For centuries religious zealots sought inspiration and solace in the desert. Some found visions of surpassing Protundity and grandeur, others saw nutty mirages.

There was a little of each in Paolo Soleris Avcosanti Festival this year.Soleri's identity is as elusive as a fire seen through heat waves. Of course we know who Soleri is. He's a celebrity. Or is he a legend?

Well, he's Italian by birth, 59 years old and a famous architect. Is he an architect? He hasn't built very much. He was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, who said he was brilliant but undisciplined.

The Tourist brochure rack at Del Webb's Townehouse has modest folders urging vistors to see Soleri's two best-known architectural structures, Consanti and Arcosanti. It's nice to be asked. It's not so nice to get there and find yourself walking through a mine licid of hand-scrawled, scolding signs: Do not smoke, eat, drink, or pass this point on pain of becoming an an horsdod'oeuvre for a vicious dog. (Is that him there, asleep?)

Consanti - weirdly placed in a comfortable middle-class neighborhood in a Phoenix suburb - is a cavelike collection of Soleri vaults, domes and barrel-shaped buildings that feel both primitive and futuristic as if hand-built by survivors of that cosmie calamity that is supposed to stand between us ant the Flash Gordon era.

Visiting Consanti is like a pilgrimage to a hermit who truly wishes to remain undisturbed but needs money for his sacred mission. Visit the holy nuckster hermit.

Soleri supports his projects mainly through selling his three books, lithographs of architectural concepts that usually look like bad Futurism wrung through Abstract Expressionism, and bells.

At the Arcosanti Festival, the offramp from highway 17 through Cordes Junction was literally solid with vehicles for about two miles.

The Wait wasn't bad.Gorgeous young men and women dressed to show of their bodies. A girl perched atop a camper blowing bubbies into the heat. In the distance Arcosanti loomed like some Mesopotamian Xanadu, designed, perhaps, by Antonio Gaudi, A million people seemed to be at a makeshift amphiteater on the hillside.Immense tube-shaped baloons looped through the air, an art work by Otto Piene. The theme of the four-day affair was "art in the environment." Two days were devoted to tink-tanking. Now came the whoopee part, rockets, string quartets, art.

There is nothing like being in an endless line to produce profound ruminations. What is this curious oasis all about? Basically it is Soleri's Noah's Ark, he self-contained utopian cities he projects are supposed to save the world from urban anomie, environmental glut, pollution, food shortages, luxurious decadence and the fuel crisis. In order to arrive at the symbol of these ideals, hundreds of automobiles were standing immobilized with their engines running.

Well, that's what happens every time ideals try to become realities, Reality is a corrupter of ideals. It turns them into irony.

After a little hassle at the entrance (more prohibitive signs) you find yourself bumping along on the wrong side of the road with a windshield sticker reading "Press-VIP." Waiting kids rag you.

It is nearly impossible to estimate the size of anything in the desert. At close quarters, Arcosanti shrinks from a monumental empire to a medieval mud village, Vaults that look 80 feet high are more like 30, Two hemispherical structures designed to use solar energy shrink from visual St. Peter's demes to large bomb shelters. But they are distinctively Soeriesque, imaginative and nice and cool inside. A right-angle building is disappointingly mundane. Except for circular windows it might as well be a small apartment building.

Soleri started Arcosanti in 1970, building with volunteer labor, college students and romantic driffers looking for answers, beliefs. Among Arcosanti insiders the word is that Soleri is struck. Existing buildings represent on; bout one percent of the total conception. To finish a community for 3,000. Soleri wants to get up an enormous green house-like building that looks a bit like a high-rise turned on its side. Devoted followers privately express disappointment at the new design. It looks to them like the teckocracy they want to escape. They like the intimate, folk-craft, nature-boy feel of the original structures.

Visitors labor happily up and down dirt ramps on the hill site. The absence of forbidden alcohol and dope lends the place a healthy aura.

Banners and pretty girls undulate to the sound of a wooden flute. Health food is dispensed at a price. A million things are going on, but where is all the art that's supposed to happen? Tal Streeter is supposed to fly hundreds of tiny kites at once. Rockne Krebs is scheduled to do a laser show, but he is sick. Maybe somebody else will do lasers.

What is that huge cloud of black smoke coming from behind the hill? A bearded, suave festival PR man announces it's not an artwork, just a little brushfire. Under control, folks. Enjoy the music.

The next morning 125 automobiles have burned to charred skeletons in a field converted to a parking lot. The papers have printed the story. Bad press. Last year they had trouble with a couple of characters wandering around with guns. Now this, Areosanti personnel are harassed and defensive.

Yesterday's visitors hang around the trailer that serves as an office. "When can I tow my ear? Will insurance cover it?"

They are matter-of-fact, even pleasant.

The Arizona Republic reports that next year, festival safety arrangements will come under strict official scrutiny. The fire spread because equipment couldn't get down the clogged road. Volunteers controlled the blaze as best they could, but it burned for four hours.

Incredibly, no one was injured.

The scene is more bizarre and effective than any counscious environmental art work. Police wander among gutted ears trying to figure out how it started.

It looks like an archeological dig unearthed at the end of the Petrochemical Age. Seats and steering wheels are charred to wire outlines.Molten windshields ooze down bodies heated to a patina that resembles Soleri's bells. Hoods and trunks blown open by explosions gape like dinosaur maws begging just one more gallon of gas.