This is part of our weekly series, Lost Masterpieces, about the greatest buildings and works of art that were destroyed or never completed.
Next weekend will be the latest iteration of FORM, a free-by-application music and art festival that seeks to “celebrate creativity,” “foster collaboration,” “inspire new work and perspective,” and “promote art in public life.”
This vaguely cosmic and utopian ethos, incompatible with typical festival venues like stadiums or concert halls, has found its ideal physical setting in Arcosanti, a cluster of concrete domes, arches and interconnected structures that form the skeleton of a tiny village tucked into a desert valley 70 miles north of Phoenix.
Arcosanti is an “urban laboratory” where an experimental mixture of architecture and ecology has been on a slow boil since the 1960s. It was to be a highly sustainable and earth-tuned miniature metropolis of 5,000 people, exemplifying a new anti-sprawl, pro-community style of city building espoused by its creator, the visionary architect Paolo Soleri.
FORM is a sort of celebration of that philosophy and creative spirit, and the roughly 1,200 attendees it will bring to Arcosanti will infuse the site with the kind of life it was built to harbor. But, as festivals go, the impact will be temporary. By some estimates, only 50 people live at Arcosanti today, and part-time at that; less than 5 percent of the original plan has been constructed.
It’s a village-scale example of unfinished architecture, one that stands as a partially realized dream, a tantalizing vision of what architecture and cities could be.
Soleri’s idea for Arcosanti grew out of his distaste for American suburban sprawl. As a student of the famous architect Frank Lloyd Wright in the late 1940s, Soleri focused his architectural skills beyond the scale of the building.
He imagined a new kind of super-building that could house an entire city, a dense structure of concrete arches, tiny residential units and abundant shared spaces for work and communal living. It would be a prototype for a new kind of city.
He broke ground on Arcosanti in 1970. A model of the design shows a series of nested domes and arches, segmented by cell-like rooms for its population. Its goals were to reduce waste and energy consumption, localize food production, create a human-scaled urban environment, and encourage lifestyles more engaged with natural systems—an early call for environmentally sustainable architecture and urbanism.
Throughout the early years, the Italian-born Soleri and teams of volunteers worked to construct the city, but the going was slow and has remained so. The project is technically still under construction, but the goal of housing 5,000 people is still far off.
Arcosanti is built over about 25 acres, and consists of about a dozen buildings, including modular, block-like stacks of residential units, a music center, Soleri’s design studio, and a foundry under a half-dome, where bronze bells are cast by community members and sold to support the project.
Concrete and earth-cast panels and slabs make up much of the project’s structure, and it’s designed to passively heat and cool itself through the Arizona desert’s extreme weather fluctuations. Huge, round cut-outs form many of the windows in the structures, and many of the buildings seem to easily transition from private indoor space to public outdoor areas.
And though Soleri’s vision for Arcosanti was bold, he was against the notion of creating a idealized utopian community. “Utopia is a pretty stupid notion,” he told an interviewer in 2008. “It says if any group anywhere develops some ideal condition, this condition is legitimate. And I say, ‘Forget it!’ If you are surrounded by all sorts of demeaning or painful conditions, then ‘utopia’ is just an arrogant notion that has no room for evolution.”
His approach was to let the philosophy guide the project, wherever that went. Arcosanti’s construction has relied on the efforts of thousands of volunteers who’ve slowly built out the project and helped its plan evolve.
The project hosts workshops in which attendees—many architects and design students—learn about Soleri’s approach while actually helping to build out the city. Some of these attendees have chosen to extend their stay, becoming longer-term residents who work on the continuing process of planning and constructing the project, and casting the bells.
“We might not reach 5,000 people, but we’re growing. Slowly,” Jeff Stein, co-president of the foundation in charge of the project told The Guardian recently. “The production of wind bells is quite a difficult way to support the development of a new town.”
Soleri also worked as an architect outside his own mini-city, but little of his work was built. His striking tubular metal pedestrian bridge for the city of Scottsdale, Arizona, in 2011 is the first of his many bridge designs to be completed.
Soleri died in 2013, at the age of 93, and Arcosanti is under new leadership. Only a small fraction of the original plan has been realized, and many have criticized the project as a failure. But for the few still living and working at Arcosanti, construction of the city is technically still underway.
Soleri’s vision for this prototype sustainable city for 5,000 people seems unlikely to be realized, an idealistic design diminished through complications of money and time. But whether it’s ever finished or not, Arcosanti has achieved Soleri’s original goal of challenging the way we build our cities and live within them.
As a city, Arcosanti may have fallen short. But as urban laboratory, it has succeeded.