Three years ago, I stared up at the stars in the northern Arizona desert. I felt the smooth concrete of stargazing steps against my back. Beneath me was a massive amphitheater. Around me was a conglomeration of communal artist workshops, cube-like homes, agriculture fields, and then vast desert emptiness, stretching for miles. This scene – young girl gazes into the vastness of the universe, her face lit by lights from the windows of a secluded concrete compound, surrounded by unperturbed desert darkness– could easily be the opening of a 20th century science fiction novel.

Those stargazing steps form the “Sky Theatre” in the Colly Soleri Music Center of a community called Arcosanti. Arcosanti, established by architect Paulo Soleri in the early 1970s, is a self-proclaimed “urban laboratory” meant to solve environmental and social ills. Though it did not achieve all that its founder hoped for—original plans designed a city with a population of 5,000—the structures that were actually built still exist today and house approximately 50 permanent residents. The community funds construction and renovation primarily by selling artisan bells handcrafted in on-site ceramic workshops. Most long-terms residents are the alumni of the workshop programs held at Arcosanti. To sustain the community they not only make bells but also work in the space, contributing everything from maintenance to architectural planning to cooking. Visitors and students are also able to pay to stay in the community and tour the grounds, just as I did for a two-day school visit years ago.

The moment in which I knew Arcosanti would be very different from more typical accommodations was when my peers and I turned off I-17 onto a rutted dirt road. We suddenly transitioned from smooth concrete to uncomfortable jolts and our little van bumped away from the highway, swallowed by the desert vista and the extensive blue of the sky. In this turnoff from the highway Arcosanti expressed to visitors that its space is separate from the other human creations lining the interstate.

The view of Arcosanti was unimpressive from the parking lot. Only a few buildings were visible and we were located near a construction site. Each building I could see was a brownish concrete – it didn’t at all look like the metal-modernist city I expected. In material and shapes the buildings felt more like an extension of the desert sand, as if the arches in Moab moved to Arizona and transformed into city structures. My group climbed stairs past the vegetarian café to the fourth flour gallery in Arcosanti’s visitor’s center to start our tour. As we ascended, large circular windows lined the stairwell, looking out onto the desert. I had a sense of being in a completely new physical environment, but one that was also intensely familiar in its connection with the natural world.

Despite its tiny population, thousands of visitors make this same voyage every year. Arcosanti has gained a remarkable amount of press as well: journalists for various publications – among them the blog Wired and The New York Times – have traveled the 70 miles from Phoenix to experience this strange city firsthand.

Though Wired’s James McGirk and New York Times’ Michael Tortorello each have a slightly different approach to Arcosanti, both attempt to draw meaning from its failure to achieve utopia. McGirk uses Arcosanti’s lack of success to label the city a deluded endeavor, fueled by the “madness” of when architecture and urban planning were “megalomaniacal disciplines”. Tortorello is more forgiving. After explaining that it is very unlikely for Arcosanti to ever come to fruition—it may not even complete minor upcoming renovations—he still asks his readers, “Why doesn’t everyone choose to live this way?”

As my tour began, I walked through the semi-outdoor Ceramics Apse and saw residents and workshop participants quietly forming the massive bell creations I had seen earlier in the visitor’s center. We then moved towards an area called the Vaults, the shaded area designed for both social purposes, like community-wide meetings and celebrations, and large work projects. As the tour continued, I became in awe of the natural beauty and ingenious space around me. While hearing about the concerts and parties held in the Vault and the prized Cyprus and olive trees dotting the area around me (the community occasionally presses the olive crop to make olive oil), I too considered how fantastic it could be to live in a community oriented around art and sustainability—two facets of life on the periphery of American society.

Yet during the same tour I realized that, for practical reasons, Arcosanti would never host a population of 5,000. I quickly ran out of breath moving up and down flights of stairs and steep walkways (no cars allowed, of course) and my knees hurt from constant contact with concrete. How could older citizens or people who are injured or disabled handle this space? During my brief visit, I only saw healthy residents between approximately 25 and 50 years old (except for two children whose mother told me were homeschooled, both for pedagogical reasons and because of the distance between Arcosanti and the nearest schools), and few of these residents stay for their entire life. The climate in northern Arizona is also harsh—hot in the summer and a frigid, high-desert cold in the winter—but Arcosanti has no central heating or AC. In the chilly evenings of my mid-March trip I had to layer almost all the clothes I packed because the buildings tenuously rely on natural properties of the built environment, such as window positioning and concrete’s ability to conduct heat, to keep residents comfortable. The room I shared with another student was essentially a concrete cube, big enough only to fit our beds, two small tables, and a shower just large enough for a single person to turn around in. True, one full wall was pure glass, looking out to the beautiful, deserted Arizona canyon, but clearly spaciousness as we are used to it was never incorporated into the Arcosanti mindset. To be a more permanent part of this community, I would need to do more than just move—I would have to abandon my standards of comfort.

