Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Paolo Soleri and Arcosanti

There are a lot of weird spiritual-cult-flower child things that go on in the desert Southwest, and the creator of one of the fairly well-known ones (by Arizona standards) died today.
He was an Italian architect named Paolo Soleri.

He studied briefly with Frank Lloyd Wright and had one of his bridge designs displayed in MoMA. Click that link, it's actually a really cool, extensive article.

What he's better known for, though, is creating an experimental community called Arcosanti. Now, if you've seen one semi-futuristic eco-friendly alternative urban concept settlement in the desert, you've pretty much seen them all, but it's still worth a gander. They broke ground in 1970 and it's still being worked on today by students and volunteers, some of whom take 5-week courses there. The goal is for the settlement to house 5,000 residents, but even today the population only varies from about 50 to 150, not taking into account the approximately 40,000 tourists who visit the site each year.

Source: Ganzo Mag
The buildings (attempt to) follow the principles of "arcology", a portmanteau of "architecture" and "ecology" based on housing large numbers of people in superstructures that have little or no negative environmental impact. Soleri coined the term.

Many of the 13 structures are domed or have apses, and they're not arranged in a grid (driving directly west at sunset in Phoenix, UGH) but rather in a more organic fashion that's supposed to promote community interaction. There's a music venue, gallery, bakery, caf,e and gift shop in addition to an area for on-site bronze casting. Some of the revenue that keeps the place going actually comes from cast bronze bells that are made there.

Source: NYT
What's going to happen to Arcosanti, though, has been uncertain for a few years. Ultimately there will probably be a small apartment building for retirees and a few renovations or improvements done to the existing bakery and other structures.

Nowadays these "houses of tomorrow" or what have you seem really pointless and obsolete: the rusty, half-forgotten dreams of burned-out hippies who have either died quietly or moved on. But Neil deGrasse Tyson's recent and much-shared speech about how we "stopped dreaming" after the 50's and 60's really rings true when it comes to these sorts of things. Maybe it's silly and impractical and doesn't work, but who cares? Someone's got to try it and find out. 

What people learn from attempting to set up and live in an experimental community could end up assisting humanitarian relief and housing efforts in the third world or disaster zones, and even help us understand what would be required to sustain human life on the moon or Mars. Even though we all hold almost godlike technology in our hands every day, we scoff at those kinds of ideas and dismiss them as fantasy. Why? Back in 1970, those things were paradoxically within closer reach than they are now, and I'm sure a lot of people were convinced we'd have been to Mars and would be colonising space by 2013.

Things like this are interesting and relevant because they represent an era in which people really thought they could fundamentally change the way everyone lived for the better and advance human society. There isn't a whole lot of hope for anyone when people stop dreaming of doing those things, so let's keep imagining.

Update (8/15): I had a dead video here and replaced it with a shiny new one:

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