Paolo Soleri is tired, very tired, of being labeled an impractical dreamer, a selfless visionary, an otherworldly utopian. He has spent 30 years in the Arizona desert, the last 11 supervising the construction of a city, Arcosanti, a practical labor he believes will embody "a reverential and real relationship with the earth" as opposed to the "truly utopian" world of technology, affluence and consumerism most of the rest of us inhabit.
Twelve years ago, when Soleri visited Washington in the company of a mammoth, spellbinding, wow-'em exhibition of his models and drawings for giant, "archological" cities at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, it was the stupendous size of his imaginings that awed and upset thousands of visitors. It was hard to picture actually living in one of the megastructures, at once so beautiful and scary, that seemed to sprout like endless complex organisms from his fertile brain and febrile pen, and it was hard to decide if Soleri was a prophet or an architectural megalomaniac. He captured much attention from the local and national media.
A short, wiry man with wisps of graying hair and leathery, weathered features, Soleri at 62 looks more than ever like the quintessential Italian stonemason, a "body man" as he would say. In Soleri's verbal shorthand, "body man" is the artisan, the hand-worker he believes is undervalued in the contemporary world. But not at Arcosanti. Soleri is indeed a "body man," at least in part. After a post-war sojourn as an apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West, he returned to his native Italy with his new bride, Corolyn (who died last year), to teach himself ceramics.
"I knew I'd need something to support myself as an architect," he recalled, "because even then I was certain I wasn't going to fit into the profession in any conventional sense." Despite his look and craftman's skill, Soleri is the embodiment of "mental man" -- a writer and provocative thinker and, of course, the chief architect, in all senses of the word, of Arcosanti, what it is and what it is to become.
Since his visit here 12 years ago, Soleri's message hasn't changed much--he still believes a union of architecture and ecology (hence, archology) is the only way for us to go -- but his manner has. So, too, has his reception. Last week, delivering a lecture on Arcosanti to an audience of Smithsonian Resident Associates at the National Air and Space Museum, he seemed like a slightly eccentric chairman of the board delivering a report on the mundane ups and downs of an ongoing project. The audience responded in kind with mostly straightforward questions about specific buildings, techniques, procedures.
One reason for the change is that Arcosanti, a mini-city being built on and around a sharp ridge in the desert about 65 miles north of Phoenix, no longer is a mirage but a struggling reality. Progress has been painfully slow, but piece by piece Soleri and his student helpers (many of whom, at least at first, pay for the privilege) have been putting it together with no large-scale aid, in the form of expertise or money, from the outside world of governments, corporations, foundations.
There is a restaurant there now, and a swimming pool, a foundry, a bakery, a greenhouse and several arched structures, often used for performances, that have become Arcosanti's major architectural signature. All are constructed of concrete -- "the strongest, most flexible" form of masonry, in Soleri's words -- and all are built along basic, passive-solar principles to conserve space and energy. In Soleri's slides, Arcosanti has a dramatic, eerie look, part past, part future, part pueblo, part modern module.
But if Arcosanti clearly remains an unfinished experiment, Soleri was here to say the job would, or could, be done. Construction has begun, he said, on the first series of permanent living units that would begin to form the base for the necessary "critical mass" of 500 residents from which the final city of about 6,000 persons could emerge. He has drawn fairly specific plans for the next steps, too, although money remains a problem: Soleri says he will need about $5 million and eight years to reach the critical mass, and about $500 million to build it all.
The whole enterprise is governed by a foundation, which Soleri controls, and only in the last year has the foundation hired a professional financial consultant to search for new sources of money. So far the project has trundled along on receipts from Soleri's lectures, the sale of the now-famous bronze or ceramic windbells and the increasing influx of curious visitors (about 30,000 last year) who pay a "suggested donation" of $3 each for a tour.
These sizable practical problems are not unimportant. Soleri shows no apparent loss of intensity or energy, but the haul is long, and the whole thing remains pretty much a one-man band. In addition, one wonders about how real money from the real world, not to speak of all those tourists, will affect the idea. Soleri frequently says, "We're not just building some nice little village," but the fundamental question remains, what exactly are they are building out there in Arizona?
Soleri himself seems somewhat unsure. "These are not unreasonable questions," he admits, referring to worries about the underlying social implications of his architectural vision. To an outsider the life at Arcosanti seems not much more than a fairly elementary sort of cooperative communalism, with all the big questions -- who will live there, who will run the place and by what set of rules, how the community will relate to the larger, nearby society -- still to be answered.
It is, of course, an experiment, or a "laboratory," as Soleri prefers to say, and as such it takes its place in a time-honored American tradition of experimental communities where "plain living and high thinking," as they said more than a century ago at Brook Farm, is the goal. What distinguishes Soleri's experiment from its nonreligious predecessors is its longevity -- at age 11 it already has outlasted Brook Farm by three years -- and its scale: A place of 6,000 souls, not large by any other standard, presents tremendous practical and spiritual challenges to a community searching for a new way of life.
So, perhaps we ought not expect too much of Arcosanti. Perhaps, indeed, these pragmatic tests are the wrong ones. Soleri may be neither dreamer, nor visionary, nor utopian, nor city-builder on the grand scale he once envisioned, and his answers -- his theology, his cosmology -- may not be the ones we need in any specific sense. But we ignore at our peril his dark insights concerning society's wasteful expenditures of energy, the ills of social, economic and physical segregation and the great debts we accumulate for future generations through systematic ravaging of natural resources.