The Arizona highway is home to no shortage of interesting road trip stops, from Route 66 relics to spectacular nature. But about an hour’s drive north of Phoenix, you’ll find an entirely different tourist destination: a 1970s experimental community that remains active today.
Construction on Arcosanti—which bills itself as “an urban laboratory”—began in 1970. It was the vision of Paolo Soleri, an architect and student of Frank Lloyd Wright. Today, about 80 people live at Arcosanti, according to Tim Bell, the project’s director of community engagement. Though not as well known as other area attractions, like the Grand Canyon or Petrified Forest National Park, Arcosanti is not exactly under-the-radar either, attracting between 40,000 and 50,000 visitors each year.
Last December, I was one of those visitors. I first heard about Arcosanti from an architect friend of mine and was immediately intrigued by the idea of a prototype for urban design in the middle of the desert—especially one that has been in continuous operation for nearly 50 years.
A destination for curious travelers
From the moment I got off the highway and made my way down a rough dirt road, I knew Arcosanti was not a “roadside attraction” in the traditional sense; most visitors probably do not pull off the freeway after seeing a sign for an experimental urban community. And although architecturally stunning, it’s not a simple photo op, either. Visiting Arcosanti is deliberate; to learn more about the project and the community that has kept it going for decades.
Arcosanti has always been open to visitors. It used to be a stop on the caravan circuit of the 1970s and 1980s, where people traveled around looking for alternative communities. Other people were drawn to the property after hearing one of Soleri’s lectures or after seeing an ad in the Whole Earth Catalog, a counterculture magazine. Today, most of Arcosanti’s visitors are either millennials, curiosity seekers, or both. Bell notes that there has been a dramatic increase in interest in the past few years, thanks largely to social media. There is also significant interest from architects and designers.
“People are really hungry for alternative experiences and authentic experiences, which is something that we offer in spades,” Bell says. “That idea of authentic experiences, it’s hard to find nowadays.”
Bell speaks from experience; he is one of the people who were captivated by the story of Arcosanti. As a visitor, he met his now-wife who was one of the residents. He has been a full-time member of the community for the past two years. “I was attracted to the ability to have the urban experience, and also live in community and be contributing to a project that I thought was bringing a lot of good to the world,” he says.
Soleri, arcology, and #MeToo
After spending some time studying under Wright, Soleri realized that the two architects had dramatically different visions for what the future of human development should look like. But despite their differences, Soleri got his first commission through Wright, who passed along a project involving designing a house in the desert.
Before Arcosanti, Soleri did a lot of the legwork on his first project, the Cosanti Foundation, which he established with his wife Colly in 1965. With the foundation, Soleri coined the term “arcology” to describe the integration of architecture and ecology. Soleri’s arcology methodology involves designing urban landscapes that are dense, integrated, walkable, and three-dimensional. Arcosanti became a prototype to physically test arcology.
Once the site developed to the point where it was viable to house people, Arcosanti opened to residents, who, like those living there today, all worked full-time on some aspect of the project. Work assignments include anything from the construction of the buildings, working in food service, being a tour guide, or making the Cosanti Windbells—the sale of which help financially support the project.
Soleri died in 2013. Four years later, his daughter Daniela wrote an essay in which she accused her late father of sexual abuse. This triggered a reevaluation of Soleri’s work. One month after the publication of Daniela’s essay—and multiple attempts to contact her—the Cosanti Foundation released a statement standing “firmly with Daniela.”
But the organization took action against their founder even before that: The board first learned of the allegations against Soleri in 2011 and immediately removed him as president and director of the foundation. Since then, the position of the Cosanti Foundation—and in turn, Arcosanti—has remained the same: to “honor the work, not the man.” They also continue to stand by Daniela.
“All we can really do as an organization is support her side of the story and not try to justify his behavior in any way,” Bell says. “It’s not up to us to decide when society has forgiven our organization for the behavior of the founder. I think it’s up to people to decide when we’ve come far enough as a society and as an organization from that to be forgetting.”
A view of the mesa
As I pulled up to Arcosanti, I questioned my decision to visit. There was only one other car in the parking lot, but as soon as I descended the cement steps to the main building and visitor center, I saw a lively group eating lunch. I wandered into the gift shop—where the wind bells are sold—and purchased a ticket for the tour for the $15 suggested donation. The man working at the counter pointed me in the direction of a scenic walk behind the back of the property to get a better view of the entire site, assuring me that I’d make it back in plenty of time for the tour.
Even though much of Arcosanti is located on different levels of the mesa and connected by outdoor spaces, from a small distance, I could see the site as a whole. Viewing it as one cohesive complex, the broad domes of two apses and an array of other geometric concrete structures with circular windows make Arcosanti appear futuristic, even almost 50 years after it was founded. And, in a sense, it still is; an idealistic experiment of what cities could potentially look like.
My tour lasted about an hour and a half. As we made our way up and down multiple sets of stairs (a requirement for taking the tour), each level offered a new view of the property and the surrounding hills and desert.
The tour took us through two elaborate, vaulted structures known as the Ceramics Apse and the Foundry Apse, where we saw artisans making ceramic and bronze wind bells, as well as the amphitheater, which regularly hosts concerts and other performances.
We ended the tour under the Vaults—two large arches, each 60 feet in diameter—where meetings, weddings, and other gatherings are held.
Half a century of arcology
Before visiting Arcosanti, one of my biggest questions about the community was how it has managed to stick around since 1970, while other communes of the period are now distant memories. Talking to residents, walking around the grounds, and going on a tour all helped to answer that question: Arcosanti really isn’t a commune at all. The aim of the project today is the same as when it first began—to serve as an active urban laboratory, put the idea of arcology into practice, and find ways to build more sustainable cities.
“Soleri was very protective of the model of what they were doing,” Bell explains. “And he said that this is a construction project first, and a community second. So at the core of everything has always been this idea that Arcosanti as an entity—and as an institution—is the foundation upon which everything else is built.”
While the full-time residents of Arcosanti do live in close proximity to each other, it’s really the project that brings them together and that drew them to this part of the Arizona desert in the first place. And while some residents have been there since the beginning, many are there for only a few months at a time while taking a workshop or completing an internship. In other words, it’s not a group of people who have gotten together and decided to live in the same place; the main focus is the project, not the community.
Kate Bemesderfer, the project’s former director of community engagement, used the term “extensional community” to describe Arcosanti. According to Bell, it’s a better reflection of how the community and project operates.
“We’re outward facing,” he says. “We’re putting things out into the world and we’re inviting the world into us and into our experience. We’re not closed. Our doors are always open.”