Arcosanti - An Urban Laboratory in the Arizona Desert.

Myth and Invention

by Jeff Stein

“To get the most out of life as Our Creator intended it to be, A HOME OF YOUR OWN IS AN ABSOLUTE NECESSITY.”

This bit of advice comes to us from a 1910 Sears catalogue for mail-order houses. Sears didn’t invent the idea of single-family houses of course; the company just added religious fervor to an argument about how to sell them. The idea of a house itself has been part of the theory of architecture since the time of Vitruvius. It really caught on as a model for the origin of architecture around 1755 when the Abbe (Marc-Antoine) Laugier used an image of the “primitive hut” to introduce the second edition of his “Essay on Architecture.”

That romantic “primitive hut” was imagined to provide an ideal principle for the architecture of the time. Laugier suggested its form was the standard that all architecture somehow embodied.

And so it became the standard myth for how architecture began, for what architecture IS.  We teach it in architecture schools today: the ‘hut.” Frank Lloyd Wright referenced it in his work. A story was developed to explain its discovery: an individual wandering in the woods alone comes upon a stand of saplings whose trunks he can bend down, so their interlacing branches form roof beams, and their slender trunks themselves become columns. Sweet, eh? A plus is how this kind of mythology feeds our current cult of self-sufficiency and individualism.

Still, as Lorde, the New Zealand teenager whose real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor, sings it in her current hit song, ROYALS, “That kind of lux just ain’t for us, we crave a different kind of buzz.”

There is another myth of architecture’s origins, one we imagine is more suitable for the road ahead, a road that could be carrying 10 billion of us by mid-century. This one is from the Greek. In this story a group of people comes upon a natural shallow bowl in the landscape, puts up boards in the middle of this space, and becomes witness to an extraordinary event, not the least part of which is that this group can see itself in this place as a single entity, a whole community. This is the experience we are after at Arcosanti: the Urban Effect, the organic interaction of people and things that gives a city meaning and value.

Sure, the primitive hut provides a bit of shelter, but once inside, we still require everything else: energy, food, information, clothing, dishes, a washing machine…and most of all, connection, a sense of belonging to a community, being part of a place.

Every activity, every encounter, every life, requires space, occurs in space. But how much space is required? That is the question, and it is our experiment with urban space that forms the basis for the work at Arcosanti.

Speaking 50 years ago about a very different space program, John F. Kennedy said this:  “We have a long way to go. Many weeks and months and years of long, tedious work lie ahead. There will be setbacks and frustration and
 disappointments. There will be, as there always are, pressures in this
country to do less in this area as in so many others, and temptations
to do something else that is perhaps easier. But this research here
must go on. This space effort must go on. The conquest of space must
and will go ahead. That much we know. That much we can say with
confidence and conviction.”

Now that 7 ½ billion humans are on the planet, the rules of the game must change, our pattern of inhabiting the earth - how we use space - needs rethinking. Another way of deciding how we all live together must be imagined. We’re working on it at Arcosanti. Spark your imagination; please join us.