eventual `living outside of time.'"

Soleri the master, like all masters, disdains the idea that someone might try to condense his thinking into a brief synopsis, such as the above paragraph. On the book's back cover, someone, presumably an acolyte, has attempted to boil down the book's content into one spiffy paragraph. "In this book," it says, "Soleri discusses why the city structure must contract and miniaturize in order to support our complex economic, social and cultural activities, and to give individuals a new perspective and renewed trust in society and the future."

So, apparently, Soleri's method is to incorporate elements of art, architecture and theology in his work. He's a suburb hater, a lover of density in living conditions. In a Soleri arcology (a melding of the words architecture and ecology), several generations of a family will live together. And people will live where they work; the concept of commuting will die. "Architecture students don't understand it," says Jeff Cook, a longtime architecture professor at ASU. He and Soleri are old friends. "Many people who have supported him or tried to learn from him are not architects . . . but they find enough sense in what he's saying and doing to want to find out more." Soleri's reputation is greatest beyond America's borders. His concepts are better understood and appreciated in Europe and Japan, theorizes Davis, because in those places the people are perhaps more attuned to the notions of miniaturization and compressed living conditions. Some say that Soleri's following in Japan is cultlike. (In fact, one of Soleri's chief assistants-collaborators is Tomiaki Tamura, who came to Arizona from Tokyo roughly 15 years ago to study with the master. Tamura, in his late thirties, is considered Soleri's intellectual heir.) The Japanese and the Europeans think more about, and better of, the future.

"Americans . . . would like the future to be just like the past," explains architecture professor Cook. "They don't have any concept of a future which is better than their childhood or their parents' life. They just want to reproduce their parents' life, maybe with a newer car or better air conditioning. "But there isn't a lot of optimism. Japan is optimistic about the future. I have friends in Hungary, and they're not about to look to the past. "To live in a Cape Cod house with roses and a picket fence--that's the imagery of the great life in the United States. It's an image that is totally historical. "In Europe, they're fed up with history. History has not been nice to them." LAWRENCE CHEEK, a regular contributor to New Times, concluded an analysis of the Arcosanti project for Arizona Highways by writing, "The vote here on this enormously controversial undertaking is that it will make one heck of a ruin."

"We study ruins," says ASU's Jeff Cook. "We don't study Arcosanti."
People close to him say Soleri has been thinking about posterity for many years. The architect apparently believes his architecture will not be his greatest legacy, but that the ideas--the emphasis on the integration of disciplines--will long outlive the clamshell roofs. Temporal criticism likely means little to a man working for the ages. Still, says an aide, speaking of Arcosanti's slow progress and daunting long-term schedule, "He worries that his life is shorter than it needed it to be."

This summer, Soleri's younger brother Luciano, who had run the bell foundry at Arcosanti, died after an abrupt illness. The death came during the week that the compound commemorates the birthday of Paolo's wife Colly, who died in the early 1980s and who is buried within sight of the architect's Arcosanti studio. Despite some understandable sorrow over such events, Soleri can regularly be seen working side by side with students on construction projects. His latest work, on display at Arcosanti, is a colored-pencil drawing of interconnected arcologies. The space-age cities are linked by a magnetic-levitation railway. According to aides, Soleri is currently fascinated with (and holding great hope for) the futuristic rail technology. Even the simple asphalt road has promise of a lasting interdisciplinary statement. The foundation has received a planning grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. American artists will be invited to come paint the road once it's poured. The theme, according to Arcosanti press information, will be endangered species. The Via Deliziosa is planned as one of the largest such works on Earth. Nobody can say when it will be done. THE WORK OF JOURNALISTS, Soleri says, is "shallow." Reporters are, on the whole, "malicious and ignorant." He doesn't like having his photograph taken. Still, Soleri sits for the occasional interview to help publicize his cause. A project dependent on public largess (the suggested donation for a tour of Arcosanti is $4; the price of bells ranges from a few dollars into the tens of thousands) needs regular press--good, bad or otherwise. A few members of Soleri's organization recognize that need.

A few years ago, Soleri sat reluctantly for just such an interview with a reporter from the New York Times. "If I had known what was ahead," he told the correspondent, "I never would have started this."

On the occasion of the Biosphere's most recent wave of publicity, Soleri took such a moment with New Times. The sum of his feelings about the new project could best be expressed by this quote:

"The biggest grant I ever got was $75,000," says Soleri. "We had to sell bells in order to survive."

The Biosphere's jump-suited environauts dream of science. Soleri and his people dream of asphalt. Among Soleri and his workers, the topic of the Biosphere is a bit of a mystery. Nobody seems quite sure what all the fuss is about. The rich Scottsdale neighborhood that grew around Cosanti has successfully managed to shut out the nature Soleri prefers to live with. To Arizona locals, Arcosanti is perhaps best remembered as the site of several rock concerts in the late 1970s.

"We study ruins. We don't study Arcosanti."

"If I had known what was ahead," Soleri has said, "I never would have started this.

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Dave Walker