A Modest Proposal for a “Grounded” Plan for “Arcology Realization”

An email sent to several Arco Alum noted a lack of groundedness in the discussions that we have been having since the Sept 20-21 Soleri Memorial gathering at Arcosanti. This got me thinking about some past ideas about how the lack of grounding in our lives can lead to psychological dis-association in terms of how when we lose connection with the real we find it difficult to “get real.” Grounding in this use to me means a way of thinking about how to do something that is based on commonly accepted understandings of reality and how to do things.

Anyone who offers a radical or alternative way to do things, needs to be able to demonstrate how they will work in the context of prevailing socioeconomic strategies and approaches. If you are not able to do this, you run the risk of not being taken seriously and becoming lumped together with a long progressive history of failed “Utopian” experiments to build a idealized society where social justice, ecological responsibility and economic equality are the prevailing norms that govern that society’s operation.

With Arcosanti we face the need to “ground” a project that has lost its grounding through a long process of disassociation from the everyday reality of how things get done. In order to do this we have to figure out how to empower ourselves. This includes developing our own personal grounding so that other may trust to put the change forward at Arcosanti on an organizational level that would assure a reversal of the prevailing organizational strategies that seem not to be effective.

What is Empowerment and How Might it Ground us
Such a notion of groundedness or a lack thereof relates to a larger issue in our lives. A relatively new term has emerged – Empowerment – that has so resonated it has become a Buzzword. Regardless of its over-use, its still useful in considering both how we empower ourselves  (self-empowerment) and how that leads to other’s empowerment when we seek to work together effectively to solve a common problem or challenge. When people do not have the support or a way to support themselves and their network to become empowered, it is difficult to get grounded and focused and make a commitment to do something relevant to their dreams and vision. I see empowerment as not just a psychological process but something rooted in spiritual self-realization and destiny.

Understanding How Arcosanti Might have Lost its Grounding
Paolo Soleri after a high level of success in creating a modest, but still inspirational model for reversing the damaging trends of suburbanization and materialism in America, in the 70s, was hit with a series of set backs. This included the death of his wife in 1981, when she died relatively early in life of cancer. Many saw her as a grounding force for Soleri that kept his male often obtuse and reactionary brashness in check with a more feminine nurturing and compassionate energy. Some believe it was this more nurturing energy that kept the Arcosanti/Arcology vision in balance so that it could exist as a inspirational model for as many people as it did in the 70s.

The project’s stagnation or even some might say a gradual downward spiral over the years can be tied to a shift away from this sense of a grounded reality of what can be accomplished (practical idealism) and towards the unreal of putting Arcology on a intellectual and philosophical pedestal so that it stayed in the realm of “Utopian Thinking.” That is where Arcology becomes codified into our consciousness so that it becomes confined to the realm of thinking that Soleri so loathed  – that of the Utopian Intellectuals…and to see Arcosanti be typecast in this process as another in a long line of “failed Utopian experiments.”

It was Soleri’s own actions of removing any practical import from the thinking and actions of Cosanti Foundation, that led Arcosanti to became more of a storyline for fantasy and science fiction thinking, than any serious plan or proposal to develop a more integrated and innovative approach to urban design and human habitat construction. Discussions with Soleri (such as with School of Thought) revolved around repetitive and rambling discussions about Materialism, Consumerism and Suburban Sprawl on the one hand and on the other, the Grand Delusions of the spiritual and religious side of humanity. I found that materialism-spiritual duality was what guided this man’s transition from a hands-on visionary who was also a doer creating many inspirational architectural icons and artifacts at Cosanti to someone who was more abstract and rambling in his thinking. As he grew into old age it seems that he lost his ability to present fresh ideas and stimulate people on an truly inspirational level intellectually.

