I set out this morning to drive west from Page, to see Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park, but somewhere between my parking space and the exit I changed my mind completely and headed south instead. I don’t know why. Maybe I’ve seen enough canyons. Maybe I felt I should start heading back towards reality. Maybe I needed some culture.
Anyway, I passed through Flagstaff for the third time and headed out towards Phoenix. On the way I saw a sign that said “Arcosanti”, which rang a bell in my mind, so I turned off the interstate and drove up a dirt track to see what I could see.
Arcosanti is an experimental vision for urban architecture, created by Paolo Soleri. They promised tours, so I stopped in. A nice guy called Jeff showed me round (just me) for an hour or so. I felt I had to double the normal donation of ten bucks to justify being the only one on the tour. Judging by what I saw, this probably made a significant contribution to the project’s income.
Soleri’s vision is for high-density urban development, as an antidote to the awful sprawl of most American cities, where you need a car just to get from one store to the next and you rarely see another actual human being. His big thing is “arcology” – a mix of architecture and ecology – and since I’m a biologist and a complex systems theorist, and I supervise a PhD student who is specifically interested in adapting biological principles to architecture, it sounded right up my street.
From the little I’ve read so far, Soleri’s ideas sound solid enough, but the practice leaves something to be desired. The grand vision is for a city with 5,000 inhabitants on the site. He started the project in 1956, the building process got underway in 1970 and now, almost forty years after that, there are a scattering of half-finished buildings and a transient population of roughly 80 people, mostly students.
Part of the problem is funding. Soleri funded his own career making bronze and ceramic bells, so the first building on the site was a foundry, and now people make bells to provide income for the project. Unfortunately, making bells seems to occupy the time they ought to be spending building structures. Amazingly, there are no significant research grants going into the project. The US government can stump up a few billion dollars for a particle accelerator but nothing whatsoever for figuring out how to rebuild their cities when urban decay meets up with an energy crisis, leading to ecological disaster. So the project continues in fits and starts, funded by profits from bell-making and a little income from workshop participants and the odd musical production.
An awful lot has happened in architecture, energy technology, town planning and even ecology since 1970, but the Arcosanti project seems stuck in the hippie past. It saddened me. In principle I’m in a position to just drop out, put my sleeping bag in one of their concrete cubicles and devote my life to helping them out. From what Jeff said it certainly sounds like they’d welcome me with open arms. They desperately need engineers – people who can actually make things – and they need people who know about modern ideas in ecology and self-organising systems. Plus people who can translate between the mutually incomprehensible languages of architecture, science and hippie. But I think I’d be hugely frustrated by the inertia of the place. Not much seems to happen per decade. And it reminded me of my own “career” – a big vision, creeping painfully slowly forward for lack of resources. It gave me an awful feeling of deja-vu. I’m glad I saw it though.
After that I descended 5,000 feet from the High Desert to the low Sonoran Desert, land of the seguaro cactus, and I’m now in Phoenix, Arizona. The temperature has risen as I descended, from the mid 70’s to 93F (34C), even though it is the evening. Phoenix has the distinction of being the hottest major American city, with temperatures well above 100F throughout the summer, sometimes reaching over 120F (49C). But unlike Louisiana it’s bone dry, so the heat is relatively bearable.
So, a couple of days ago I had half a mile of beach all to myself, and now I’m in the fifth largest city in the United States. Bit of a contrast! So far I’ve only seen one person whose waist measurement is smaller than their height, and he had needle holes all down his arm, so my first impressions aren’t great. And the city planners clearly didn’t listen to a single word Paolo Soleri said. But we’ll see what tomorrow brings. For all I know I’ll get in the car and suddenly decide to drive to New York…
33°36’11.07″N, 112° 7’6.31″W
Today’s sensations: Unusual impulsiveness, but I think that’s probably a good thing.