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HOME Magazine NZ - - Contents - Text and pho­tog­ra­phy Greta van der Star

An ar­chi­tect’s eco city in the Ari­zona desert

Paolo So­leri first de­vised Ar­cosanti – his eco-city in the Ari­zona desert – in the 1950s and fi­nally built it in the 1970s. Forty years on, it’s as cap­ti­vat­ing as ever.

I had been kick­ing around Tuc­son, Ari­zona, for a month, tak­ing trips with friends to the Mex­i­can border and ghost towns in the Cal­i­for­nia desert.

Watch­ing the tem­per­a­ture tip to 47°C, it was nearly time to go home but first, one last ad­ven­ture. Dur­ing my stay in Ari­zona, I no­ticed the way the desert seems to of­fer free­dom to test ideas. Per­haps it’s the avail­abil­ity of af­ford­able land, the vast space, or the type of per­son it at­tracts. Ar­cosanti is the per­fect ex­am­ple. The pro­to­type town was con­ceived in the 1950s by ar­chi­tect Paolo So­leri to back up his the­o­ret­i­cal work, a phi­los­o­phy called Ar­chol­ogy – in short, an amal­ga­ma­tion of ar­chi­tec­ture and ecol­ogy. The ex­per­i­men­tal eco town, of­ten re­ferred to as an ‘ur­ban lab­o­ra­tory’, tests a new way to think about de­sign and hu­man habi­tats; to be more ef­fi­cient and have a low en­vi­ron­men­tal im­pact by min­imis­ing the use of ma­te­ri­als and land and re­duc­ing waste and pol­lu­tion. Its shapes had played on my mind long af­ter see­ing images of the sur­real con­crete struc­tures in the desert. They were hard to make sense of, so I had to see for my­self. The plan was to drive north, a bit of a pil­grim­age to the Painted Desert, with a stop at Ar­cosanti on the way up and Taliesin West – Frank Lloyd Wright’s ar­chi­tec­ture school and stu­dio – on the way back. Driving north on the I-17, it took three hours to reach the town, which sits above a val­ley aptly named Par­adise. I ar­rived just in time for a tour of the grounds. The hyper-dense town places liv­ing quar­ters above work­shop spa­ces, and fa­cil­i­ties are shared – there is a com­mu­nity pool, a bak­ery, an am­phithe­atre where reg­u­lar events and con­certs are held, and a com­mu­nal kitchen-din­ing room where meals are shared and served. (There are also sep­a­rate kitchens scat­tered about if you wish to do your own thing.) Ev­ery­thing is ac­ces­si­ble by foot, re­duc­ing de­pen­dence on ve­hi­cles. “We must build up, not out,” wrote So­leri, who was orig­i­nally from Turin, Italy. “The prob­lem is the present de­sign of cities are only a few storeys high, stretch­ing out­ward in un­wieldy sprawl for miles. As a re­sult of their sprawl, they lit­er­ally trans­form the earth, turn­ing farms into park­ing lots, and waste enor­mous amounts of time and en­ergy trans­port­ing peo­ple, goods and ser­vices over their ex­panses.” So­leri’s de­signs have long been likened to Frank Lloyd Wright, with whom he spent a year in fel­low­ship at Taliesin West. Le­gend has it that Wright once paid a visit to So­leri’s first com­mis­sion, en­ter­ing the room in a cape and point­ing to the walls and fire­place. “That’s mine, that’s mine,” he said, then ges­tured to the coloured con­crete floors: “That’s Paolo’s,” be­fore mak­ing a sweep­ing exit. Look­ing across the high arch­ing domes, I couldn’t help but think they have a fu­tur­is­tic, space­like feeling, but one imag­ined 60 years ago. So­leri died at Ar­cosanti in 2013 and was buried in the grounds. Although the place is even­tu­ally in­tended to house 5000 peo­ple it cur­rently holds about 250, but I got the im­pres­sion that the com­mu­nity is work­ing to grow in the fu­ture. We cir­cled The Foundry, where res­i­dents cast bronze bells de­signed by So­leri, the sale of which, along­side ceram­ics, are the main source of in­come for the com­mu­nity. Our tour guide, young and en­thu­si­as­tic, also did PR and was one of sev­eral town plan­ners who con­sult on new city de­vel­op­ments, of­fer­ing ad­vice and learn­ings from the Cosanti Foun­da­tion, which So­leri es­tab­lished with his wife Colly. You wear many hats here, he of­fered, and there’s al­ways room to learn a new skill and move across jobs. Re­turn­ing to the din­ing room, hov­er­ing to take a few photos of the af­ter­noon light pour­ing through round win­dows, my guide sug­gested I stay for din­ner. I wish I could have. Though I do won­der – had I stayed – if I ever would have left. Left The apart­ments are full of de­tail, in­clud­ing this bal­cony with its half-sphere balustrade.

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