A Green, Sustainable Future That Doesn't Work

Posted: Dec 28, 2009 2:00 PM
A Green, Sustainable Future That Doesn't Work

CORDES JUNCTION — In the high desert of central Arizona, more than 5,000 miles from the hall in Copenhagen where negotiators struggled and failed to come up with a global-warming agreement, sits an aging and unfinished vision of the enviro-friendly, sustainable life that some climate-change activists foresee for us all. It’s called Arcosanti, created by the Italian architect Paolo Soleri in 1970, and it is the prototype of a green community of the future. The only problem is, it doesn’t work. And it never did.

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Arcosanti is an “arcology,” a word Soleri coined by combining “architecture” and “ecology.” In Soleri’s vision, an arcology is a self-contained city in which hundreds of thousands of people live in a small space, their needs met by green-energy sources, recycled and sustainable products, and carefully planned social and cultural events. There are — God forbid — no cars.

In a Soleri design, masses of people are packed into the small-footprint arcology so that the land surrounding the community can remain pristine, unpolluted by human touch. It was an idea much in fashion a few decades back. “As urban architecture, Arcosanti is probably the most important experiment undertaken in our lifetime,” wrote Newsweek in 1976.

Soleri designed models of many futuristic communities, guided by his intense dislike of the American-style single-family home. “The ‘American Dream,’ as physically embodied in the single-family house,” he once wrote, “has to be scrapped and reinvented in terms which are coherent with the human and biospheric reality.”

Despite his many designs, the only place Soleri ever actually attempted to build a community is here, on the edge of the Agua Fria River Canyon, about 70 miles north of Phoenix.

Arcosanti was never intended as a full-scale arcology. Rather, it was to be a small model, eventually becoming home to 5,000 people. It would include a common area, composed of an open-air theater, shops, offices and parks under a soaring, 25-story half-dome. The half-dome would have a hive-like structure in which residents would live in little honeycomb-style apartments. The whole thing would take up no more than 25 acres, surrounded by thousands of acres of empty Arizona landscape.

But today, after nearly 40 years, just a few buildings of the common space have been built, and those are gray, leaky and crumbling. On the chilly December day when I visited recently, there were maybe 50 people there, and there are never, even in good weather, more than 100 or 150 inhabitants, mostly students who come to learn about Soleri’s radical environmental and architectural ideas.

In one of the common areas, there were piles of empty cardboard boxes, an empty Mountain Dew carton, a couple of children’s bikes with training wheels, and pools of water from the previous day’s rain. When I took a look at the “Sky Suite,” a spare and minimally furnished apartment with a lovely view of the canyon, the man staying there had put a towel under the door in an attempt to keep the water out. It didn’t work. Everyone was cold, despite Arcosanti’s vaunted solar-heating system.

There’s no half-dome, no honeycomb of apartments, no nothing. Soleri never had enough money to build his dream, and the project never made sense to any investors who could have made it happen.

Soleri’s vision — of earth’s population confined to high-density communities — is shared by some of the more extreme elements of the environmental movement who gathered in Copenhagen. There’s even a new Soleri-inspired project starting in Abu Dhabi. But it’s hard to imagine many Americans ever living in an arcology, except perhaps at gunpoint.

If you want to see why, just pay a visit to Arcosanti.