As Soleri gave up on the idea of spirit, he embraced a more mechanistic way of seeing and doing things. This included the embedded and very stubborn notion that Arcosanti could not function as a a community – at least not until his ideal architectural design of Arcology had manifested at Arcosanti. The result was that for 40 years, the idea of the Arcosanti Ideal was molded and guided almost exclusively by Paolo Soleri (in what many included Soleri termed a kind of dictatorship) with the people living there basically on the sidelines. Some became quite critical of this power relationship equating the role of the workers and residents of Arcosanti as basically servant to master – as serfs, house slaves or indentured servants making this man’s dream a reality.

There emerged an increasing contradiction in the project’s designs and everyday operation that mirrored an internal struggle with him. In fact it appeared very much that he was a man in two worlds; that of the new consciousness and paradigm, but also stuck in the old with a strong imprint of his only true mentor Frank Lloyd Wright. The new man Soleri was guided by non linear designs that not only mimicked, but flowed around and embraced natural forms – as is evident at Cosanti. The key point in the shift of the mythos of the Soleri story appears to be with the death of his wife Colly.

After Colly’s death, it seems that old man Soleri fully and decisively emerged, increasingly embracing a monolithic, mega-structure architecture defined by large and linear modern forms that while often circular were ecologically inspired only in superficial ways. Indeed the very scale of most of his Arcology designs express this problem in that they were not to ecological or human scale.

A lot of designers believe that the way we design things reflects our thinking, consciousness and belief system. It appears that the evolution of his mega-structure style of architecture mirrored his reluctance to find collaborative and collective ways for bringing in talent. His reluctance to share power with the community at Arcosanti, exposed the rise of old man/old world Soleri and the demise of the more engaged and grounded young Soleri. What emerged was a leadership style that had more in common with Phil, the Duck Dynasty Patriarch, than with a leadership style which progressives might expect in a model Utopia.

I guess what I expect as a progressive is a leader that encourages the rise of a consensus culture that embraces and values the dissenting view, seeing this as the foundation of a true democracy or democratic process among a group of people. This includes embracing and cultivating a diversity of ideas within the Arcosanti/Arcology community to create a culture that values critical thinking that is both inward and outward oriented. Also important is to cultivate a Collective Intelligence that is not dominated by any one particular name of personality but rather reflects a grounded group consensus in which the process of making decisions is shared and not dominated by a group at the top of that culture or network.

Rethinking Arcosanti 5000
Cosanti Foundation says Arcosanti 5000 is the official plan but almost no one (at least no one who matters financially) takes it seriously (yes its particularly challenging for the tour guides because people are always asking questions about why only a small portion of the project is complete after 40 years).

Arcosanti as an aspiring prototype Arcology often seemed quite absurd to the conventionally trained rational professional. A major critique of Arcosanti 5000 (the plan designed to make Arcosanti become a model or prototype Arcology) is that it was conceived without any consideration of the tools or methodologies used to build large modern buildings and construction projects. The developer was loathed and disregarded as a greed driven appendage of capitalism, that led us to suburban car culture model of the modern American Dream.  Yet nothing was offered to replace that model and present a convincing alternative development model for building sustainable cities.

A Reformulation Plan for Arcosanti
Now that Paolo Soleri has died, I suggest that all the things he and his staff put forward as the goal and mission of the project now has to be reconsidered and Reformulated. I would not throw out everything Soleri had in mind, but I assert that reformulation is an apt term in that we need to develop some process for fundamentally reevaluating the existing designs that are being put forward as the project goals.

A ground up (bottom up review) reformulation plan would look at the following:

  • How to finance such a grand scheme project like Arcosanti 5000.
  • A clear timeline for how to build such an ambitious project
  • A realistic budget, practical financial foundation or business plan
  • A comprehensive team of experts that would be needed to execute such a complex and cutting edge project with consideration to the complex engineering involved.
  • A clear or convincing explanation as to how the project would pay for itself and sustain an economy large enough for 5000 people.

The plans for Arcosanti need to be totally revamped, because the project will never be taken seriously by the people who we need to make it a model sustainable habitat for humanity and transform Arcology into a viable approach to building sustainable cities.

