Arcosanti at a Crossroads: Is it a Museum and Monument to Soleri’s Legacy; an Experimental Urban Laboratory or both?

Arcosanti is at a key place in its history with a new president succeeding the founder Paolo Soleri. A little over one year ago when I was still living at Arcosanti as a resident, there was much hope regarding the fact that Soleri had finally handed over the reigns of power. The time when Soleri motivated and inspired people to come and work for him at his project to promote his idea of Arcology as a potential model for the city of the future had long passed.

The question for the project now is what is Arcosanti and why should people commit their lives to this so called city of the future? Especially if it is the case that there is no longer a strong and passionate belief (as well as a realistic and believable plan to implement them) that the plans created by its own founder Paolo Soleri will ever be realized or completed?

What had happened was part of a very gradual transformation over the last 30 years: Arcosanti went from a place labelled by Newsweek’s Art writer Douglas Davis in the 70s as the greatest experiment of urban design and development of our time, to a place where Soleri became increasingly isolated and reactionary in his thinking. The attitudes of the people living and working at Arcosanti were definitely affected by his increasingly conservative and hermit-like approach to life. While it is common to see network development, partnership and outreach as major parts of a non-profit’s work, I hardly saw any sign of this in Cosanti’s public promotional work and informational materials. Having said this, I was encouraged by the fact that the new president did seem to place an emphasis on making Arcosanti more of an educational institution and working to develop relationships with various schools and organizations to enable this movement. Possibly it will take time to reverse the go it alone approach that Soleri seemed to be most comfortable with.

One thing I admire about Soleri is that he never gave up on his belief that he was on the right side of history with regards to his sense of the evils of the car and American materialist culture. The challenge emerges when we stop theorizing about what is wrong and how to build alternative societies from a theoretical perspective and actually start to create one. He increasingly referred to his Experimental Urban Laboratory as a failure – it was not able to meet its own lofty goals that were set over 40 years at its founding. Yet the reason it seemed to many of us that it might be seen as a failure had to do with Soleri’s own blindspot. His inability to thoughtfully consider critical feedback of the project and his go it alone management style, seemed to be a major bottleneck (rather than this vague notion sometimes forwarded by Soleri that the society or the residents and alumni had somehow obstructed its progress by not taking up the cause that Soleri espoused and was fighting for).

If you are going to build a large scale project involving housing and jobs for scores of people it necessitates a lot of thought and collaboration. This is especially the case if you are building one that is a dramatic departure from the norm – its something you definitely can’t do without bringing many other people’s ideas into the mix, along with yours. He could not accept what more humble folks (humble in the sense that they were not try to build something so ambitious as creating the world’s first prototype Arcology basically on their own) might see as a simple and elementary reality of trying to figure out how to collaborate and work together with other like-minded folks to try and actually build the thing. So Arcology became distanced from the reality of the real world and pushed up into that of Utopian science fiction. If Soleri “failed” it was because as the founder of Arcology, he enforced a way of thinking about his ideas in his project that forced a retreat from the region of possibility that our minds reserve for things that can actually be achieved in our lives in the world as it now exists.

Failure though implies no hope of recovery or reform. Its does not acknowledge that making mistakes is how we learn. Arcosanti while not meeting my and other’s expectations (as well as its own), did hold a space for something greater. It is up to those who are inspired to follow in Soleri’s footsteps to find a more effective way to put forward what he pioneered.

I feel sad that I quit going to his weekly School of Thought discussion in which he discussed his ideas in a public forum open to Arcosanti residents and the public. I say that because Soleri seemed to lament the lack of community interest in his ideas – the very things that were supposed to be bring us to Arcosanti. That made me feel like I was not doing my part by showing up to his discussion and supporting him. Yet the reality is that many long term residents avoided going to School of Thought. Part of the reason for this may have been that it seemed difficult not to invite ridicule from him, when we challenged him intellectually regarding his theories as well as his vision for the future of Arcosanti.

From the time of its formation in 1970 until today, Arcosanti made a slow transformation from being a place where people actually believed they were making history working on a model for a future civilization, to a place run by an organization unclear about its reason for being, its future or even its funding.

It was hoped that the new President Jeffrey Stein – coming to Arcosanti in Sept of 2011 – would bring in new energy and ideas. Most of all though what many of us thought Arcosanti needed was courageous leadership in helping turning a new page in Arcosanti’s history.

