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The Leader is Good, The Leader is Great

Yesterday I visited Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri’s experimental design for living located about an hour north of Phoenix. An ambitious attempt to fulfill the promise of Soleri’s thoughts on arcology (architecture + ecology), It’s a must-see for anyone interested in architecture and urban planning. (If you’re interested in what it looks like and what it’s about, go to the Arcosanti website and click around for a little, then come back here.)

Arcosanti attempts to create a sustainable living environment. It explores new forms and new methods of construction that allow for a more efficient use of the environment. Though such ideals aren’t new, one can’t help but be impressed by the progress Soleri and his team have made, with a set of structures that can support 100 residents and an additional number of guests.

I participated in a guided tour through the compound, lead by the rainbow-knit-hatted Jeff.
Jeff from Arcosanti

I didn’t take a lot of pictures on the tour — most of what’s interesting is on the Arcosanti site. And while the architecture is remarkably compellilng, I found myself more intrigued by some meta-elements to the whole experience.

While rattling off the site’s history and leading us through the buildings, Jeff couldn’t get a sentence out without some verb phrase about Paolo: “Paolo says,” “Paolo believes,” “Paolo designed,” etc. etc. I couldn’t get out of my head that episode of The Simpsons where the family joins the Movementarians, and all utterances refer to The Leader.

Paolo’s arcology theory is filled with notions about building and urban planning. But when I asked Jeff about Paolo’s involvement in Arcosanti as a society, he revealed that Paolo isn’t really interested in the community aspects. Paolo, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, is really only interested in the buildings. In the design of things. Even when it comes to urban planning, his view is an economic one — his statements always refer to materials, efficiencies, practicalities, and resources. He seems to see people as economic units in this larger organism, not as, well, people living their lives. This definitely smacked of visionary architect arrogance, classically exhibited by Wright or Le Corbusier, who believed they knew better about how people SHOULD live, in the process ignoring how people actually live.

I was also surprised that Paolo doesn’t really cite influences (at least, not according to Jeff). Apart from the classic Romans, who built a remarkably society with simple materials, Paolo’s ideas are all his own. Which seems needlessly original — there’s a history of ecologically sound architecture all throughout the planet. And, in fact, it seems that Saleri is in some ways rediscovering these vernacular forms. Not far from Arcosanti one can find centuries-old pueblos built by a variety of peoples, utilizing simple materials and providing for its inhabitants for generations on end. The most famous of these being cliff dwellings such as those found in Mesa Verde or Canyon de Chelly.

Arcosanti housing structure:

(from the Arcosanti website)

Cliff dwelling at Canyon de Chelly:
White House at Canyon de Chelly
(Picture by me)

And some of the residences I saw (here are their rooftops):
Rooftops at Arcosanti
(Photo by me)

were reminiscent of Navajo hogans:

(Photo from here.)

Jeff himself was something of an icon of the Arcosanti experience. Like many, if not most, attempts at new forms of utopian living, Arcosanti is filled with idealistic young white folks. One fears that such a make-up is not really sustainable.

I don’t mean to be down on Arcosanti — it’s a remarkable place with some valuable ideals. But I’m skeptical of its longevity. From what I have learned living with a woman who studies intentional communities and utopias, it was clear that Arcosanti classically fit this mold — an older male with visionary ideas and a desire for total control gets around him a flock of wide-eyed well-meaning acolytes. These communities survive as long as their leader is around to provide the spark, the catalyst for action. Paolo is 84 years old. It’s clearly a very open question as to what will happen when he passes on.

I asked Jeff about this. He mentioned how Arcosanti has a leadership council of residents who had been on-site for over 10 years, and that they will carry on when Paolo is gone. Of course, with this, only time will tell.

Oh, and I dig these ceramic panels I saw lying around in the ceramics apse:
Ceramic Panels

  1. It really is a fascinating place. I dropped in for a visit as part of a drive through the southwest US. Hopefully you had a chance to enjoy a meal at cafeteria. I was impressed with the concept, and of course the views, but wasn’t sure about the longevity of the structures. Some of them didn’t seem to be enduring so well. Looks like they could easily fall into disrepair if the community wasn’t able to maintain a critical mass of residents/laborers. Wonder if they have a wireless network. 😉

  2. Josh is the name of the guy who gave you the tour. I’m actually jeff, but i don’t wear a rainbow hat and nor do I believe everything the man behind the concrete slab says. I’d rather look at the art then the politics

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