Explore N. Arizona

Once Around the Clock at Arcosanti

Italian-born and -educated architect Paolo Soleri initially came to Arizona in 1947 for a fellowship with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Scottsdale. In the 1950s, he established a foothold of his own in the nearby town of Paradise Valley. By 1970 he acquired 860 acres of land midway between Phoenix and Sedona upon which to start experimenting with multi-use structures and car-less infrastructure as alternatives to modern urban sprawl.

The goal of Arcosanti is to become a network of homes, businesses, parks and amenities to comfortably support 5,000 people within just 25 acres—I wrote that in the notebook.

Because the Agua Fria River runs though the property and there are multiple wells on-site, water access is a non-issue. Because the land is unincorporated, there’s a sense that Arcosanti really is its own village. And because the project is funded by proceeds from sales of Cosanti Originals windbells, workshop tuitions, tours, grants and exhibitions, and labor is limited to workshop participants and graduates, progress is slow.

In 40-some years, trade facilities have amounted to a bronze bell foundry, ceramics apse, cafe, gallery, office of design, amphitheater and wood shop. Residential spaces span single-bed efficiencies and five-bedroom homes fitted into each other like Tetris pieces or nestled into earth berms. Permanent residents number about 60 at present, and rarely have exceeded 100.

Three types of windbells—hanging, clanging sculptural works that have become a classic Arizona souvenir—are crafted at Arcosanti: bronze bells (burnished gold or forcibly patinated to gradations of green), ceramic bells cast in smooth plastic molds, and ceramic bells cast in silt, which are the most tactile and organic of the three. The raw materials are cheap and the molds are long-lasting. That combination yields an appreciated margin on the sale of each souvenir to invest into site construction. Workshop participants currently pay $1,550 for the privilege of learning Soleri’s philosophies and methods and contributing sweat equity to the campus for five weeks. An abbreviated one-week workshop, at $550, offers a Soleri sampler for enthusiasts who can’t drop out of society for five weeks.

Samantha Rose earned a master’s degree in interior architecture at Rhode Island School of Design before coming to Arcosanti to attend a five-week workshop in the summer of 2012. Since then, she has stayed on to work in the architecture/planning and public relations departments.

“This place is quirky,” she says as both a warning and a compliment. The campus can be navigated by way of concrete paths, wooden stairs, hiking trails, low-clearance underpasses and soaring arches, often in quick combinations. “There are lots of ways to get around. It’s like a playground.”

She lives in a shared five-bedroom apartment near the amphitheater that’s characterized by cool angles, big windows, and surprise storage space along a staircase. Roommates have a Dungeons & Dragons board set up on the kitchen table.

Jeff Stein dryly refers to his humble one-bedroom apartment as the “presidential suite” and his little porch as the “papal balcony,” and opens a small door to admit warm air from a lower-on-the-mesa greenhouse to heat his living space. He is, in fact, Paolo Soleri’s successor as president of the Cosanti Foundation, steward of the Arcosanti project; Soleri turns 94 in 2013 and doesn’t travel to Arcosanti as much as he used to. (Soleri’s residence in Paradise Valley, called Cosanti, remains his primary base, with areas open to visitors and bell-shoppers daily.)

At 11:45 am each weekday, a brief town hall meeting assembles in a shaded outdoor area called The Vaults.

Five-year-old Sasha, the second son of Arcosanti’s construction manager David Tollas and planning manager Nadia Begin, pushes a toy car while 15 adults hear about upcoming workshops in essential oils and raw food, and an opportunity to make a little cash picking up auto parts in Prescott Valley. Stein asks for volunteers to help clean models for an exhibit at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.

Over a cafeteria lunch of leek soup and noodles with vegetables, a few residents plan a weekend roadtrip to Biosphere 2 in southern Arizona, then scatter to check emails or change clothes for their afternoon projects.

A half-dozen of them reappear at the terraced future site of a major greenhouse to mix concrete and pour a set of stairs. Naturally, some of the younger guys take off their shirts. One plugs an iPod full of jam bands into a stereo and turns it up. Sasha drops by to see the work his dad is leading, then peels off to play games on a computer.

When completed, it’s hoped that this cliffside greenhouse will be a significant source of residential heat as well as food. Take it from me and my companion notebook: An existing row of guest quarters that overlooks the construction site could benefit from the warmth produced by a house of plants below it, particularly overnight during a central-Arizona winter.

Sue Anaya’s working conditions are cleaner and more contemplative than the greenhouse construction site, but there’s still some heavy lifting. She spends her days in the archives, classifying the writings and sketches of the prolific Soleri. (She arrived at Arcosanti in 1978 when her daughter was four; that daughter is now Arcosanti’s workshop coordinator.)

Because the master architect toils in concepts of continuous, condensed linear cities as opposed to spotty suburban clusters, he has committed many ideas to scrolls from five to 180 feet long—practical in visual continuity but unwieldy in reference and storage. Anaya also manages Soleri’s sketchbooks dating to 1944, and copious international media coverage of Arcosanti and Cosanti.

The windbells made by hand at Soleri’s two Arizona laboratories, though, are the most tangible links to the rest of the world. Ceramics manager David Hutchens is downright reverent about maintaining the integrity of Soleri’s design aesthetic.

“We do more with what we have and less with what we don’t,” he says, explaining in particular how the silt-cast ceramic bells are an allegory for Arcosanti as a whole. Raw clay is sourced from Globe, Ariz., no labor is outsourced, and the rough, organic finished products recall the style of Soleri’s early work.

The ceramics apse within which Hutchens works today was the first structure completed at Arcosanti in 1972. Its quarter-sphere concrete shell alternately lets low winter sun into the workspace and blocks the higher summer sun.

Here’s what public tours of Arcosanti never get to see: a hidden enclave of extremely basic 8x8x8-foot “cubes” that some residents sleep inside. This area, nicknamed Camp, also has a bath building, kitchen under repairs, chicken coop, another greenhouse, a composting site, an occasionally used “biergarten” building cantilevered over the river, and another gathering space called the Octagon—which has the nostalgic campfire smell of an ice-skating chalet, but could use the attention of a good contractor. Camp improvements tend to be regulated to extra-curricular time and salvaged materials.
Do more with less, you know.

Back in the cafe that night, details are swapped about a martial arts practice space one resident is rumored to be developing somewhere at Camp; there might be a party down there this weekend.

I borrow a flashlight for the very dark walk past Arcosanti’s newest staircase to my overnight digs, and open the stone-paper notebook one more time.

Someone had asked me at dinner, “Based on what you’ve seen, do you think you could live in a place like this?”

I like the idea of a largely foot-guided community. I like the idea of exercise and fresh air and saying hello en route to work, meals and recreation. But I’d like a little anonymity too, and can’t imagine that’s possible on a 60-person campus.

The inquirer reminded me of the bigger picture. “What if there were 500 people, or 5,000?”

Now that could work. It really could.