When I was a kid, about 11 or twelve I guess, there was an episode of 60 Minutes that featured an architect building a new kind of city in the desert of Arizona. Shortly thereafter, I read a more detailed article about him in Future Life Magazine, a magazine of science and science fiction that I devoured cover to cover each month.
The architects’ name was Paolo Soleri and the city he was building was called Arcosanti. Arcosanti is what Soleri calls an arcology, a combination of architecture and ecology – a single structure habitat that is in harmony with its natural surroundings. Soleri’s great insight is that cities do not need to sprawl outward eating up ever more landscape, they can instead sprawl upward, not as individual skyscrapers, but as a single structure city, housing places of manufacture, work, play, and living, surrounded by agricultural facilities to help support it. With an ever increasing world population and an environment constantly threatened by urban sprawl, Soleri’s ideas are more relevant now than ever.
For years the image of these cities he has design fascinated my imagination. When I went to college I tried to track down his seminal Arcology: City in the Image of Man, but it has been stolen from the University of Michigan’s library system. I can hardly blame who ever stole it. It had been out of print for years. Instead I read The Omega Seed: An Eschatological Hypothesis. This is not the place to start if you are interested in Soleri’s work. It is a deeply philosophical book, highly influenced by the writings of Pierre Teilhard De Chardin, with spiritual overtones and undertones that are hard to grasp at first.
Later, City in the Image of Man was reprinted and I purchased a copy, spending hours with it’s mandala like drawings of alternative ways of designing our urban environments.
Recently I discovered the work of Jacque Fresco, a similar visionary structural design. But while his designs have stayed on paper, Soleri had spent the last 40 years building a small town that hopes to be a small city in Arizona. I visited it years ago, and I hope to be able to visit it again someday soon. While there is not significantly more constructed now than when I first saw the photos of it in Future Life, there is a enough to get a sense of what it could become. Built mainly by volunteer labor and paid for with the sale of bells that Soleri has deigned, it is a testament to one man’s vision and will. It is also a true laboratory for searching out better ways to design our cities and our lives.