Driving west across the long and high desert landscape of northern Arizona with nothing but clouds on the horizon one passes occasional reminders of a distant prehistoric past. The landscape is briefly broken by flat windswept mesas and ancient water scored canyons where pockets of the ravaged and looted remains of petrified forests linger. Most of what was here when European nomads encountered these magnificent ruins have long since been removed and scattered elsewhere. What’s still preserved in shrinking pockets reminds us that the land has changed drastically over the eons. There have been oceans here, and forests and beasts that now exist only in souvenirs and billboards and plaster replicas occasionally parked along the side of the highway.
On the route west are a few small cities filled with retirees and refugees from big cities, visited by tourists and travelers, traveling fairs, flea markets and gun shows. After a long flat journey the road enters another kind of landscape of steep ridges, craters and deeply carved and colored canyons, and then it turns south near Flagstaff, winding downward following carved watercourses on the long twisting route toward the Martian valley that contains the city of Phoenix.
When my son was twelve or so we visited Arcosanti, architect and student of Frank Lloyd Wright, Paolo Soleri’s experimental prototype for a city of the future, located on the edge of a canyon about 70 miles north of the sprawling air conditioned metropolis of Phoenix.
We took the exit at Arcosanti Road, a gravel paved track that heads into the backcountry and eventually arrives at the destination. We parked, entered, signed in and located our room along a balcony that overlooked a long and inviting looking swimming pool. The room was cheap, comfortably simple and functional. After settling in we set off to explore the facility and the grounds of Arcosanti. I can still picture the impressively arched and vaulted structure overlooking the shallow canyon and featuring sweeping concrete forms of arches, chimneys and balconies surrounding a wide central well. That day we explored the bell casting workshops, the cosy and cool living units around the core, a communal kitchen and coffee shop and a gacefully vaulted concert and performance space ringed with beautifully tall forms of Italian cypress trees. At the edge of the desert were a couple of cranes for hoisting sections of concrete onto the still incomplete structure. Off the central well with its ascending balconies overlooking the commons there was a bookstore and gallery that featured the iron bells and artifacts made in the foundry that provided some of the funding for the project. It all had the feeling of a high tech commune.
While watching my young son scampering atop sweeping concrete walls and taking in the canyon views from the suspended balconies I had a revelation. I was surrounded with an architectural expression of a distinct set of evolutionary and philosophical ideas that I’d encountered years before and had fundamentally reshaped my views of the world, of cities and of the future. When I standing on the balcony looking down upon the floor of the commons at Arcosanti I could sense the life that flows through veins in the concrete and the movement of air and light through the central structure. I looked into a space that resembles a living organism, one that couyld be embraced by my limited individual consciousness and yet fosters a physical identification with community. Here is an experiment, a prototype, a demonstration of what’s possible. Arcosanti is a kind of high tech commune made of concrete and living ideas.
When I attended Case Western Reserve University in the late sixties, while studying english and history and anthropology, I was radically distracted by adventures in the world of psychedelics and cultural revolution. In my quest to integrate these divergent realms I’d came across a book,‘The Phenomenon of Man’, by the scientist, philosopher, paleontologist and Jesuit cleric Pierre Tielhard de Chardin. He wrote following the Second World War, a time when enormous destruction was followed by a vast reorganization in world affairs. I encountered his ideas when my world extremes of urban decay and suburban expansion. Cities were going broke, rivers and lakes and air were filling with industrial waste, we were caught in Vietnam, the first of our endless failing wars. While the moral and ethical foundations of the American dream were being questioned, new realms of possibilities were opening up. I needed an assist to help me straddle the gulf between rational thinking and the revelations of a wider world revealed when constricted barriers of conventional thinking are left behind.
Being both a man of the church and a scientific thinker Tielhard strove to weave together two trains of western thinking that had been sundered as far back as the times of St. Augustine. On one hand the pursuit to understand the workings of the material world through experimentation and empirical thinking was seen to be entirely separate from exploring the mysteries of faith in God’s Kingdom. He strove to reweave the two streams of thought by demonstrating that a careful empirical study of the processes of evolution revealed an ultimate and inevitable movement toward a divine revelation.
