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

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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."

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Dave Walker