In the view of the late Paolo Soleri, “the city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind.”
The visionary architect anticipated the ecological/environmental revolution as well as the need for its application to the urban environment. His vision included many of factors society has had to rediscover over the past few decades, such as local food production, increased walkability in the built environment, and passive heating and cooling systems.
Soleri was born in 1919 in Turin, Italy. After earning his architecture degree in 1946, he traveled to the U.S. to apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin and Taliesin West for 18 months. He returned to Italy in 1950, then eventually returned to Arizona in 1956, where he and his wife purchased land near Cordes Lakes. There, Soleri developed his signature idea, arcology, and his “urban laboratory,” Arcosanti.
Arcology and Arcosanti
Soleri’s concept of arcology is a blend of architecture and ecology, an “urban system that can function as a hyper-organism.” The seven design principles behind the practice are meant to guide planners and designers in creating cities that are small, dense, complex, and self-sustaining, thus minimizing human effects on our environment.
"Arcology recognizes the necessity for radical reorganization of sprawling urban landscape into dense, integrated, three-dimensional cities in order to support the complex activities that sustain human culture,” he said.
Soleri began building Arcosanti in 1970 with the help of many volunteers on 10 hectares of a 1,640 hectare land preserve. Since then, the project has had the help of more than 6000 volunteers, though the master plan is only two per cent done. The design principles as demonstrated at Arcosanti foreshadowed current themes such as urban farming, New Urbanism, and smart growth.
The principles are:
Proximity (24/7 Mixed-use Continuum)
Soleri’s design for Arcosanti maintains a small urban footprint for 5,000 residents, with all amenities and functions accessible by walking.
“The project proposes a habitat where crowding is present, not as a necessary evil, but as an indispensable asset,” Soleri wrote.
Work, home, leisure, and learning are built into the fabric of the city, but recognizing that city life can be hectic and overwhelming, Soleri also maintained natural areas outside the city’s small footprint useable by people for recreation and solitude.
Urban Scale (Pedestrian Environment)
Cities have mostly grown organically and at a human scale. Soleri prescribes that same theme, with structures just a few storeys high, and the city layout planned for pedestrians and bicyclists, and not cars.
Ecological Envelope (Bounded Density)
The antithesis of sprawl, Arcology’s ecological envelope requires “growth within limits.” The ecological envelope represents the amount of land needed to sustain human needs within strict boundaries while maintaining natural areas outside the envelope.
Less Consumption (Embodied Efficiency)
Soleri aimed to reduce energy use, energy and material inputs, and waste. He specified recycling, green building materials, passive heating and cooling approaches, and earth-friendly water and sewer systems. In addition to technological and building approaches to greater efficiency, Arcology stresses that the way in which a community is organised, such as through a small footprint, can reduce consumption.
Energy Apron (Energy and Food Nexus)
The greenhouse system at Arcosanti, called the Energy Apron, provides a multi-functional space for food production, rainwater harvesting, and capture of excess hot air that can be used to heat buildings.
Elegant Frugality (Creative Resourcefulness)
Resourcefulness combined with a creative approach can yield a beautiful, unique, and economical structure. Rather than relying on a constant flow of money to build or create, Arcology aims to use “bricolage,” or employing found materials with a creative approach.
Educational Opportunities (Environment as a Learning Asset)
Rather than seeking perfection, Arcosanti is intended to be an “urban laboratory,” a prototype for those involved in creating a self-sustaining city.
These design principles, used together, Soleri wrote, can demonstrate “positive response to the many problems of urban civilization, population, pollution, energy and natural resource depletion, food scarcity and quality of life.”
Soleri passed on in April of 2013 at the age of 93. Though his vision for Arcosanti was mostly unrealized during his lifetime, he did see more than 40 years of work done on the project, as well as the continued adoption of his holistic and ambitious designs and methods. Projects to create self-sustaining and regenerative communities that limit the human impact on the natural world are now, if not commonplace, no longer unheard of.
Filmmaker Lisa Scafuro profiled Soleri in her 2013 documentary The Vision of Paolo Soleri: Prophet in the Desert. Though he died before the official release of the film, Scafuro showed him a version during the summer before he passed, and he approved.
Paul Goldberger, architectural critic and historian, was interviewed for the film, and said of Soleri, “Soleri...clearly there’s no place in his brain for the recognition that this is impossible , and crazy and almost unachieveable. Therefore, he’s actually managing to do it.”