Stein was a long term Arcosanti resident who had been at Arcosanti during its glory days int he 70s. At the pinnacle of his career, he had been involved with a known quantity – Boston Architectural College (BAC) – where he was the Dean. He had remained loyal to Soleri after all these years and stayed on the board of the Cosanti Foundation. So he was the perfect person for the job.

Its not an easy task that he has had in reforming the organization and rebuilding momentum. Most likely being a dean of a BAC, provided less experience for this challenge that I might have first thought, but still he must had some administrative challenges in managing people that could be seen as relevant to the Arcosanti situation.

The fact is “change management” – the idea of fundamentally changing and reforming an existing organization involves a strong and firm kind of leadership, because in the real world there is no time for dilly-dallying and pussyfooting around the big issues of clear and strategic management of an organization. These are qualities I increasingly saw as not being evident in the leadership approach of the new president. And that’s not to say he was necessarily wrong or doing badly in his job, just that I increasingly began to see a divergence in how we saw things and the remedies for getting Arcosanti back on track as a effective and compelling non-profit organization with a clear mission and strategy.

So long as the Cosanti Foundation is able to create its own reality – one where the bulk of its money comes from the management of the Soleri Brand including the sale of windbells, tours, special events and overnight guests – it will successfully resist real change in the management structure and philosophy. Without decisive, firm and clear leadership these changes take longer to transpire, but one way or another things will change. Its just a question of whether its changing at such a slow rate – like the pace of construction in relation to the it Arcosanti 5000 Master Plan – will navigate it into relative obscurity in relation to the problems and issues that have illuminated Soleri’s mind since he coined the termed Arcology.

If you look at the Arcosanti website, it seems the movement is towards more of an artist/architectural exhibit, museum or a “Paolo Soleri Memorial” type of future for Arcosanti. Let me be clear, I am not saying this is a bad thing, maybe its the smart and practical thing to focus on what Arcosanti does well – archiving Soleri’s works and showcasing a vision of the future called Arcology through the various models he has done over the years – but these things are not why I came to Arcosanti. It also reflects the hope on the part of the existing management that the “Soleri Brand” reflects so much unrealized value that the money from marketing his art, writings and other Paraphernalia help bridge the funding gap for the project – and without the necessity of real, fundamental and rapid change in how the project is run.

One of the challenges that goes with an ambitious vision of building a “city of the future” is that if you don’t come close to doing it, but continue to pretend its just around the corner…You begin to seem either like you are out of touch or a fool or both. Its been a dilemma for me as I have served as an ambassador to the public during my time there engaging in many discussions with the public – both in an official tour-guide capacity and unofficially as a friendly person in the cafe or onsite when people had questions. So when you associate with people making what seem to be unrealistic plans for the future, you too tend to be lumped in with that group whether you like it or not – its just human nature.

Now I am not saying that anyone is a fool – its a harsh and judgmental word and I avoid it for that reason. However if we ware to be realistic in planning and organizing the way an organization does its work we need to acknowledge the way people think – often critically and even harshly – when you pitch something to the world that is as ambitious as building the world’s first prototype Arcology. When it takes you 40 years of work building the city of the future to get the project to the point where it is 2 percent complete, maybe it is time to go back to the drawing board and rethink what it is you are trying to do?

Yet in all my time at Arcosanti, I have never seen a serious attempt to actually do a so called “bottom-up review” of the Arcosanti project and the non-profit running it, to determine whether the Arcosanti 5000 Development Plan should be revised.

More specifically this relates to the difficulty of pitching a project that has a plan for a greenhouse that is over 30 years old and does not include a strong technologically oriented team of passive solar designers and eco-engineers who actually have the background (who have academic and practical outside experiences working on state of the art sustainability projects) to ensure the viability of the project from a engineering perspective.  While the plan for the proposed Energy Apron does have a report that seems to back up the scientific hypothesis for the project, it is dated, having been done in the 1970s. Since then, to my knowledge no formal, outside, peer reviewed research has been done to back up the concept.