What really led me to scrounge up these memories and dig up old articles three years after visiting Arcosanti, though, is not a desire to join McGirk and Tortorello in pragmatic assessments. Instead, I decided to write about my travels in the Arizona desert while sitting in an urban studies lecture.

Specifically, I remembered the video I watched at the beginning of my tour of Arcosanti, which led me to believe that Arcosanti was an absurd architectural cult. I watched it in a comfortable seating area in the city’s tallest concrete structure, near the gift shop housing the area’s ornate ceramic bells. After watching Soleri’s soaring virtual structures in the video, my guide spoke reverently about her architect leader. She never acknowledged any flaw in Soleri’s plans, and I soon felt worried about somehow getting cult-kidnapped while going down the hill to my cube to sleep that night.

Back in the Princeton lecture, I remembered that behind this cultish praise was a paradigm underlying all of Soleri’s grand plans: the conviction that human values are dictated by the construction of our physical environment. At the turn of the 20th century, many urban sociologists shared this logic. Jacob Riis, for instance, was convinced that the physical characteristics of the tenements in New York City caused the social and moral degradation of the city. By the early 1960s, such a theory seemed incredibly antiquated—scholars largely abandoned the notion that space is the primary determining factor in action, understanding issues like social disorder through a variety of factors. Scholar Bradford Hunt is in this group; he accounts for crime in Chicago public housing during the era by considering youth-adult ratios and policy decisions rather than only the layout of the buildings.

Soleri spent his life’s career theorizing how to manipulate values through space. His theories are based on the idea that our current sprawl contributes greatly to our mindset of hyper-consumption and waste. As he expresses, “as a result of [current cities’] sprawl, they literally transform the earth, turn farms into parking lots and waste enormous amounts of time and energy transporting people, goods and services over their expanses.” By constructing the opposite kind of space—an arcology that combines architecture and ecology, minimizing waste—we could lead people to a fully sustainable lifestyle and worldview.

In terms of the role of urban space in determining values, the case of Arcosanti is different from the tenements and housing projects. Though urban planners care about how to incorporate a value like community into their buildings, Arcosanti tries to completely overhaul our values and worldviews. As Soleri describes it, Arcosanti is “urban implosion rather than explosion” through a “radical reorganization of the sprawling urban landscape into dense, integrated, three-dimensional cities.” Maybe, then, we can assume that space plays a much stronger role in determining the so-called “Arconauts” value system than it would in most buildings and cities.

Space then might cause an incompatibility between Arconaut and American values. Americans relate to and categorize our space in terms of ownership. Think back to our rejection of graffiti as vandalism in the 1970s—the Times editorial board condemned the influx of tags and street art as an “invasion.” Joe Austin, a scholar studying graffiti, explicitly states: “the moral order of New York City was [in the 1970s] underpinned by a shared social consensus about the practices and signs of property ownership, as opposed to a consensus about the value of democracy, the family, or some equally fundamental value.” Arcosanti’s use of space, in which buildings transform from social spaces to private work areas to locations for group projects, navigating the gray area in the middle of the public/private dichotomy, is completely foreign to the American spatial mindset.

Arcosanti is also opposed to a productivity-oriented mindset. In every building on my tour, my guide discussed how a room minimized resources and space. Discussions of energy were phrased in terms of saving, not producing. This framework affects other dimensions of Arconaut society; the community is anti-commercial and does not strive to produce. In choosing ceramic bells to export, Arcosanti rejects the American (and western) notion of production as the essential component to society.

This rejection of production is probably one of the hardest facets of Arcosanti for many Americans to accept. McGrirk in his Wired post explains his skepticism: “Arcosanti was too rigid of a structure — literally, its physical plant couldn’t adapt, and figuratively, its social structure was too fixed — to contain the full spectrum of people a city needs to survive; not just high priests and acolytes, but entrepreneurs and rogues too.”

I prefer not to moralize about Arcosanti’s values. I’ll instead take McGirk’s statement as an illustration of how ingrained the values of individualism and production are in the American understanding of physical space. Arcosanti is uncompromisingly opposed to many American values because Soleri crafted its space to invert the modern, sprawling city. Arcosanti’s fate to remain secluded and small in the middle of the Arizona desert may be due to this moral incompatibility, and not to any design flaw. However, I hope our small fascination with Arcosanti will persist with what exists of the community. Though we might believe we are intrigued solely by a cult or failed utopian dreams, we also inadvertently contemplate our own values when we return to the desert to study Arcosanti’s strange concrete skyline.

Do you enjoy reading the Nass?

Please consider donating a small amount to help support independent journalism at Princeton and whitelist our site.