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The Arcosanti Project
by Wes Ozier


If you’ve lived in Arizona for a while, you may have heard of the Arcosanti project but don’t really know what it is. If you have been interested in and studying ecodesign and intentional community for a while, you may have heard of the Arcosanti Project but don't know what it is. Some people think the Arcosanti Project is an artist colony, some think it is a commune, some think it is a bell factory and some think it is a city hidden in the desert. I've even met people who thought the Arcosanti Project was a NASA test site like the Biosphere II, and others who thought it was a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture co-op), and many who thought it was only a work of fiction. Well, what is the Arcosanti Project? Fortunately, I lived there for four years and so I can give you a first hand account of what the Arcosanti Project actually is.

Arcosanti is the worlds first prototype Arcology.

So what does that mean?

The Wright Brother’s airplane was a prototype which flew one guy about 50 feet; a meager accomplishment, but from their work we now have modern jet air travel and moon launches. So Arcosanti, as a prototype, is a small version of an Arcology so one day we can develop a true Arcology living to its full potential, perhaps even on the moon...ok, perhaps not that extreme.

Architect Dr. Paolo Soleri coined the phrase Arcology, and yes, Dr. Soleri is still alive; he is a Nonagenarian, meaning he's over 90 years old and aside from some hearing issues  is quite spry for his, or any age. In 1970, Dr. Soleri began the Arcosanti project to prototype his architectural design theory of Arcology.

Arcology is made from two words: Architecture + Ecology. I consider Arcology to be the Urban Design Concept of eco-design There is, in my opinion, little work on the question of what truly ecologically coherent cities, capable of housing millions, would be like and that is where Arcology comes in.

The foremost concept to Arcology is density. Cities today suffer from a pathological urban sprawl, fueled by the automobile and the desire to get back to nature. In most cities, nearly two-thirds of the built-over surface is roads and parking lots. If you think this claim is grandiose, the next time you are driving down a major road take a look at how much area around you is road and parking lot, and how little is actually buildings. As the roads sprawl-out and chews-up the natural environment, people want to move back to nature. To do so, we create the modern-day suburb, often named after whatever natural vista was paved over to build the suburb and its attendant strip mall, such as Shady Pines, Twin Lakes, or Pine Canyon. As the suburbs chew-up nature, we go further out into nature to create more suburbs and pave more roads to get to them. Ad Nauseum!

Now, imagine eliminating the roads and parking lots and bringing the buildings together. The buildings would be on a third as much surface area and so close it would be a dense environment. You could easily walk from place to place instead of driving and you would need only your own two feet. There is a difference between density and crowding. Density is the intelligent integration of all your structures, one building flowing into another. For example, at Arcosanti there is an amphitheater, surrounding the theater is a three-story building providing apartments, a classroom, a community room and the administrative offices of the project. I could literally step outside of my door onto my porch and would have a box seat to the jazz concert, and my work place in the office was 30 seconds away. Imagine having a 30-second commute to work!

The dense environment brings the nature right to your doorstep, so you don’t have to sprawl-out into a suburb to get back to it. Pristine land is literally a minute’s walk away. Everywhere at Arcosanti there are breathtaking views, and you’ve never seen the sunset, or the awe-inspiring beauty of a lightning storm until you see it from atop the Arcosanti Vaults.

Agriculture is an integral part of an Arcology, not only in fields and gardens but integrated into the architecture itself. My apartment had a lush grapevine for shade, a tamed rose bush climbing up the wall to reduce solar gain and an herb garden at my door step. The urban agriculture makes a beautiful environment that stays cooler in the summer, and provides food from built over space. How many agricultural niches do you see running along side roads or highways? At the foot of Arcosanti, green houses and an all organic farm can provide fresh vegetables right out of the dirt. One of the greenhouses is even used as an apartment, combining an agricultural space and a living space together into one structure (density!).

