Visiting Arcosanti

Visitors to the shop these past couple weeks may have noticed that our windows are filled with bells of the highest order. They are from Arcosanti, they are for sale.

Lisa and I had the pleasure of spending the night at Arcosanti last month, getting to meet the founder Paolo Soleri, and packing our station wagon full of bronze and ceramic bells. It was a great trip!

Today, I’d like to share some pics from Arcosanti, an urban design experiment built way out in the desert, which was begun by Paolo Soleri in 1970. Next I’ll share pics from Cosanti, Soleri’s home and studio in Scottsdale, Arizona.

I feel like I cannot do justice to the Soleri-Arcosanti-Cosanti story here—I just hope that the images will be enough to incite some boning up of your own. The bells for which Arcosanti is mostly known are considered just one means of supporting the Arcosanti project, which is intended to have broader implications for building, and for humans.

Basically, Soleri came from Italy as a student of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West. He fell hard for the desert at that time, and he realized that he had to come up with an entirely new way of thinking about dwelling in extreme environments and about accommodating the exploding population, which would soon have to figure out how to dwell in all kinds of places, close together.

Arcology, that is, architecture coherent with ecology, was the design system Soleri devised. Arcology advocates:

-design cities to maximize the interaction and accessibility associated with an urban environment
-minimize the use of energy, raw materials and land, reducing waste and environmental pollution
-allow interaction with the surrounding natural environment.

Among the most innovative building techniques he put into practice at Arcosanti was large scale silt-casting, or earthcasting. The domes and dwellings you see here were built this way. The builder forms piles of silt (sand + clay) as scaffolding, on which he may carve designs and lay down pigment, then pours concrete. When the concrete sets, the silt is removed, leaving behind the carved impressions and colors. You can learn how to do this at a workshop at Arcosanti or you can read about it in a nice little book, What if? Quaderno 3.

Earthcasting formwork for the Ceramics Studio roof at Cosanti, 1958

Earthcasting formwork for retaining wall by the North Apse at Cosanti, 1964

The soaring shapes, carvings, and colors made possible by earthcasting serve beautifully, both functionally and ornamentally. Lisa and I particularly enjoyed the ceiling of our little Med-ish overnight bunker ($30-50 a night).

It was super pleasant to stay in that room, at the end of the various construction sites. It felt safe there in contrast to how we first felt when we landed. Arriving at night and walking through various buildings in states of half construction, the whole place seemed abandoned except for a band of young, homogenous, typical of the West barely bearded wanderers of uncertain intention gathering in the cavernous eating hall.

Over breakfast, and in daylight, the magnificence of the project was clearer to see and the regular residents came out for the day’s work–on construction and fabricating bells and ceramics. But we were still faced with thinking about how Arcosanti has been going on for many years, and clearly the utopian vision for society is no closer to coming real, nor is Arcosanti providing a major habitation solution.

Soleri, though, when we interviewed him, said he was hopeful for the future of what he began.

His primary residence is still Cosanti, down in Scottsdale, but he comes up frequently to visit the project. His small studio/apartment, by the way, was the real architectural highlite for us. Featuring this kitchen zone—faucet from pipe with drainage coil, hurrah!

There is a small community of people living at Arcosani, building, teaching, and learning about Arcology and ceramic and bronze crafts.

Soleri, who is 92, passed down leadership of Arcosanti and Cosanti last year. On the day we left, Soleri was giving a speech to a gathered crowd, and the ideas of Arcology seemed just as vital as ever, even if the experiment of Arcosanti seems uncertain. Can it survive without the helmsmanship of its visionary founder? Well, survive and develop into a center of learning relevent to our times, or is it another ambitious, beautiful artifact? Worth a trip to puzzle it out yourself, that’s for sure.

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