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In your own backyard: No roads, no conservatives

Experimental community strives to become self-sustaining

 by Katie Kelberlau  published on Thursday, April 7, 2005

Arcosanti, which means “architecture before things,” relies on the passive solar architecture of architect Paolo Soleri. The style features half domes and green houses to reduce the use of heating, cooling and electricity.
/issues/arts/692777
Shannon Novotne
Arcosanti, which means “architecture before things,” relies on the passive solar architecture of architect Paolo Soleri. The style features half domes and green houses to reduce the use of heating, cooling and electricity.
 

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It is a quiet Friday morning at Arcosanti, a small town 65 miles north of Phoenix. Though Interstate-17 is visible from here, the roaring sound of cars does not carry to the tiny settlement.

There are no roads in Arcosanti, which is actually more of an "urban experiment" in sustainable settlement architecture than a town, and there are only around 60 full-time residents. One small café and a convenience store that is open for only an hour a day are the only places to buy food. There is no hustle or rushed noise — just serene quiet.

An older man with a Mohawk and painted pants works outside, while three women cast and carve ceramic bells. The sun filters through the densely packed buildings, and a child runs across a field, leaving his tricycle toppled over in the grass.

Almost 50,000 people a year visit Arcosanti and more than 6,000 people have graduated from the town's five-week workshop, in which participants learn the theories behind Paolo Soleri's architecture and assist with construction projects on the site.

Arcosanti is Soleri's concept. The 85-year-old architect began working on the project in 1970, and continues to visit the site twice a week. His idea was to create a blueprint for an ecologically responsible settlement — a model for future urban planning.

Instead of spreading outward, like the sprawling city of Phoenix, Soleri's idea is to build vertically, creating only a small footprint on the land and preserving quality farmland and environmental beauty.

Charlie Provine is Arcosanti's official public relations man. He is tall with tan skin and a healthy glow. After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in anthropology, Provine worked for corporate America, in the business of making money. He just moved to Arcosanti last summer, completely changing the pace and tone of his life.

Provine says residents will be primarily self-sufficient when the experiment of Arcosanti is complete. Right now, they grow only 7 to 10 percent of their food.

Sound like bunch of hippie mumbo-jumbo?

Maybe it is — or maybe there is something to it. As Provine points out, some cities are taking a cue from Soleri and building multi-use high-rise buildings that include retail stores, apartments, hotels and restaurants.

Arcosanti is constantly remodeled. Current residents, workshop attendees, and interns build and adapt Soleri's concepts, as well as work the fields, run the shop and café, and make ceramic and bronze bells. The bells are sold at stores on site as well as exported to art galleries and are the major products of the site.

Arcosanti's 60 residents are an interesting bunch. There are a few residents who have lived there for decades and a lot of young people there on one- to two-year contracts.

Even though there are so few residents, small-town fever doesn't seem to be a factor. Though their entire town is laid out over only three acres, few people feel the need to leave regularly. They work 40 hours a week and then spend the remainder of their time reading, painting, sculpting or just thinking.

Dan Kelliher is the resident architect at Arcosanti. He says he leaves the settlement once every two to three weeks, at most. Since there are no roads in Arcosanti, Provine says it gets to the point where he doesn't even want to drive anywhere.

But he doesn't need to.

"We have crazy parties every weekend," Kelliher says.

Some of the older residents go to the parties, as well as interns and workshop attendees.

Provine leads the 11 a.m. tour today, and there are about 10 people following him around the site, as he shows off what the settlement has to offer. There are classrooms, apartments, worksites, and a large amphitheater where the site hosts avant-garde music, jazz shows, slam poetry competitions, and the like. University students get half-price tickets to the events.

A tour guest asks to see the inside of a typical residence and Provine cordially offers to show his own. The interior is all wood, with circular windows and sublevels. In the kitchen there is a stack of emptied beer bottles.

"We have '80s-themed parties and toga parties — all kinds of stuff," he says.

In the 1970s, Provine says, there was maybe one woman per 100 men at the site. Now the ratio is more like 60 women to 40 men (including residents, volunteers, interns and others), leading to a semi-collegiate atmosphere in the community.

"We are a great, diverse community," Provine says. "Everything is represented — different backgrounds, ethnicities, sexual orientations, all of it."

A man on the tour asks Provine about the site's politics.

"We are all liberals," he says quickly. "Not that conservatives would not be able to fit in, but they just may not find many people to discuss politics with."

The site's internship programs last three months and attract many college students with experience in architecture, planning, design, and other fields such as agriculture, public relations, and archival preservation. For more information, visit www.arcosanti.org.

Reach the reporter at katherine.kelberlau@asu.edu.



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