Correction to This Article
A previous version of this article incorrectly said that Steven Spielberg was inspired by the architecture of Arcosanti. It was George Lucas's team that drew inspiration from the desert designs for the "Star Wars" movies.
Arcosanti: A 'City' Grows Green in the Arizona Desert

By Andrea Sachs
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 20, 2008

Arriving at Arcosanti, an experimental eco-city in central Arizona, I was acutely aware of my non-greenness. I had spent the morning expelling carbon on my flight to Phoenix. My rental car was messy with empty soda bottles, a few plastic bags and a banana peel that I didn't plan to mulch. A piece of paper with directions had accidentally escaped through the car window, floating off toward a patch of spiky cactus. With this kind of résumé, would Mother Earth's minions still let me inside?

"Hey, come join us," a guy in a dress, belt and outsize personality beckoned. "Have a beer."

The Californian graphic artist was one of up to 80 residents living and working at Arcosanti, a pilot utopian community that champions sustainable living. After a long day of working on passive solar power, gardening and bread-baking, the group was tossing back a few. And for me, after a long day of carbon emissions and gas-guzzling, a mixer with outre environmentalists was much appreciated.

"Put your empties on the rebar before you leave," advised one of the revelers. I slid my glass bottle onto a sharp piece of metal. See, I was already contributing to the environment.

Arcosanti was started in the 1970s by Italian architect Paolo Soleri, a spitfire who seeks an alternative to a car-dominant, hyper-consumerist society. With his so-called urban laboratory, Soleri, 88, hopes to eliminate the automobile, promote frugality and create a functional metro center run on the Earth's resources: food from organic gardens, power from the sun, air conditioning from the shade, building materials from the natural surroundings. Though still a work in progress, Arcosanti in theory offers residents the same amenities as, say, a Manhattanite: housing, commerce, culture and dining.

For the visitor, staying at Arcosanti is an opportunity to soak up the Sierra Club ideology within a "Blade Runner" fantasy. While more-mainstream eco-resorts feature energy-saving light bulbs, organic meals and save-the-sea-turtle outings, Arcosanti goes deeper. It aims to change behavior through workshops, tours, conversations, hikes and happy hour with a man with gender-bending style.

"Arcosanti is both a success and a failure. A failure in that it is less than what its founder had hoped it would be, yet an extraordinary success in that it is actually there, inhabited and changing people's lives," said Susan Piedmont-Palladino, a curator at Washington's National Building Museum who is organizing an exhibit on green communities. "Its greatest success has been its prescience in the field of architecture and the environment."

In honor of Earth Day (April 22), I recently flew to Phoenix, then rented a car for the 65-mile drive to Arcosanti -- yes, drive. Ironically, the only way to reach the eco-city is by car.

* * *

Arcosanti was founded on the lofty concepts of "arcology," an elision of "architecture" and "ecology" that was coined by Soleri and reimagined by many science fiction writers. The movement envisions superstructures that provide commercial and residential space for the masses, but with minimal environmental impact. They are beehives made for people.

From Interstate 17, Arcosanti is invisible; however, as I neared the parking lot, its grand design became apparent: a hodgepodge of earth-hued concrete buildings with large circular windows, bowing apses and artful detailing. It resembled a World War III bunker for a rich dilettante.

The property sits on 15 cactus-strewn acres, a small wedge of the 860 acres owned by the nonprofit Cosanti Foundation, which also leases an adjacent 3,200 acres from the state. (The foundation raises funds through sales of Soleri's artwork, workshops and other endeavors.) Despite its compactness, Arcosanti contains all the necessities of village life: a cafe, a bakery, an art gallery, apartments and dorms for residents and guests, gardens and greenhouses, a foundry, woodwork and ceramic studios, an amphitheater and a swimming pool, which overlooks a static tide of sand and rocks.

The residents I encountered were an interesting mix of workshoppers attending a weeks-long program that teaches arcology and other eco- and arty topics; interns who practice their trade in those specialties; and full-timers, who in many cases become long-termers.

Some have lobbed the word "commune" at Arcosanti; "tightknit community" is a better description. Minutes after settling into my simple room with unobstructed desert views, I was invited to a party the next night. The theme was Rubik's Cube: Wear three of the cube's colors, and by the end of the night, you should be a solid. Clever -- or Arcosantis Gone Wild. (I missed the fete but heard that the clothes started flying after midnight.) I also met my next-door neighbors, parents of resident Anna Greenberg, a 23-year-old from Washington.

