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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.