The Complicated and Contradictory Legacy of Arcosanti

In the aftermath of founder Paolo Soleri’s alleged sexual abuse, the relevance of the famed desert “utopia” necessitates a hard second look.

Legacy Arcosanti Paolo Soleri
Courtesy the author

Barrel-rolling through the Sonoroan Desert after midnight—Arizona’s panoramic, star-studded sky glowing orange in flashes of heat lightning—the trek out to Arcosanti feels distinctly like crossing a threshold. Suddenly the car veers off the highway and onto an unmarked gravel path that clings to the edge of the mesa. At some point, the half-dome Foundry rises through the darkness, framed by a scattered crop of Cypress trees that easily rival L.A.’s palms in their gangly stature. Bleary-eyed and bone-weary from the journey, we turn the lock to the guest bedroom and collapse underneath a kaleidoscopic silt-cast ceiling, falling into a deep sleep brought on by the lullaby of a hundred windbells strung across Arcosanti’s 25 acres.  

Arcosanti is like a fever dream suspended between a present past and a future imperfect. Conceived by the visionary architect Paolo Soleri—who left his native Italy at 22 to study architecture under Frank Lloyd Wright—Arcosanti opened in 1970 as a first gesture toward Soleri’s life-long pursuit of “arcology,” or the seamless blend of architecture (acropolis) and nature (ecology). Dialing up Wright’s ethos of total craft in architecture to community scale, Soleri’s off-grid “urban laboratory” would be self-sustained and collaborative at every level, from the production of food and building supplies to its construction, maintenance, and skillshare education module. It was nothing if not ambitious.

So where does Arcosanti stand nearly 50 years on, amid a condition of global crisis exponentially larger than anything Soleri and his band of outsiders could have possibly anticipated? To answer this question requires us to survey the fault line between Arcosanti’s original premise and its reality today.  

It is easy to see where contemporary criticism of Arcosanti builds. Its current residents attest to the urgency of its vision, yet the master plan set out by Soleri is barely 5 percent complete; a grounds capable of housing some 5,000 residents has retained around 50 since day one, and whose labor is equally devoted to producing cast bells—Arcosanti’s primary source of income—as in new construction. The principle of “arcology” vehemently cites cars as the death of society, yet almost every resident has their own. Far from an independent community, they make the 70-mile schlep to Phoenix weekly to pick up food supplies, drop off cast bells in gift shops aplenty, sometimes grabbing a drink at a favorite bar.

Indeed, for a testing ground that strives to workshop alternative prototypes to the critical issues facing humanity in the city of tomorrow, it seems more than a little gauche for Arcosanti to open its doors to the likes of Skrillex for desert raves rivalling Burning Man, while wringing out the rag of the late capitalist sharing economy by AirBnb-ing out its luxury suites. It’s equally problematic that a “city of the future” whose organic superstructure champions “maximum accessibility to all elements” fails to ensure its buildings are accessible to all users (no ramps in sight, and apparently elevators aren’t eco-friendly enough).

Then, there’s Soleri’s other deep-rooted legacy: rampant sexual abuse, as recently exposed by his daughter, Daniela, in an open letter published on Medium in mid-November—following two decades of her voicing these traumas to Soleri’s inner circles with little impact. Arcosanti’s board has been sluggish to address the allegations, aside from a lukewarm rebuttal in Curbed, which also referenced the need to move beyond Soleri’s idol worship. This idea, conspicuously absent in more formal dialogue with the original Arcosanti founders, was equally unpopular during casual on-site conversations with the new recruits in September, whose reverence of the mysterious founder whom they will never meet seemed to know no bounds.

Arcosanti, Mayer, Arizona, 2015. Courtesy Aaron Rothman

Arcosanti, in contrast to its original aims, now seems to exist at a peaceful remove from contemporary crises facing global society, climate change, mass migration, and financial meltdown, for starters.  But the reality is that all of Arcosanti’s speculative futures run parallel with the structural shifts of mainstream society. Taking a second look at how Arcosanti is engaging with or gaslighting these conditions of crisis—as an experimental community in ideological free-fall—can potentially offer an inkling of alternative solutions, or at least a gage for their impact upon mainstream society and global politics.

