In 1970, fed up with a society devoted to accumulation, pollution, and density, Italian architect Paolo Soleri began the construction of Arcosanti.
“Let’s think about the mountain of toys that man surrounds himself with. To feel alive we have to constantly buy and we’re now prisoners of materialism. The more we accumulate, the stronger our self-esteem gets”.
Soon after his graduation from the Politecnico in Turin, Soleri wrote a heartwarming letter to Frank Lloyd Wright. FLW answered back with just one word: “come”. Before leaving for America, Soleri served as an apprentice at the Solimene brothers’ kiln in Vietri where he also helped the brothers build their new factory using old terracotta vases instead of tiles for the sea-facing facade of the building. This is when he started working with alternative materials for architecture.
“When I arrived in Arizona I was struck by the purity of the landscape and from the desert sand. Unlike clay or mud, its pliability makes it a perfect material so I started mixing it with water to make sabbia cotta objects”.
In 1956 the first archetype of this idea took shape in the form of the house-laboratory of Cosanti. It was a groundbreaking concept in its construction methods, where each living unit is built by shaping a spherical concrete roof over a pile of dirt. Once that concrete dries the dirt is removed, revealing the space for the room.
In 1965 Soleri presented to French magazine L'Architecture D'Aujourd'Hui, a project for a town based on the idea of arcology (archeology + ecology), essentially scaling the original Cosanti concept.
“Big scale drawing has always been fun to me,” said Soleri in one of his last interviews. “I still remember using big butcher paper rolls to draw big projects that I had in mind. I once did a 50 meter-long sketch”.
This is when the thoughts on population density and the love for natural materials collided with the idea of arcology as a low-impact solution for human habitats, where residential, commercial and agricultural facilities are economically and environmentally self-sustainable. The combination of social interactions with access to natural environments were elemental principles of the new discipline funded by Soleri. The sci-fi-looking complex now hosts between 50 and 150 volunteers that keep the city running - including seasonal workshops and concerts, serving its main mission as an educational center.
Soleri’s dream of a self-sustainable town for 5,000 inhabitants in the middle of the Arizona desert might not have come to reality but what he started as a movement had a deep impact on future generations of architects, designers, and thinkers.