Arcosanti’s Beehives for People

Civilization moves forward on the feet of dreamers and builders.  Dreamers imagine the future while builders create passageways taking us there.

Italian architect Paolo Soleri, 92, is one of those rare individuals possessing both a dreamer’s vision and a builder’s blueprint.  In 1970, he started Arcosanti, an “urban laboratory” in the Arizona desert.  This new community was to be a self-sustaining model of how people could and should live in years to come.  Most importantly, it would be an antidote to the poisons of urban sprawl: hyper-consumption, segregation, waste, pollution, and ecological catastrophe.   

Arcosanti’s master plan calls for huge buildings that host work, education, culture, recreation and home in a very compact system.  When complete, its “beehives for people” structures and solar greenhouses will occupy only 25 acres of the 860 acre land preserve, keeping the natural environment close to urbanites.  This density leaves 90 percent more land to farming and conservation than traditional developments.

For the past 40 years, volunteers have donated their skills, time and money to construct this prototype town. Arcosanti has a cafe, a bakery, an art gallery, apartments and dorms for residents and guests, gardens and greenhouses, a foundry, woodwork and ceramic studios, an amphitheater and a swimming pool.  Pedestrians rule.  Distances are measured by minutes of walking, rather than by miles. 

These achievements are impressive, but there have also been disappointments.  This experimental place was intended to produce behavioral changes, not profits.  Chronic underfunding has been as much a part of Arcosanti’s environment as the desert.  With a population rarely exceeding 100, permanent residents have also been elusive. As a result, only 10% of Soleri’s architectural masterpiece has been built to date.

Ironically, a significant part of Arcosanti evolved unexpectedly in this carefully-planned community. The foundry and ceramics facilities were built to provide materials for construction and other needs.  But ten years into the project, they also began producing Soleri-designed windbells as a sideline.   Their unique charm quickly led to world-wide renown.  Windbell sales have been an important funding source ever since. 

Newsweek declared in 1976: As urban architecture, Arcosanti is probably the most important experiment undertaken in our lifetime.  Looking now through the lens of 2011, this desert utopia could rightly be called both a failure and a success.  Soleri’s dream of using architecture to create sustainable communities is far from completion.  However, its core principles of environmental sensitivity and frugality are now widely embraced.  Arcosanti’s greatest success may be its own existence and rugged tenacity.  That tenacity insists on building a better society using the raw materials of imagination, hard work, great passion and little money.

Photo credit:  CodyR, licensed under Creative Commons

If you enjoyed this story, check out my post about Rugby, a 19th century utopian settlement.

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