Case one: climate change. The extreme location of Arcosanti, once railed on by Soleri’s contemporaries as the choice of a madman, begins to take on a new and pressing relevance. “One third of the world’s deserts have happened since 1900, and nearly 2.5 billion people live in such a climate,” Cosanti Foundation co-president, architect, educator, and longtime Arcosanti resident Jeff Stein says. “If we can develop architectural solutions for such places by working in one ourselves, dealing with issues of light and shade, water use, how to grow food for an urban desert population, and do so economically, we might be useful to quite a large population right away.”

Although cities today are responsible for over 80 percent of our planet’s total carbon emission rate, and more than 60 percent of the world’s population will live in cities before the middle of this century, “very little has been done to study how ultra-dense urban environments work and how they influence human life,” says Matteo DiMichele, board member and ex-resident of Arcosanti. “It’s important to continue to build prototypes such as Arcosanti and create testable examples of what future cities should look like, especially around the logistics and natural environment that will surround them.” Could applying Arcosanti’s vision in 2017 dislodge Soleri’s experiment from the nostalgia that’s eclipsed its original agenda?

Case two: financial instability sped on by globalization and technology in late capitalism. “Today’s younger people come with greater financial burdens from school and maybe less time to freely explore,” says Mary Hoadley, treasurer and co-president of the Cosanti Foundation. Fresh out of her anthropology studies at Stanford in 1970, Hoadley was spellbound by the call-to-arms of Soleri’s experimental community; she quickly traded in California’s beaches for the Arizona desert to become a founding member of Arcosanti in 1970.  “The ’70s Arcosanti was more kibbutz-like in that everyone followed the same daily rhythm. Now with many amenities like Wi-Fi, for starters, the big challenge is how to replace all of of us older first generation managers with the next wave while keeping our core values and the collective goal of completing the prototype.”


Arcosanti 2017
Courtesy the author

Case three: Migration and diversity. If a core part of Arcosanti’s urban experiment is to maintain a community with a “mosaic of cultures,” as DiMichele suggests, Arcosanti’s next roster of mainstays is, from the looks of things, pretty homogeneous. While youth culture has always been a staple of the Arcosanti buzz, its current residents speak to an upper echelon of largely white, university-educated,  debt-free, middle-class Americans (and ironically, who likely grew up within the very baby boomer suburbs that Soleri blamed for the failure of the modern metropolis).

When asked about the lack of diversity in Arcosanti’s current community, Stein gestures to the larger systematic flaw: “The fact that higher education in America has become so expensive means fewer recent graduates have the availability to explore opportunities like Arcosanti. That change in culture has affected us, too.”

Then there’s the plethora of political challenges, not in the least a Trump-era border control. “The current federal administration’s travel ban has limited not only the number of grad students in American universities, it has diminished our foreign student participants at Arcosanti, too.” With this in mind, Arcosanti in 2017 could be seen as a barometer for how screwed the rest of society truly is. When even an experimental community exploring alternatives to the social and psychological pitfalls of late capitalism a neoliberal world order can’t maintain diversity, that’s when you know you’re in trouble.

Even as it continues to pitch itself as an urban laboratory, a speculative prototype for a future dystopia to come, Arcosanti is also a real community as susceptible to the critical issues facing our contemporary global condition, and ought to address both. It’s the long-term residents like Hoadley and Stein, both nearing the end of their service, that seem the most tuned-in to this need, in part due to their involvement in the imminent leadership transition. But there’s an ideological basis here, too. Grazing the oft-sore spot of the construction statistics, I ask Hoadley whether she thinks it’s still necessary to push for Arcosanti’s completion.

Her eyes light up. “Definitely. Even 5,000 is a small population, but it would allow for some of the diversity found in urban situations.”

50 years ago, Soleri laid the vision for a new urban lab in total desert abandon. Now, the I-17 snakes right past it: on a still and pitch-black night, headlight beams and furious honks from 18-wheelers mingle with the songs of wild coyotes. Like the messy infrastructures of American commerce, global crises have drawn lines in the sand around Arcosanti, choking its fantasy of independence. But this encroachment, and the new challenges and possibilities it poses, are valuable learning tools for architecture and beyond. Arcosanti must leave behind the nostalgic purity of its origin story—not to become who we truly are, as Soleri was so obsessed with the powers of transformation and fame—but to confront who we were, and the abuses of power we permitted when we thought nobody was looking.

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