Is Arcosanti really the “City of the Future?”

Motherboard (a youth oriented hipster styled magazine that is a subset of Vice) recent on October 30s published an article about Arcosanti titled The City of the Future is Hiding in the Arizona Desert. The article featured an interview with Cosanti Foundation President Jeffrey Stein providing the familiar narrative…

The assertion put forward in liberal media like the Atlantic is that “The City of the Future is Already Here” and the mainstream society just hasn’t been looking very well to find it. Arcosanti suffers from a victim complex that its been neglected. Soleri felt he’d been neglected by the mainstream society, depriving him of the funding and support needed to actually build Arcosanti as the Prototype Arcology that he intended in its original founding to be the city of the future. He saw himself as a failure because he didn’t live to see his magnum opus life work fully materialize into a functional Arcology model.

In central Arizona there exists an experimental town called Arcosanti. It’s built on the principles of Arology, which combines architecture and ecology to envision a city that works in tandem with the Earth’s resources. In this short documentary, The Atlantic goes inside this distinctive urban space to understand how Arcosanti plans to reconstruct how humans envision cities. Author: Sam Price-Waldman

There are several ways to address this idea of Arcosanti being the “city of the future.” One is to say its not even a city but a small settlement of 50-70 people, so why are we considering it in much more grandiose terms? It is compact and interesting, and has some aspects of what compact urban living should or even might look in the future, yes but there is no critical mass level of development. This idea of what it will actually take to create a Critical Mass level of development (which was pegged arbitrarily at 500 but I suggest 150 is a good number to consider Arcosanti as a urban model if other goals could be met as well in terms of culture, social, economic development and sustainability) has been talked about (to death actually) but for reasons described more deeply in this essay, its never been achieved. Soleri acknowledged this, making a clear distinction between what it is now and what he aspired it to be as the “world’s first prototype Arcology.” I suspect he wouldn’t agree with the idea of linking Arcosanti to the idea of city or even urban life as it is quite isolated and small in a rural area of the semi-desert of Arizona.

In my view any serious futuristic city model would necessarily would have real ecocity bonafides. It would have many cutting edge sustainable technologies to make it a center of innovation in the green economy and ecological design fields, a “walk the talk” model of sustainable development and living. My tendency is to get a visceral reaction to this kind of portrayal about Arcosanti, because I felt having lived there for over 4 years that real efforts to develop appropriate technologies have never really been encouraged or considered at Arcosanti. Soleri never encouraged these sort of technologies the ones you would expect a sustainable future city to have because its takes away from status as the creator of the Arcology. We got into countless debates about this at School of Thought when he was alive. His argument at the turn of the 21st century, at least, (when solar panels were much more expensive that they are now) was that they had not developed enough to make them practical. He called them “trinkets” as a way to devalue them and their significance.


In both the Atlantic Video and the Motherboard article the implication is that Arcosanti is the City of the Future. Its already achieved by hard work, accomplishment and merit that status.

Years ago when I was at Arcosanti I saw the problem emerging in that he was talking in a way I felt exaggerated the accomplishments of Arcosanti and Paolo Soleri in relation to the Ecological Design field. I recall his thesis in discussions with residents revolved around the idea that Arcosanti by its nature encourages less consumption. This could be explained in terms of the frugal ethic that Soleri put forward and also the aesthetic that might reinforce that and finally an active system of design that was passive solar oriented.

All these are potential aspects that might reduce consumption and was probably what Stein was referring to in his article. However, the problem is that Soleri never had any enthusiasm for the effort to create the actual sustainable technologies or best practices at Arcosanti. This was because Soleri was the type of person who purely focused – as a narcissist type A personality often does – in his own work as a designer that was all that mattered in the building of this so called “City of the Future.” He could never see engineering as important in the construction of a his project, because it was about him as the architect and creator. Possibly he rejected real collaboration with equals – as his daughter Daniela Soleri claims in a recent essay “Sexual Abuse Its You Him and His Work,” – because it would take away his role and status as the sole creator and controller of Arcosanti and its destiny as the “City of the Future.”

In the article the writer goes on to describe his experience talking with Stein in the Soleri Apartment:

As Stein explained, the sun heats up the air in the greenhouse so that during the cold desert winters, this air rises and provides a source of 120-degree heat in the form of fragrant, oxygen-rich air through the trapdoor. Gesturing at the windows of the apartment, Stein explained how Soleri had placed them so that the Sun would illuminate different parts of his studio at different times of the day and year, providing a free and reliable source of heat and light for its occupant.

These were just a few of the design choices that demonstrated Soleri’s masterful ability to harness the power of the local environment for human use without damaging that environment in the process.

I see this as a bit of exaggeration in terms of just how Masterful Soleri was, but understandable to this point in that his job is to be the “promoter in chief” as President of Cosanti Foundation. And I do consider it to be one of the better designed spaces that incorporated a small greenhouse at the level below that that in the winter allowed warm air to come into the apartment and heat it.

I also do agree that Soleri was part of a movement to promote more conscious living in the 70s that included passive solar design and other solar and alternative tech, but what’s important to emphasize that it was always more conceptual that practical at Arcosanti.

Now this is where I start to get concerned….

Indeed, Soleri was so adept at this practice that the only air conditioners needed on site are in the archive for preservation purposes, even though temperatures in the desert can reach nearly 120 F during the summer.

Whoa!!! The writer here seems to be exaggerating the level of heat in the desert around and at Arcosanti. Max Temps at Arcosanti at summer are usually in the 100-105 possibly 110 during extreme heat events. At Cosanti in Phoenix (which is a completely different climate zone), its possible to see temps around 117 and in extreme cases 120s.

