Arcosanti - An Urban Laboratory in the Arizona Desert.


by Jeff Stein

Our time. Now. Early in the 21st Century. Nearly 100 years since the heroic age of powered flight, beyond the Wright brothers, way past Glenn Curtiss, over the mystique of Top Gun jet fighter pilots, to be “grounded” no longer means unable to fly. Instead, in an age in which everyone flies, at a time of peripatetic population movements, here in a new era of climate change, being “grounded” means knowing how to live where you are.

The wisdom that we sometimes ascribe to native Americans – “Grow where you’re planted,” is the Hopi saying -- or to the remaining indigenous societies in many different parts of the globe, that wisdom results from just this: knowing how to live where you are. These people are grounded, they understand the ground on which they walk, the micro-climate in which they live, their ecology, and they behave accordingly, as if they were truly part of these things.  In fact, they have been truly part of them, their societies have co-evolved with them for many generations.

Much of the work we are doing at Arcosanti, architectural and otherwise, is an attempt to ground us in our Sonoran desert niche the way that Paolo Soleri himself was grounded.  We are beginning to understanding sun, seasons, cycles, materials so as to make architecture that belongs here, architecture that can aid us in belonging. Our friend, Phoenix architect Wendell Burnette, talks about “context as material.” Burnette feels one needs to be able to read one’s place on the Earth so that architecture is not imported to it but is specific to that place and resonates with it and thus allows its inhabitants to resonate with it, too. Good advice.

Part of Paolo Soleri’s own personal experience, not often discussed, is that after earning his Doctorate of Architecture from the Torino Polytechnico in 1947, he went on to spend the first three years of his professional life living out-of-doors in the Sonoran desert. Resonating:18 months camping at Taliesin West with Frank Lloyd Wright; another 6 months with architect Mark Mills outdoors on the side of Camelback mountain in Phoenix; and finally, a year in Cave Creek, onsite, designing and constructing the famous Dome House for Leonora Bulley Woods, his future mother-in-law.

This experience of living outside buildings early in his career led to Paolo Soleri’s understanding -- both intellectually and viscerally – the fragility and richness and diversity of the life of the Sonoran desert. This understanding allowed him to propose an architecture that considered many aspects of “place” in its design: light, heat, views, climate, sociability, culture, material, the skills of its makers. And in their resulting compactness, his designs – he called them arcologies --could connect their inhabitants to that place, rather than spread out across it and thus destroy the place.

“Grounding” then, when seen through the lens of the work already accomplished at Arcosanti, buildings that are lived-in, events that are celebrated there year-round, is not a romantic notion. It is not a way that 8 billion humans can ever get “back to the land.” It is rather a process through which we are hoping to make a  complex architecture that connects us – to the land, certainly, but also to the sky, to the ecology of the place, and especially to each other as fellow humans on the earth. It is an architecture not just of “identity” but of “relationship.” A grounded relationship.

The late conservation biologist Peter Warshall is quoted in Stewart Brand’s book, WHOLE EARTH DISCIPLINE. “Take any position,” he says, and ask:
*What do we want and love?
Then dream the dream of perfect results --not practical results -- so you can see the vision clearly with full passion. Then ask,
*What do we know?
Put together knowledge about the situation and what facts may be missing both about the actual topic and the players and power relationships involved. Then finally ask,
*What will we accept?
“You don’t have to go public with your acceptance strategy,” advises Warshall, “but it should be thought through.”

These are guidelines for any design project. At Arcosanti we have accomplished the first task in spades: “What do we want and love, indeed!” Read the books; view the models; see the buildings. Now we are grounding ourselves in the work of the second and third tasks, “What do we know,” and “What will we accept.”  It is a process of making architecture that may help us – and many others -- better understand how to live where we are.