From the earliest stages of the physical universe being illuminated by modern physics Chardin described two interwoven and distinct trends. First, he perceived the material universe trending toward increased complexity and ultimately toward entropy. Counter to this he theorized an opposite movement manifesting within matter and connected with the spiritual destiny of all creation and the ultimate impulse behind evolution. As the universe initially expanded the simplest elements of atomic substance multiplied in density, combining into increasingly complex forms, from atoms to molecules to the entire table of elemental matter. The dust and gases of creation coalesced into stars and suns and planetary bodies. Within the primeval ooze on the surface of a planet, complex molecules combine to form the first elements of biological life. Ultimately, within the carpet of biology covering the earth consciousness emerges and eventually self-awareness. In this view the earth that we know can be viewed as a multilayered sphere with matter at its base, enveloped in a shell of biological life and a layer of consciousness and ultimately a collective consciousness that he referred to as the ‘noosphere’. All is drawn toward a final coalescence of spiritual awareness and transcendent unity that’s resolved in what can be conceived as the consciousness of Christ.
This decidedly Christian vision of a universe that has a distinct beginning and middle, with a final spiritual resolution, offers (a particularly Eurocentric) perspective that one can accept or reject without discarding some of its essential observations about the processes of evolution. Most relevant as a central tenet of Tielhard’s vision is the concept of ‘miniaturization’. In evolutionary terms, things become increasingly complex while occupying less and less space by arranging themselves in more centralized and adaptable structures. We see these trends in every branch of the evolutionary tree, from single cell to multicellular organisms, dinosaurs to hominids, to computer chips with their ever increasing storage capacity.
Paolo Soleri offers a reformulation reformulation of these concepts in his own words:
“Miniaturize or die had been the key rule for incipient life.”
“Society is still an awkward animal suffering from a kind of ‘flat gigantism’ that nails it to the surface of the earth.”
“Society must become a true organism that will perform adequately. This will be made possible through the power of miniaturization. The physical miniaturization of its container, the city, is a necessary step to this end.”
The principle of miniaturization is at the center of Soleri’s architectural ideas. The city is seen as both a container of human culture and as an evolving organism that must be evaluated in relation to the total environment. Like any organism our future depends upon efficiency and adaptability against the background of environmental conditions and environmental change.
My visit to Arcosanti was not my first contact with Solari’s work. From 1968 on I’d read every issue of The Whole Earth Catalog from cover to cover, and I’m pretty certain that it was in those pioneering pages that I first came across his thinking. In 1973 after moving to Denver I came across a full-size M.I.T. Press edition of the book, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man’ in a local bookstore. It was full of wide formatted drawings and plans for futuristic cities that resembled enormous spaceships tucked into wild landscapes. While crouched in basement hallways in elementary school, confronted with the possibility of nuclear winter in elementary school, I’d filled my head and later notebooks with my own sketches of vast self-contained underground cities. Solari’s cities seemed like a fulfillment of my own fantasies. I carried around a ragged paperback version of the book for many years and recently purchased a 50th Anniversary edition of the original tome.
The term ‘Arcology’ combines the words architecture and ecology. In Soleri’s vision the requirement for human survival is in the balance between the congruence of disparate elements in the natural world and the pursuit of equity in society. When this balance isn’t achieved the result is instability, chaos and eventually self destruction. When society fails to understand its congruent relationship with the natural world the pursuit of equity is bound to fail. The role of architecture is to provide containers providing a buffer between the factors that foster stability and survival.
When I returned briefly to Denver a few years ago I witnessed a monstrous example of incongruity, unfortunately typical of many if not most American cities. I lived in a suburb that had once been a small town which had been surrounded and absorbed by urban sprawl. The inherent efficiency of the city is offset by the amount of energy and stress required to accomplish anything. The scale is inhuman, based more on the needs and necessity of the internal combustion engine than the natural interactions of human commerce. As the city spreads across landscapes without limit the distance required to meet a person’s needs become greater while problems of congestion and pollution put increasing strain on resources and human stress. People are more isolated from one another as the street is given over to automobiles. The life of sidewalks and the commons is shifted to distant shopping centers. There remain only scattered pockets of centralized commerce not dependent on superhighways and vast parking lots, strip malls and rubber stamped franchises. Convenience is seen more and more in terms of parking rather than walking. I do not know my neighbors. I commute to work. I sped too much of my time in slow moving traffic. This way of life is neither congruent or equitable.