Greenberg, who works in the foundry and the bakery, led our tour, a colorful guide in purple overalls, pink Crocs and a silver stud above her lip. At each building, she stopped to point out the innovative constructions and features. The heat from the foundry, for example, warms the apartments above. Evaporation from a moat encircling the amphitheater stage cools concertgoers. Olive trees salvaged from Phoenix produce shade and a Mediterranean flavor in meals.

"This is not the perfect arcology, but it's a place to experiment," Greenberg said, admitting that the city is still on the grid, must order food from outside sources and is only about 5 percent complete. "It is designed to human size; Phoenix is designed to car size."

How true: For the next 48 hours, I wouldn't even start up my rental.

* * *

Before you park the car, a field trip is advised. During his younger days, Soleri studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, attending the acclaimed architect's school at Taliesin West. After a series of scampish behaviors, he was kicked out, but not before Wright's ideas on organic architecture took purchase.

During a tour of Taliesin West, about an hour south of Arcosanti in the Phoenix suburb of Scottsdale, our tour guide led us through Wright's home and office. "He got his ideas from nature," she said. "Nature was his religion, with a capital N."

Some of Wright's main themes, which reappear in Arcosanti, are the use of site-specific materials and multi-functional elements: A pool of water works for swimming, extinguishing fires and cooling the air. Wright also found unsightly the guts of industry and threatened to raze Taliesin West after electric towers were erected, sullying his view. In the end, he decided to simply turn his back on them, shifting his focus onto the mountains in what was now his front yard.

Arcosanti also blots out the less attractive hallmarks of an industrialized, auto-dependent society. The highway is not visible from the property, nor are the McDonald's golden arches in nearby Cordes Junction. At night, the glare of Phoenix doesn't dim the star-bright sky.

Despite his preference for a natural setting, Soleri spends part of his time at Cosanti, his gallery, studio and home in nearby Paradise Valley. (He spends the rest of the week in an apartment at Arcosanti.) Built in the 1950s and recognized as an Arizona Historic Site, the five-acre property does its own sprawling, with seven surreal structures that include the apprentice quarters, supposedly Steven Spielberg's inspiration for the Ewoks' habitat in "Return of the Jedi."

Cosanti is also a giant exhibit hall for Soleri's signature ceramic and bronze bells, which hang from every imaginable surface. When the early evening wind swept through, the noise was more fairy tinkle than Philip Glass.

* * *

Since Arcosanti is a working city, not a top-service resort, visitors are left to their own devices for amusement. The most obvious distractions are the hour-long tour (did that), the bakery (ate my treat) and the gallery (browsed the bells and even rang some). The cafe serves three meals a day and on occasion exhibits works by residents (coveted the coffee table made of a metal Marlboro sign). After that, it was up to me -- though I was taking suggestions.

One came from Clifford Hersted, the resident anthropologist and best petroglyph spotter around. During his 15 years at Arcosanti, he has found hundreds of these artifacts scrawled on nearby rock faces and has identified stone walls built by prehistoric Indians around A.D. 1300.

We set off on foot on a hot Sunday morning, with Cliff dressed head to toe in desert hues. Our group included Colleen of Michigan, who made bells; Alessandro, an Italian photographer; and Peter, a Wisconsin chef who the previous night had allowed me to play sous-chef. (If you want to help out, just speak up; the residents are grateful for an extra hand.) Like ducklings in an ill-formed row, we followed Cliff, who carried a big stick to shoo rattlesnakes.

Cliff hypothesized that Indians once hunted pronghorn antelope here. Stacked boulders zigzagging up the mesa, he explained, were placed by the Sinagua to channel the animals into the "kill zone." (The antelopes can run as fast as 60 mph, but they don't jump.)

"It took a lot of labor to build these walls," he said. "It would take a lot of Arcosanti workshoppers."

Earlier, Cliff had told us that it takes a while to train your eye to differentiate man-made constructions from natural ones. Even on alert, I completely missed the petroglyphs at my right elbow: figures of hunters with some meat on their bones, and antelopes that showed no fear of becoming dinner.

"I don't know if they charmed them or drugged them," he said. "But their tails are down, so they aren't stressed. This is real storytelling."

After our trek back, it was time to do what I had not done in two days: drive.

Before setting off for Phoenix, I attached a small Soleri bell to my rearview mirror. The bronze ornament chimed sweetly all the way back to the highway, but then started to swing dangerously toward my head. At that point, I had to take it down and tuck it away.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company