Arcosanti seems to be lacking in some of the details that people expect to see out of “sustainability”. There are very few solar panels, there is no wind power, no eco-machines, and the whole thing is built from concrete. If it is lacking in these details how is it quote and un-quote sustainable? The main concept behind Arcosanti is about designing leaner 'containers' for our social environments. One could put solar panels all over, but if your buildings are still hyper-consumptive then you've only traded one problem for another. The designs at Arcosanti are about building structures and environments that take up less surface area, where life within them consumes less energy, and fewer resources are needed to maintain an active and vibrant cultural space, and where less nature is impacted.

Is the Arcosanti Project an intentional community is probably the biggest, and on going, raging debate about the project. Paolo is aware of, and counts on the fact that one side effect of density is the sense of community. In a sprawling city so much of our time is spent isolated from our friends and neighbors in our cars, in our single family homes and shopping at the malls, that we loose touch with those around us. In an Arcology, the closeness of neighbors and facilities allows a flourishing of community.

Really the answer to this community question depends on how you define intentional community. Arcosanti does have an intention. It intends to be a project where staff and workshop participants contribute to the construction of this new vision of architecture which can be shown to and hopefully inspire a design revolution in the world, and it's administration and organization is based around maintaining that intention. To live there you have to work there, in other words to enjoy the project you have to contribute to it full time. While the vast majority of intentional communities started around the same time as Arcosanti used a consensus based model many of them are now disbanded and the Arcosanti Project has been kept alive for the past 40 years by use of a hierarchal management model. Instead of an equity buy-in model most people expect from an intentional community all residents at Arcosanti pay a monthly 'co-use' fee, when I was there it was $110.00/mo, and apartments are allocated based on seniority. So while the Arcosanti project doesn't follow all of the models of intentional community that most people have come to expect, it has adopted the models that work for it's intention.

The project does house a lively community, ask the people who live and play there everyday. When I lived at Arcosanti there was an average of around 60-70 people living there, that's a bigger population than most 'intentional communities'. Personally I feel you don't need a power structure telling you you are a community to be one, and the tight knit community was one of the main reasons I lived there for four years. That and an access to a vibrant social life with things like monthly concerts in the amphitheater outside my apartment, meeting visitors and students from around the world, having theme parties, and community meals. Perhaps one of my favorite things was sitting on top of the vaults with all my friends and neighbors after dinner and watching the sunset every day. As in any community, it is not without it's challenges, but there are also many rewards to living in such a close, intentional, and beautiful space with like minded people. Long term living at the Arcosanti project is not for everyone, but I absolutely believe everyone should try living there for awhile. Even if it's not the long term place for you I'm sure it will open your mind to a whole new positive vision of how to live in harmony with the planet and with others.

It is impossible for me to truly describe Arcosanti; you have to see it for yourself. I promise it will simultaneously blow and expand your mind. For those ecologists out there who say they never want to live in cities, Arcosanti will give you a vision of an urban lifestyle that integrates city life and natural life, the same for you urbanists out there. For those of you interested in intentional community Arcosanti can also provide you a look into the importance of the built environment and community creation. Arcosanti is open to the public and quite visitor friendly. There are daily tours, a café open for lunch and dinner (with vegan options), and guest rooms for $25 a night. I recommend you find a weekend with a concert or event and rent a guest room. While there, meet the residents, eat at the café, stop by the bakery, take a splash in the pool, and take a tour and a hike. Enjoy the whole weekend! Every Wednesday from 4:00-5:30 you could even meet Dr. Soleri. For those interested in a more substantial visit, Arcosanti offers five-week workshops that could change your life.

For more information about the Arcosanti project and a schedule of events visit their website, www.arcosanti.org.



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About the Author

William (Wes) Ozier is a graduate of Michigan State University, member of Mensa, former educational coordinator for the Arcosanti Project, former Assistant Director of the Ecosa Institute, was contributing writer to Earth Odyssey magazine and writer of the Green Column for the Noise. Wes is currently the Director of the Camassia Institute at Lost Valley, and is the author of Wiliam's Ecopedia: Arcology to Xeriscaping.

See more about William's Ecopedia: Arcology to Xeriscapiong here.




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