In the present we are confined collectively in this long march to overcome the plague. We are confined and isolated and the distance between us appears to have widened. In one sense we seem to be moving faster toward extinction. On the other hand the pandemic has exposed more clearly the inherent instability of our hitherto unconscious dash toward collective oblivion. It has in some ways moved us forward as we awaken to a sense of collective responsibility. Meanwhile the streets of some our biggest cities are reclaimed by human traffic as our technologies allow many of us to see beyond our dependence on the automobile. At the same time that technology is forcing us to rethink all aspects of our relationship to work and our collective well being. The lesson perhaps is that crisis more than ideals is what drives us forward. When faced by crisis we are above all a race of both storytellers and problem solvers.
Soleri’s cities accelerate and concentrate their natural function partly by building vertically rather than horizontally, in a model inspired by the upright human form. Essential services, heat and water, waste disposal, ventilation, illumination and shopping are arranged around an open central core, increasing efficient circulation and eliminating the need for long distance vehicular travel. Most human interaction is accomplished by walking, taking steps or elevators between levels. Every necessity is close at hand. Rather than spreading over the landscape the human container becomes a node in networks of communication, transportation and commerce that connect separate nodes to one another. Embedded within the natural environment rather than overcoming it, the life in cities allows it to be restored to the purposes of recreation, sustainable resource development and the production of food. Access to the natural world is made more accessible and less invasive because it’s no longer viewed as an adversary to be conquered but as the vital container of our well being.
Cities, even sprawling ones, are inherently more efficient on an individual level, as public services become more centralized in relation to where residents live and move. 68% of humanity inhabits cities and the number continues to scale upward through the decades, driven further by the results of climate change and the collapse of rural economies. Solari contends that the continued expression of ‘megalopoly and suburbia’ runs against the natural vectors of human health and evolutionary survival. He compares present cities, with their sprawl and inefficiencies spread across the landscape to the broken branches that fall from the evolutionary tree. Although the human animal has proven to be one of the most adaptable and complex creatures on earth, the advantage of self-reflection has brought us to the next stage of evolution and our collective future in society. To achieve both equity and congruence within our changing environment we must build our cities to be complimentary to the natural world rather than the devouring it.
Driving in any direction out of the city of Santa Fe takes me past the Pueblo villages of Northern New Mexico. The strict building codes of Santa Fe are in fact inspired largely by the colors and shapes of the Pueblo culture, deliberately designed to attract tourists who search for some reminder of a community long lost in many of our cities. When I first moved to New Mexico, and to some extent even today the pueblos were mired in poverty and loss and yet were magnets that drew people from around the world looking for an echo of the past or a vision of the future.
Leaving ancestral traces in the mysterious ancient ruins of Chaco Canyon, the still viable communities of Cochiti and Jemez and Santa Domingo and so many others are have adapted and endured for millennia. They threw off conquest and survived through the strength and cohesion of their traditions. With the onslaught of railroads and interstate highways and the rise of a casino driven economy some of those bonds are being challenged, but there remains an essential community structure that holds them together through all the changes over time.
Nowadays around the outer edges of the villages and near the highways there are new developments characterized by the crackerbox construction of government built housing that echoes the sterile tropes of suburban America. When one goes deeper toward the center of the circles surrounding the community’s timeworn heart it’s still possible to encounter places where the ancient soul of the people is protected and preserved. Although in many cases folks have abandoned the older dwellings that surround the central ceremonial plazas, a sense remains of interior spaces that define and preserve the collective sense of home and identity. While these structures have become templates for architecture copied by newcomers in the gentrified cities, I’m convinced that the expression of centralized self-sufficiency and environmental congruency was one major inspiration for Paolo Solari’s vision for the inevitable future of civilization.
When I began the Arclist in 2001 we were still within the early years of the Internet boom, a time before interpersonal communication had become overrun by commerce. We who dwelled in these virtual spaces were incredibly naive but infinitely hopeful. What was happening online was seen as an alternative venue for the creation of communities defined by a sense of common identity and the emergence of a dazzling array of public commons where creativity could thrive. For a time we felt ourselves moving along vectors toward possibilities of a more equitable and enlightened civilization. Unfortunately, as part of a highly educated and ‘enlightened’ elite we didn’t anticipate the horrific abuses that would inevitably emerge out of a commercialized commons.
I remain hopeful. A collective awakening to our common crisis rises as we’re faced once again in these very difficult times with the necessity to rearrange our collective priorities if our civilization is to survive. I named the Arclist in the spirit of Paolo Soleri’s vision, and that vision continues to inspire me with the possibility that the future offers radically new possibilities.