Utopias, Arcosanti and lessons for “smart cities”

Utopian thinking is back, as Silicon Valley envisions smart cities. Is there anything to learn from Arcosanti, an older social and architectural experiment in the Arizona desert?

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Utopian Thinking is Back

500 years ago Thomas More, the councillor to Henry VIII who was beheaded for trying to stop the king from seceding from Catholic Rome, wrote a book, in Latin, called Utopia — about a self-contained world set on an island, in which inhabitants share property and work and seek human happiness.

More’s vision inspired the ideal cities of the Renaissance, the Garden City movement, Le Corbusier’s modernist City of Tomorrow, as well as the Israeli kibbutzim and the hippie communes of the 1970s.

But with the failures of Modernist planning and architecture, utopianism fell out of fashion and the word became shorthand for “hopelessly idealistic,” says Christopher Turner, curator of a Design Biennial in London this September whose theme is “utopia by design.” “We know that design can’t solve all the world’s problems,” he acknowledges, “and all those modernist utopias are obsolete. . . but we wanted to address how design could make a difference on world issues and do that shamelessly.”

This coincides with a rise in utopian thinking in Silicon Valley, as Google, Tesla and Uber envision future “smart cities” much altered by innovations like driverless cars. A couple months back a start up venture capital group called Y Combinator put out a call for ideas for “new, better cites.”

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Uber’s fleet of self-driving cars arrives in Pittsburgh. Image courtesy uber.com. Listen to a discussion about driverless cars on this DnA.

In the event you think this sounds like Silicon Valley hubris, they added: “We want to build cities for all humans – for tech and non-tech people. We’re not interested in building ‘crazy libertarian utopias for techies.’”

Maybe not, but it sure sounds like utopian thinking, and why not? According to architect Craig Hodgetts,”utopian cities have mostly been in the past reactive to new technologies, and they’re reactive because people look and they say oh my goodness we’ve reached a kind of threshold where these technologies are superimposed on an old infrastructure. What’s so appealing about the idea of a new start with a fresh piece of paper is because we’re carrying the burden of all of that old infrastructure.”

Hodgetts teaches a graduate studio at UCLA’s architecture school focused on future habitats and transportation, and back in the 70s designed sets for a planned movie adaptation of the classic utopian novel Ecotopia.

The late 1960s and early 70s were a time that saw a lot of experimentation in alternative living, which brings us to Arcosanti, the unfinished dream of a city that sits atop the edge of a cliff in the scorching desert of Yavapai County, Arizona, and is still home to a small community that believes it has answers to some of the world’s big problems.

Arcosanti

In 1970 the late architect Paolo Soleri, begun construction of a concrete township whose planning and architecture, he believed, could show a way to address the world’s ecological and population challenges. His answer was “arcology,” his own coined term for the nexus of architecture and ecology, where builders would work in union with the earth, inextricably linking their structures with their natural surroundings.

He envisioned cities as dense, interconnected and sustainable structures – the opposite of urban sprawl – that would house thousands of people in proximity to each other and to nature.

Soleri didn’t achieve his vision in Arcosanti, but he did leave behind a fascinating place.

The site features a stunning theater, a foundry, a ceramics studio, and a large apse for public meetings, all built in raw concrete, in forms and orientation intended to provide natural cooling.

The Arcosanti project began in 1970 and drew a lot of attention in its early years, especially for its efforts at solar power.

Now, about a third of its electricity comes from solar panels; the rest is from the state-wide public utility. Yet, the site still tries to use as little power as possible.

“The issue isn’t where we’re going to get all of the energy that we want to use, but how we can make our architecture work harder than your architecture,” says Jeff Stein, president of the Cosanti Foundation, a non-profit that supports the continuation of Soleri’s architectural research.

(“Cosanti” is a portmanteau of the French cosa and anti, together meaning “against things” – a perfect descriptor for Soleri’s sustainable and anti-consumption design stance.)

Still, the cooling design isn’t foolproof. On summer nights, despite Soleri’s design intentions, the structure is intensely hot.

On sweltering nights sans electricity, everything is pitch black; the only light is a glittering bed of stars. If a gentle wind blows by, the soft chimes of Arcosanti’s famous bronze bells fill the air with nature-made music.

Jeff Stein is one of 80 people living and working at Arcosanti. Some members of the community host visitors, workshops, tours and artists-in-residence; others work in the forgery, making and selling the bells.

Andy Chao, the head of Arcosanti’s foundry, has lived at Arcosanti for nine years, pouring and sculpting molten bronze into bells day by day, in the arid Arizona desert.

“I think there’s there’s something healing about being exposed to nature every day,” he says.

Mary Hoadley feels a similar magic at Arcosanti. She came to the site in 1970, fell in love, gave birth and raised her daughter there.

“I came to visit, and then I never left,” she says.

Stein found Arcosanti five years later, in 1975, as part of a construction workshop and hasn’t looked back since.

“I was a part of a group of people from all over the world,” he says. “It seemed to me at the time that this is what college should be like: a whole group of diverse people, men and women, from everywhere, and having the most fun in their lives, building something as beautiful as they could conceive it.”