Arcosanti Critical Mass
There was an attempt to bridge the huge gap between current Arcosanti reality which has been flatlined or went into a incremental level of growth and this bold ambitious attempt to build a ecocity of 5000 people, its called Arcosanti Critical Mass. This intermediate state of Arcosanti was designed to create the basic infrastructure for what would be needed in a Arcology type development including a population of 500 people. It was not clear where the 500 people number came but possibly it came from Soleri’s assumption that this was the minimum population for the amenities that would be needed to consider Arcosanti as a Arcology. My suggestion would be to move away from a fixation on the Arcosanti 5000 and focus on the more modest and realistic goal of building the Critical Mass scale and scaling that number down from 500 to 150-300. Key to even this more modest number would be to convincingly explain how an economy will develop, sustain itself and thrive in Arcosanti’s relatively geographically isolated location.

Issues with Building it Now
The to “BUILD IT NOW” discussion that Alumni participated at the Soleri Memorial in Sept at Arcosanti expressed the need to build something anything and as quickly as possible. I understand this desire but my concern is that it is part of the meme (“Arcosanti is a construction site and not a community” and “to play the music you must first build the instrument”) that Soleri perpetuated. Looking at the memetic patterns in society my view is that he actually borrowed this notion from mainstream capitalist society. We see this when building becomes an obsessive and overriding sign of progress and growth that steamrollers over any real, long term consideration of what the development process has on the lives of the people who are supposedly its beneficiaries.

A Professional Business Plan for Arcosanti Critical Mass must Ensure not just a Return on Investment but a Return on Quality
So we need to put together a professional plan for moving the project forward that is realistically scaled in relation to what we have now and also financially viable in relation to offering some compelling research or income potential for investors while also ensuring a good quality of life for the people living at Arcosanti. So for a socially conscious development we have to consider not only the financially driven Return on Investment to investors, but also the socially driven Return on Quality (of Life) to stakholders.

There are several important considerations for this kind of reformulation of Arcosanti:

  1. What do the existing people involved think about this process
  2. What about the needs of the people who would be living, working and shopping in these buildings when and if they are built
  3. Making the whole thing seem realistic and palatable for investors or donors.

Selecting a Team of Experts
To address what has been lacking in the past planning of the Arcosanti’s becoming the world’s first prototype Arcology is to form a core “Team of Experts.” They would be selected from diverse backgrounds with the primary requirement that they share Soleri’s and our commitment to develop a model Arcology that is a compact and sustainable model of urban development. This group would go through the key architectural components of Arcosanti 5000 (which is the plan for the completion of Arcosanti) and rethink the entire concept from the bottom up.

Arcosanti Critical Mass needs a Strong Business Plan
To sum up, the future development plans of Arcosanti must be redesigned so that that they can be taken seriously by the people who have the resources to rebuild momentum for the project. The needs of the stakeholders (and particularly the residents of Arcosanti) must also be a core consideration of the new project management dynamic. Ensuring Paolo Soleri’s legacy will also be a consideration in this process. Regardless developing a strong and viable business plan will inevitably involve a fundamental rethink of many of the assumptions that led to the existing goals of the project in order for Arcosanti and Cosanti Foundation to realize its mission.

2 thoughts on “A Modest Proposal for a “Grounded” Plan for “Arcology Realization”

  1. Thanks, Jeff. Among the many things I still ponder is the “why” — months gone by since our reunion have not shown a single commnique, answer to questions, notes and letters (or even follow-up on offers like the one I made to return to relieve current staffing needs in the cafe) from any staff or board member. Surely the needs have not evaporated, and people are shwing up to do somethings . . . but communicating with their supporters does not seem to be on the to do list. We are waiting for the promised
    “a five year plan”?

    • Thanks for the supportive comments Debra. I suggest that reversing the trend I have experienced in living at Arco for over 5 years is not an easy process. I still wonder how well I am in communicating my feelings and experiences but for me good writing does not come naturally. In fact sometimes I feel like I have a disability that keeps me from writing and thinking in a fully actualized and effective way. Regardless I keep trying and what I suggest is that we work on putting together some documentation among a group of like minded folks in the network. This could include a 5 year strategy plan.

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