In 2012, when I last lived there, I recall we had about 15-18 window air conditioners throughout the site. I remember talking about this with dismay as something that was dramatically increasingly our energy/carbon footprint and as inconsistent with Soleri’s notion of frugality. However at the same time I’m not sure how much people should suffer if the heat is making them miserable especially when people who commit themselves to Arcosanti already sacrifice so much.

The article seems to imply that the buildings are so well designed that AC was never even needed. That was baloney from my experience and shows that the writer didn’t do his homework about what he was writing about making it more of PR piece that real hard hitting journalism.

Building energy efficient buildings is more than simply situating the building south facing to the sun or adding thermal mass to absorb the solar radiation heating the space, its about a comprehensive approach to the design and engineering of the building to minimize energy costs and use. There were a few spaces that were sheltered from the sun and heat of summer but also provided some net gain that saved energy during winter. This however seemed like it resulted more from a luck of the draw or a crap shoot, rather than any carefully crafted and engineered building that was designed applied as a design or engineering methodology. For every space that seemed relatively comfortable year round, I could give examples of badly insulated spaces that were poorly lit because they had no solar gain and which kept in heat in in the summer but let the heat out in the winter.

Passive Solar Design was the term used to describe a comprehensive system to minimize the use of external active energy system such as wood, propane, natural gas, oil or electric heaters. When I did my Ecosa Workshop in the Fall of 2000 at Arcosanti, I had the chance to talk briefly one on one with Doug Balcombe. He was considered to be of the pioneers of Passive Solar Design into a professional and respected disciple with the green building movement – he basically formalized and mainstreamed the field. Yet he wasnt impressed, when we talked about it, especially when he got confirmation from me at the lacking of real engineering put into the design of the structures. He said what I told him confirmed in his mind that it was more of an aesthetic design process rather than a comprehensive engineering one in which the building is holistically designed to both capture the solar energy and keep it inside the building envelope through energy efficient technologies and practices.

Daylighting – Allowing for Natural Lighting 

This is also the reason that there are surprisingly few light bulbs or solar panels at Arcosanti—Soleri was able to keep energy requirements to a minimum with architectural decisions that allowed for plenty of natural light.

Some spaces do have natural light, others do not. Its not clear from my perspective living there and also building it, of a consistent policy or methodology in relation to designing spaces – at any point in the process of building Arcosanti – to let in maximum natural solar light. Actually some sections of East Crescent Phase 5 (which I helped build in 2000-2003) had quite a dark and dismal feeling, due to the massive amounts of concrete and the distance from south facing windows at the front (which its important to note were partially obstructed by these huge concrete panels in front of them).

  1. Its disputable that any active design process in the building of Arcosanti let to any real empirical impact in terms of reduction in energy use or consumption.
  2. The notion that there are few solar because of some design strategy is absurd and false. There are not many panels because the Foundation has not had the money or the drive to make going towards alternative energy sources a priority in the formulation of its policies and day to day activities.

To me, this kind of sloppy reporting represents the sort of exaggeration of reality that many now call “Fake News,” an embellishing or misrepresentation of the facts so as to pump up something in an effort to generate buzz, momentum and excitement about it in a way that benefits your work. So its like I just came all this way and I need to have something really cool to pitch to my editor and audience…It’s not based on facts or reality and its definitely about the reformulation of the existing social reality, because its resting on the “business as usual” status quo assumptions of how to do things and look at reality.

And what’s worse is that it seemed like there was no effort with anyone at Cosanti Foundation to correct these false assumptions made the reporters about the reality of Arcosanti. Indeed a key problem with how Arcosanti portrayed itself during the Soleri era was that he sought to create a conception of his work and that of Arcosanti which was not connected with the real facts on the ground. But this wasn’t through any real obvious deception, like saying there were solar panels when there were not, it usually was more subtle than that. So it was come to Arcosanti to join them in creating an alternative to suburban sprawl and help make it become the world’s first prototype Arcology Ecocity.

I saw this approach to reality living at Arcosanti and was almost constantly in conflict with it, along the lines of what Noam Chomsky terms Cognitive Dissonance – that is the conflict between my critical and questioning mind and the part of me which wanted to be part of something that was an alternative to suburbia. The conflict played out in how I spoke to the public on this blog and when meeting the public during tours and also when they spent extended time there as overnight stay guests. We never were forced to lie or exaggerate about the facts about Arcosanti, but we were encouraged through study materials, notes and the narrative provided by Cosanti Foundation to present a “rosy” storyline about Arcosanti. I had issues with this portrayal of Arcosanti when even when I wasn’t actively giving tours. Its something that stuck with me not only when I lived there but it left a indelible mark on me as a critical thinker.

We cannot in seeking to create a more just and sustainable society exaggerate or embellish our work and accomplishment. Thus, I used care to present Arcosanti in a way that was fair to consider its and its founder’s flaws, but also that despite these flaws it was a remarkable place that is quite unique aesthetically and architecturally in the world.

A major problem with President Stein’s approach to promoting Arcosant is his resurrection of the subtle way in which Soleri exaggerated what he was doing at Arcosanti as a way to lure more people to come to Arcosanti to visit, take workshops and possibly stay on as resident workers.  It was… “Come to Arcosanti to create an Alternative to Suburban Sprawl.” But just like with arguing whether or not Arcosanti is the city of the future, a similar ambiguity exists in defining concretely the specifics of what these terms actually mean or how they have been achieved at Arcosanti to allow Cosanti Foundation to claim them as accomplishments.

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