What I suggest is that the revitalization of this Energy Apron Greenhouse project should include a report by a panel of respect energy and passive solar design experts comparing and contrasting this proposed project with other passive solar designs trying to do similar things. This would an updating of proposal to bring the calculations and assertions up to date with current passive solar design theories, understandings and concepts.

The Energy Apron was based on Soleri’s theory of integrating an urban space so that the growing area could be connect intimately with the living and residence area.  This would have a practical aspect involving the collection of excess solar heat from a south facing greenhouse. It then would be ducted up into the Heat Duct Tunnel, which as it runs along the foundation of the East Crescent Complex warms the concrete, before exiting through a chimney back to the outside. Once the passive heating cycle had ended for the day, the duct would be closed off and sealed, allowing the residual heat absorbed by the concrete to move up through radiative heating into the living spaces of the building in the night.

Gasp! This is a lot of work and what if the people you select to be on the panel end up telling that this Energy Apron thing will never fly?  If you did not want to confront the need for a fundamental Reformulation of Arcosanti, which might involve a politically difficult process of revising plans and strategies for the project, then it might be another reason not to touch this Energy Apron thing with a ten foot pole.

If your taking the go slow noncontroversial approach to repackaging Arcosanti, it might be much easier to focus on rebuilding old models for architectural museum exhibits like the one at Paolo Soleri SMOCA (Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art) Exhibit and the one coming up at Northern Arizona University (NAU) titled Think Draw Build Sustain.  It unclear to me though at this time how such things can really measure up to any substantive effort to demonstrate a real Arcology model at Arcosanti – which is what I thought was the primary reason that Paolo Soleri created Cosanti Foundation and Arcosanti in the first place.

I am not saying that any of the above is not useful or valid or moving towards the larger vision of Arcosanti, I am just saying that I need to be more effectively convinced of this as a critical thinker. My desire is to see Arcosanti move closer to its idealistic founders vision so that it becomes part of a global movement that urgently, actively and aggressively moves humanity towards a ecologically and socially sustainable society.

4 thoughts on “Arcosanti at a Crossroads: Is it a Museum and Monument to Soleri’s Legacy; an Experimental Urban Laboratory or both?

  1. What a wealth of information on this blog!

    I am living in a streetcar suburb that was built-out around 1900 C.E. so it is walkable and I don’t need a motor-vehicle for long stretches of time. Food, recreation, transit are neaby. However, I have to endure traffic noise, the noise of people warming up their autos, and pollution trapped by inversions.

    I live in a small nondescript bungalow on a small lot and because it has solid brick walls there are heating demands, (although less than some of my neighbors). You know how it goes. Sub-divide a parcel of land, excavate, build an indvidual foundation,add floor joists, walls, ceiling joists, roof rafters, shingles, etc. If I were surrounded by neighbors with abutting walls and floors/ceilings the delta/temp would be near zero and material demands would be so less. I think we get the housing that is potentially the most profitable. No?

    I sometimes think that played out pit mines or sites of mountain top removal mining could be used as arcology locations. The under lying geo-formations might support a hyperstructure and the tailings might be used as aggregate in ferro-concrete. Any excavation that might be needed is probably already done.People are developing cement making processes that entrain CO2 vs. release it so building could conceivable reduce climate change.

    • Thanks for your comments. My thought is that one challenge for the Arcology movement is to get over the heavy ideological approach of Soleri in terms of his outright rejection and demonization of the single family home. My feeling is that it is better to lead by example rather than to come across in a tone that might be misconstrued so in that vein I would like to recast the debate and look at the possibility that there can be a suburb that is able to overcome car culture and be a model for the post-industrial world.

      Now in terms of sites for Arcologies I really like the way you are thinking. Actually there are examples of this having been done such as Mont Cenis Academy and Germany where they constructed an ecological design training school and administrative center on top of an old coal mine. Mont Cenis is basically a building within building and could be considered an Arcology design or similar to many of Soleri’s Arcology designs but without a permanent community inside.

      Finally in relation to your last item eco friendly cement I have done some research on this and would love to hear more about it.

      Thanks again


  2. Wonderful piece Jeff! I often talked to media about this situation, and during an Ops meeting many years ago, I raised the topic as a means of setting our direction with Arcosanti. I firmly believe that Arcosanti must not become a historical landmark…unless it’s designated as such for an ‘old-town’ within the larger Arcosanti. More power to you with your important work.

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