Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Visiting Arcosanti — an urban laboratory focused on Arcology

During my October visit to Phoenix we made the short (a little over an hour) drive north to visit Arcosanti, that's it off in the distance...

Even though I'd poured over their website and read Gerhard's 2013 post I wasn't sure what to expect. This place is very difficult to imagine unless you've been there. I had a much more "polished" look in my head. Polished it is not, and that's a huge part of it's charm.

From their website: "Arcosanti is an urban laboratory focused on innovative design, community, and environmental accountability. Our goal is to actively pursue lean alternatives to urban sprawl based on Paolo Soleri's theory of compact city design, Arcology (architecture + ecology). Built by over 7,000 volunteers since the commencement of the project in 1970, Arcosanti provides various mixed-use buildings and public spaces where people live, work, visit, and participate in educational and cultural programs."

The building below houses their cafeteria, gallery and visitor's center. There are also bathrooms and (I'm assuming) offices, even a few residences. I spied one from a balcony that had a nice little garden going in the windows. I thought those popped out squares with the circular windows were quite fantastic.

The area surrounding the complex was minimally disturbed, which I really liked seeing.

Rough, but oh so stylish.

This is the cafeteria, it wasn't in operation during our visit but the smell took me back to the college food halls of my younger days.

Have you noticed the bells in the last few photos? Arcosanti is famous for them, among the bell-collecting crowd that is, and they're actually called "windbells". They make both ceramic bells and bronze bells on site, the sale of which helps to fund their operation.

This is the ambitious "master-plan"  and again from their website: "In 1970, the Cosanti Foundation began building Arcosanti, an experimental town in the high desert of Arizona, 70 miles north of metropolitan Phoenix. A dozen buildings used for current activities occupy a small fraction of the full 860 acres of Arcosanti property."

Paolo Soleri was a student of Frank Lloyd Wright's, until he split to further develop his own vision of arcology (architecture + ecology). I would love to see this documentary, but until that's possible I enjoyed the trailer.

The staircase from the cafeteria up to the visitor's center...

Which is where you can purchase the windbells, and tiles too. There was a small bronze tile I considered purchasing (not pictured) but as much as I loved it, and wanted to support them, I just kept looking at and thinking...but I don't "need" it. I passed.

I also came close to purchasing this, but small house = not a lot of wall space.

Everything was exquisitely made.

Back outside and ready to look around. Except somehow my brother and I both managed to miss the fact you need to be part of a tour to walk the grounds. We showed up thinking we were on our own for the entire visit, duh! Do not make this mistake...

Luckily we didn't have long to wait before a tour started and we were off to explore.

First stop was the ceramics apse, where the ceramic bells are made...

Our tour guide (I wish I could remember her name, she was wonderful) demonstrated the sand casting process...

I mainly stared in awe at the surroundings.

And then it was time to move on...I couldn't help feel like I'd stepped back in time, to the '70's.

Or maybe (this will sound ridiculous to serious Star Wars fans) to another planet, the buildings seemed like they would have been right at home on Tatooine.

Here a stick sunshade is being used to cover the skylight and the midribs are in place for a covering over the patio.


And a peek inside a residence. The outer doors (white frames) are closed in the winter to keep in the warmth. The buildings are all situated to make the most of summer shade, I imagine winter nights can get quite cool.

There are several signs of Paolo Soleri's Italian heritage, the olive trees are one of them. The olives are harvested to produce olive oil.

This structure (the Vault) is magical, really. The building at the end is a shared workshop space where residents can work on their own projects.

These paintings! I loved them. I have very similar framed drawings of my own that I did sometime in the late 90's. Mine are just charcoal on a green vellum.

I don't know if these are forms for tiles or tiles themselves, but they make for very dynamic wall art.

Looking out at the Italian Cypress and olives. Such a beautiful view.

More living spaces below, and I should note it is possible to stay here as a guest too, at very reasonable rates (more info). While to some (like my sister-in-law) this place could appear a little run-down, I found it extremely captivating. I am not ready to embrace a communal living lifestyle (shared bathrooms, kitchens and laundry facilities are not for me) but I found the campus (grounds?) breathtakingly beautiful and parts of this way of life definitely appeal to me.

Oh, what's that?

Ha! One of my favorite vignettes from a very picturesque place.

More living spaces, and the steps on the far right head down towards a swimming pool.

And Agaves!

The view...


And more tiles...

I appreciate the simple design of the wall sconces.

A Loquat I believe? These buildings surround the performance space, Colly Soleri Music Center, (behind me, I was too busy staring at the beautiful Loquat)...

Our final stop on the tour was the apse where the bronze bells are formed. What a great view while you're working...

The Cypress have been allowed to grow up through the floor of the work-space.

Here's our tour guide again, showing us the forms for the bronze bells. I couldn't help but notice the galvanized watering can.

And the ceiling!

Our guided tour ended and we made our way back to the car. I couldn't help but want to descend that staircase, dangerous as it looks.

Ha! Poor buried Barrel Cactus. I REALLY wanted to pull back the weeds.

