Thursday, February 21, 2008


While working in a library when I was in high school, I came across an oversized book that had been stored above a bookcase for years gathering dust. Upon opening it and realizing what it was all about, I had one of those feelings I sometimes get when talking to a crazy person who is nevertheless on to something. Paolo Soleri is on to something. 
That something is the blending of architecture (and city planning) and ecology: Arcology. While many cities are now attempting to clean themselves up and make themselves "green," the traditional layout of a city limits these efforts. Soleri's solution: the Hyper Building. Gone are the sprawling suburbs. Gone are the cars that get people through segregated communities of strangers. Gone is the isolated man, alone with his insatiable consumer appetite and mistrustfulness of his neighbors. Gone is much of the waste involved in getting energy to each of these separate people. The land once paved and housed over is freed up for agriculture and nature conservation. People walk past one another and chat with their neighbors. They live and work in an enormous building that nevertheless has a small environmental footprint. Sounds like a responsible society to me, which is why it does not exist. 
For now, there is the starting point: Arcosanti, where optimistic people are building an "Urban Laboratory" in the Arizona dessert, mostly from the proceeds of ceramic bells and donations. The NY Times wrote about it last year: 

In 1976, Newsweek declared: “As urban architecture, Arcosanti is probably the most important experiment undertaken in our lifetime.” “Undertaken” being the key word — then and now. Completion has legendarily eluded Arcosanti. Built in stages and chronically underfinanced, the place exists in a permanent state of half-doneness.

What was once the future of intelligently designed communities has morphed into something less optimistic: a stalled revolution in urban planning or a moldering relic of impractical idealism, depending on whom you ask. Often enough it's referred to as Mr. Soleri's “desert utopia,” and as with all utopias, reality doesn't always match the blueprints...

...But aging visions of the future have a singular appeal, and at Arcosanti, it's possible to enjoy the hopefulness without betraying it. It is not cynicism to find a special beauty in what hasn't yet come to pass.

(creative commons photo attributed to Flickr user CodyR)

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