There are certain cultural figures whose passing seems to mark the end of an era. Paolo Soleri was one of those. Even if you never actually got to visit Arcosanti, the maverick builder and his off-the-grid, concrete fantasy occupied a place in the imaginations of a generation — both architects and non-architects — akin to that of counterculture gurus like Timothy Leary or John Lennon. Bennett Stein even concocted a university course inspired by Soleri’s vision, as he recalls here.
Arcosanti was a space age rock and roll utopia to me growing up. Paolo Soleri was its hipster exotic guru, like some alpha cat out of Zabriski Point. Better still, it was a lunar base yet located on earth. As a kid I had an older brother in college in the 70s, who may have been the one who first turned me on to Arcosanti. When I visited him in Boston on weekends he’d have me sleep in an indoor pyramid to soak up superconcentrated biocosmic energy to make me spiritually evolved or invincible. He saw Arcosanti as an ancient Egyptian embassy on American soil.
It seemed cool because it felt off the grid, felt rebellious, it strove to grow its own food and limit carbon footprints. It also felt like a Philip K. Dick sci-fi spiritual western to me. When I read Philip K. Dick’s ‘Martian Time Slip’ about the lone Martian trash hauler base commander, Arcosanti was how I pictured that yarn. Arcosanti was architecture as conscientious, smart hippie rock and roll lounge headquarters. It may have been mostly a fantasy but it made me think about the built environment, and gave me odd fleeting delusions of being an architect, second only to my constant dream of being a rock and roll star. Later when I was at UC Berkeley, Arcosanti was the impetus for me to develop my own major there, Urban Anthropology, which I conceived of as a way to study present day cities and buildings of earth as if I were an anthropologist, or alien archeologist, a thousand years in the future.
Dream vision fulfilled: I am that future or alien anthropologist studying the ancient incomplete dream of a mysterious civilization called Arcosanti. I must get out there to Arizona and sift around in the sand and find out what those people ate, what bands they listened to, what kind of astronomical instruments they used, whether or not they’d planned to build a landing dock for space people to land the mother ship.
Even though his community never achieved the size (pop. 5000) that he imagined, being ultimately occupied by 100 or so devotees, dreams of an earthly utopia live on, perhaps in today’s efforts to go off the grid, or on other platforms, like the virtual environments of video games and other transmedia fantasy realms. As it happens, the creation of alternative universes will be under discussion on Saturday, at USC’s 5D festival, entitled the Science of Fiction. Listen to founder Alex McDowell discuss it here. Send us your thoughts on your favorite counterculture environments and we will discuss on a future DnA.