Hope you enjoyed this visit to a very special place. If you're in Phoenix proper and unable to head north maybe you'd enjoy checking out Cosanti in Paradise Valley. Gerhard wrote about his visit here.

Finally here's a panoramic shot I scanned (thus the poor quality and creases) from the visitor's guide. It gives an interesting overview of the entire sight.

All material (except for the scan) © 2009-2016 by Loree Bohl for danger garden. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited and just plain rude.


  1. I can easily picture this complex on Tatooine. It's not exactly my taste, but I like many aspects of it, and I love the overarching concept of designing in harmony with and with minimal impact on the environment. The tiles are beautiful, but I would have passed on those, too. I might have been tempted by the wind bells, though.

    1. I have a couple of their bronze bells, and the sound is wonderful.

    2. The price of the bells had me admiring them from a distance.

  2. It does have an other-worldly air about it. The desert environment and plants fit the architecture well. And it's very different than Phoenix!

    1. Oh yes, very different from Phoenix! So true.

  3. It does look like a truly special place! No comunal living for you? Shared kitchens and bathrooms doesn't sound like my cup of tea either but this space is pretty amazing.

    1. Our tour guide was a strong believer (of course) and her enthusiasm was infectious. Still no. I like my own space too much...

  4. I'm so happy that a) you made it to Arcosanti and b) you liked it as much as I did. Your photos are gorgeous!

    Paolo Soleri's imagination knew no limits. His ideas for the city of the future are breathtaking. Many of his arcology principles have been implemented around the world, but no entity has ever been bold enough to invest the billions it would have taken to build a real city. There was a project in China that came close but it, too, collapsed from what I remember.

    BTW, the next time you're in Phoenix, you should go to Cosanti in Scottsdale. That's where Soleri lived and worked. They still make bells there and have a nice gift shop. The architecture of the complex is very reminiscent of Arcosanti.

    1. Thanks for the photo compliment Gerhard. I was glad our group was large enough that I wasn't completely obnoxious in my photo taking (at least that's my hope). My brother picked up a brochure for Cosanti, and said he planned to visit, he's very close. I doubt he's had time though. I would have definitely sought it out but my flight left the next day. Andrew and I are talking about a lengthy desert trip sometime in the future so hopefully I can get him there.

  5. I'm quite amazed. Thanks for sharing your visit. Even before your comment about the sic-fi feel of the place, it had me thinking that surely, surely I've seen some science-fiction something that used this as a location. Probably not, but it definitely has that feel. Love the Agaves and Cypress. What a fascinating place.

    1. For me part of the appeal was the dated look if it all, which of course lends to an other-worldly feel. If it was done today I don't know that the design would be so strong visually.

  6. Cool place. And I can see it's definitely worth a side trip when in Arizona. If I'd known about it when I was out there this past summer, I might have put it on the list--we spent some time in Flagstaff and Sedona (and various other spots on the way out there and the way back). Love the stone insets on the stairs near the ceramics apse!

    1. I was happy when my brother suggested it, a perfect mix for a civil engineer and a plant/garden fanatic to visit together! Plus there was a time when I considered architecture as a career, so I've still got a huge interest in the field.

  7. Thanks, this was wonderful to see so many images of a place I've always been curious about. We have two bronze bells and I've always wanted another, larger one. The sound they make is lovely and nothing like the annoying tinkle of windchimes.

    1. The sound isn't even comparable is it? I don't understand the appeal of the annoying tinkle...

  8. This was such a treat! thanks Loree.

  9. I have one Soleri bell that I treasure. A couple of architect friends spent time doing an internship (that may not be the right term) there so I have heard much about it but never got a good look until now.

    1. I bet your friends have some great stories!

  10. Hi Loree. I am a long time reader from Seattle. This post motivated me to schedule a vacation for my wife and I to Prescott, AZ. I have to visit Arconsati! I have multiple agave because of you, but I am a traditional NW gardener and focus heavily on lots of unique dwarf conifers ( you need some in your wonderful garden) and Japanese maples. Cheers. Mark from North Seattle.

    1. Hey thanks for commenting Mark, I hope you and your wife have a fabulous time in AZ! The area around Prescott ("Prescut" to the locals) reminds me of Eastern Washington, it's a great little town.

      Glad to hear you're expanding the ranks of the Agave gardeners here in the PNW...as for unique dwarf conifers I've seen a few that I like, but I've always been afraid my rather overplanted garden would just swallow them up.

  11. This was wonderful! I can totally see the Tatooine reference. The various buildings made me think of chess pieces. And, how poetic that the "Apse" sports the shape of a bell! I'm not sure I would do well permanently in a communal situation (far too grouchy for that) but I admire those who thrive and create in that kind of setting. The way the realities of real estate prices, wage stagnation, and population explosion are heading, I think we'll see more solutions like this in the future - by necessity rather than option.

  12. What an amazing place. I wish I knew about it when my daughter lived in Arizona. I loved the tile work.

  13. I have visited Arosanti twice and find it exhilarating. Thank you for sharing your experiences.


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