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Arcosanti: A Dream Endures in the Desert

October 25, 1987|ANN JAPENGA | Times Staff Writer

ARCOSANTI, Ariz. — It had been a slow day for the tour guides at Arcosanti, a partially constructed futuristic city that squats on a mesa 65 miles north of Phoenix. But by 4 o'clock, six people had wandered into the visitor center and paid their $4--sufficient customers to begin a tour.

A guide assembled the group around a model of the completed city. The exhibit was showing its age. Imitation shrubbery--the kind used on miniature train sets--had crumbled, coating the swooping arches of the town with pale green fuzz.

As the guide gestured, his hand accidentally brushed a structure. The top half of a megastory apartment building toppled into the green dust.

"We'll have to glue that," the guide said.

Arcosanti itself is a model, or a prototype, of an ideal city. Begun in 1970 by visionary architect Paolo Soleri, it has been one of the more audacious attempts in our time to make a fantasy real. Early on in the project's history, Newsweek reported: "As urban architecture, Arcosanti is probably the most important experiment undertaken in our lifetime." An architecture journal predicted the work would have more impact "than anything now standing in steel, concrete and glass."

'Too Tall an Order'

But, like the model in the visitor center, Arcosanti has begun to deteriorate.

Crabgrass is creeping over the walkways. One of the housing units shows cracks. Some people have already anticipated the planned city for 5,000 eventually falling into ruin.

"It was too tall an order. It was simply too big," said Michael Graves, one of the nation's most renowned post-modernist architects and a professor of architecture at Princeton University. Among Graves' best-known work is the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York and the San Juan Capistrano Library.

In Soleri's view, however, architects are not the ones to judge his city. His peers, said the wiry 68-year-old, are philosophers and theologians, not builders.

"Of course Arcosanti is a failure in the sense that he has been working on it for nearly 20 years and very little has been accomplished," said John Cobb, a professor at the School of Theology at Claremont. Cobb said he has kept an eye on Soleri's city since its inception because he is interested in alternatives that preserve the environment.

'Salvation of the Universe'

Given the plodding fund-raising technique (Arcosanti has been built largely on the fees paid by student laborers and the sale of Soleri's ceramic wind bells), Cobb said, "It would be astounding if Arcosanti were not full of cracks, so to speak." But the cracks and the crabgrass are really not the point, Cobb said. What matters is Soleri's goal: "The salvation of the universe."

Soleri is intent on a vision of universal perfection. Arcosanti, only 3% completed at this time, is but "a tiny step on a long, long journey," Cobb said.

Architect Graves does not discount Soleri's journey. He said there are innumerable examples of Gothic churches and other structures that were never completed but were worthy nonetheless. To be incomplete, he added, is not necessarily the same as to fail.

Paolo Soleri is not an outgoing man on first meeting. Skill in dealing with people was the province of his wife, Corolyn (Colly), said Cobb, who had observed the couple together.

Colly Soleri, who recruited student workers for Arcosanti, died five years ago. "Her death was one more blow toward the project's possible realization," Cobb said. (Soleri has two grown daughters, Daniela and Kristine, a dancer living in Los Angeles.)

Always a loner, Soleri has retreated even more in recent years from the small community of about 40 people who live at Arcosanti. Spending part of each week at his Cosanti Foundation in Scottsdale, he lives at Arcosanti in a sparely furnished niche in one of the concrete buildings. His quarters are dominated by a large drafting table and an RCA television. ("I'm a TV addict.")

Every morning, he makes his own breakfast, then gets to work writing or drafting new designs. His window opens onto the public studio space downstairs, so that his fellow workers must have the feeling their leader is always watching them.

His staff has been instructed not to make appointments for him from noon to 2 p.m. every day. That's when he swims 30 laps in the Arcosanti pool, builds himself a salad for lunch, and takes a nap--"in that order," he said.

In the evenings, he is alone again. He watches the national news and "one hour of junk" on television, and cooks his dinner--often some Italian dish he watched his mother make when he was a boy in Turin, Italy.

At Odds With Philosophy

The solitary life style is at odds with Soleri's utopian philosophy, which deems that crowding is essential for human happiness.

"We, our organisms, are a crowding of cells and particles," he said. "Life is a crowding of events and things. Without crowding, you don't have civilization--you have isolated animals."

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