The Next Chapter in the Arcosanti Saga

Michael Tortorello pays a visit to the futurist desert colony to see what's in store as its legendary founder retires and it struggles to remain a bulwark against modern capitalism.
February 17, 2012, 12pm PST | Ryan Lue
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In 1970, visionary architect Paolo Soleri began construction on his magnum opus, an "urban laboratory" for a new model of human settlement sequestered in the forbidding deserts of Arizona. Arcosanti, as it was called, was meant to house 5,000 residents in ecologically-minded structures that were both radical and austere, providing for the complete needs of an integrated community.

Now, at age 92, Soleri has retired from his presidency at the colony's parent Cosanti Foundation, leaving behind a place that is far from what he had once envisioned. Though ongoing, the project is home to just 56 committed residents. Many of them are highly accomplished, having worked as university faculty, architects, planning coordinators, project managers, and the like. There are only four children.

Arcosanti faces many obstacles, but its greatest is financial: this city-of-tomorrow was conceived of a staunchly anti-capitalist spirit, meaning that its financial support comes largely from visitor tuition and the sale of ceramic bells made by hand in the foundry. As Michel Sarda, a foundation trustee, puts it, "He would say, 'Developer: it starts with 'D,' like 'devil' and 'demon.' I cannot say that Paolo is a man of compromise."

The foundation's new president, Jeff Stein, has modest goals for the immediate future: with an annual budget of just $1 million, it will be challenge enough just to put together a canopy for the amphitheater, a renovated bakery, a storeroom for Soleri's models, and a handful of new apartments.

The utopia once imagined here may have long fallen out of vogue, but its purpose is as relevant as ever, and the changing of the guard brings with it a chance to seek out new horizons.

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Published on Wednesday, February 15, 2012 in New York Times
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