Arcosanti in Arizona - The Vision of Paolo Soleri

Architecture + Ecology = Arcology

Cactus in foreground, modern experimental buildings dot the desert in the background
Paolo Soleri's Experimental Town of Arcosanti, Arizona c. 1976. Photo by Santi Visalli/Archive Photos/Getty Images (cropped)

Arcosanti in Mayer, Arizona, about 70 miles north of Phoenix, is the urban laboratory founded by Paolo Soleri and his student followers. It is an experimental desert community created to explore Soleri's theories of Arcology.

Paolo Soleri (1919-2013) coined the term arcology to describe architecture's relationship with ecology. The word itself is a mash-up of architecture and ecology. Like the Japanese metabolists, Soleri believed that a city functions as a living system—as one integral process.

"Arcology is Paolo Soleri's concept of cities which embody the fusion of architecture with ecology....The multi-use nature of arcology design would put living, working, and public spaces within easy reach of each other and walking would be the main form of transportation within the city....Arcology would use passive solar architectural techniques such as the apse effect, greenhouse architecture and garment architecture to reduce the energy usage of the city, especially in terms of heating, lighting and cooling."—What is arcology?, Cosanti Foundation

Arcosanti is a planned community of earthen-built architecture. Architecture Professor Paul Heyer tells us that Soleri's building method is a type of "crafted construction," like the hand-crafted bells made on the property.

"The firm desert sand is mounded to make the formwork for the shell, then steel reinforcing is laid in position and the concrete poured. After the shell has set, a small bulldozer is used to remove the sand from under the shell. Excavated sand is then placed over the shell, and planted, gently merging it with the landscape and providing insulation against the extremes of desert temperature. The structures, cool during the day and warm in the cold desert night, open onto landscaped working spaces, defined by embankments of compressed, watered sand that form a sequence of sculptured spaces, while also ensuring privacy. Elementary in procedure, these structures are born of the desert and suggest the age-old search for shelter."—Paul Heyer, 1966

About Paolo Soleri and Cosanti:

Born in Turin, Italy on June 21, 1919, Soleri left Europe in 1947 to study with American architect Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona. The American Southwest and the Scottsdale desert captured Soleri's imagination.  He established his architecture studio in the 1950s and called it Cosanti, a combination of two Italian words—cosa meaning "thing" and anti meaning "against." By 1970, the Arcosanti experimental community was being developed on land less than 70 miles from Wright's Taliesin West home and school.

Choosing to live simply, without material "things," is part of the experiment of Arcosanti (architecture + cosanti).  The community's design principles define the philosophy—to set out to build a “Lean Alternative to hyper consumption through a smartly efficient and elegant city design" and to practice "elegant frugality." 

Soleri and his ideals are often revered and dismissed in the same breath—respected for his passionate vision and disregarded for it being a trendy, New Age, escapist project. Paolo Soleri died in 2013, but his grand experiment lives on and is open to the public.

What Are Soleri Windbells?

Most of the buildings at Arcosanti were constructed in the 1970s and 1980s. Maintaining unconventional architecture, as well as experimenting with architecture, can be costly. How do you fund a vision? The sale of crafted desert bells for decades has provided a steady source of income for the community.

Before there was crowdsourcing to fund projects, a small group of people may have turned to hand-making one-of-a-kind crafts to sell to the public. Whether it be Trappist Preserves or Girl Scout cookies, selling product has historically been a source of income for non-profit organizations.

In addition to the architecture school and workshops at Arcosanti, functional art has provided funding for Soleri's experimental community. Artisans at two studios—a metal foundry and a ceramics studio—create Soleri Windbells in bronze and clay. Along with pots and bowls and planters, they are Cosanti Originals.

Learn More:

  • The Bells of Arcosanti, audio CD and streaming
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  • The Omega Seed by Paolo Soleri, Doubleday, 1981
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  • Arcology: The City in the Image of Man by Paolo Soleri, Cosanti Press, 2006
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  • Conversations with Paolo Soleri (Conversations with Students) by Paolo Soleri, Princeton Architectural Press, 2012
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  • Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory? by Paolo Soleri, 1987
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  • The Urban Ideal: Conversations with Paolo Soleri by Paolo Soleri, Berkeley Hills Books, 2001
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  • The Bridge between Matter & Spirit Is Matter Becoming Spirit: The Arcology of Paolo Soleri by Paolo Soleri, 1973
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  • The Sketchbooks of Paolo Soleri by Paolo Soleri, The MIT Press, 1971
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  • Fragments: A selection from the sketchbooks of Paolo Soleri : the tiger paradigm-paradox by Paolo Soleri, Harper & Row, 1981
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  • Technology and Cosmogenesis by Paolo Soleri, 1986
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  • Lean Linear City: Arterial Arcology, Cosanti Press, 2012
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Sources: Architects on Architecture: New Directions in America by Paul Heyer, Walker and Company, 1966, p. 81; Arcosanti website, Cosanti Foundation [accessed June 18, 2013]