Arcosanti- Crazy or Onto Something?

For the past four years my husband and I go on vacation, just the two of us, for Christmas. We've done Yosemite, Hawaii, and San Francisco in years past and this year decided to check out Phoenix (our original plan was Seattle, but airfare was astronomically expensive by the time we started looking into it). It turned out to be a really great trip- we stayed at the fancy Biltmore (hooray for offpeak prices), visited Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesan West campus, explored the Biosphere 2 in Tuscon, and enjoyed a delicious Christmas brunch in Scottsdale. We ate at local restaurants and had plenty of time to relax, too (I read a book and half and became semi-addicted to Wordament). After four days we then drove the five hours home and I whined most of the way about being tired of driving. I can be really charming when I try.

[Some of Frank Lloyd Wright's books in his bedroom at Taliesan West]

Anyway, the point. 

On our first full day away we went to this strange little place 70 or so miles North called Arcosanti. Their website describes them as  "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)." It sounded pretty interesting, so we made the drive through the mountains and desert to investigate.

After getting off the freeway in the middle of nowhere, we had to drive up a rough dirt road a mile or so, passing by open space dotted with cows. Eventually I pulled into a dirt lot right in front of a small gated area that looks like a junk yard, complete with a few broken down campers and bicycles. We followed the signs and entered a large building made of cement and glass- at this point my husband was cracking jokes about being forced to join a cult and possibly being murdered. It was eerily quiet and there were very few people around. The woman at the front desk told us that we had a half hour to the next tour, so we paid our ten bucks and looked around the gift shop, which was mostly comprised of the bells the people at Arcosanti make. There were also expensive books written by the founder, Paolo Soleri, outlining his philosophy on sustainable living and reducing urban sprawl. At this point I was pretty jazzed- this place was weird enough to be memorable but not enough so as to make me think I might get my head chopped off. 

When the tour started our guide had us sit down in front of a thirteen minute film that outlined the premise for Arcosanti- it was basically the city of the future that would be self-inclusive. You would live, work, learn, and be entertained within a structure that spanned about a half mile. There would be no cars, limited pollution, and as little as possible reliance on the outside world as possible. It would be the ultimate community. The video was filled with impressive drawings and renderings of what the city would look like- a beautiful structure full of sharp lines, gleaming surfaces, and fresh vegetation. 

And then we went outside.

Arcosanti is nothing like the images in the lobby and on the video- instead it looks like a half-finished construction site that has been taken over by a group of conscientious hobos. Harsh, I know. There are clothes drying outside on lines, toys strewn over common living spaces, dirt-caked windows, and cluttered porches. At least that's how it appeared at first.

But as I heard the guide talk, I could tell that it was more than just a haphazard commune. It was a group of people that truly, truly believed in something. They want to create a better world- they are trying to reduce their carbon footprint, live off the land, and know their neighbors on a deeper level than those of us in suburbia. They understand that the rate the world is growing is problematic and will eventually be impossible to sustain. They care about the environment and each other. And they don't give a flying fuck if people think they're weird or misguided. I can appreciate that. 

This isn't to say that their operation has been successful or that they're even realistic. They've been working on Arcosanti for decades and only have a few main buildings that house, at the most 150 people (the finished product is supposed to hold 10,000) during peak season. Their bells are beautiful, but overpriced and not really useful- you can't create a futuristic, self-sustaining city off the income of bells. They don't have a fully functioning agricultural space, nor do they have the means to educate the children that live there (the guide says they will "eventually" have their own school, but for now they send them to the local public one). This idea of "in the future" is attached to so much of what Arcosanti is- their vision will become a reality.... someday...

Arcosanti isn't exactly beautiful, and it isn't overly exciting. But I left with a deep appreciation for the people that live and work there. They really believe in something- so much so that they're willing to abandon "normal" society and devote their time and energy into maintaining something that may never truly come to fruition. I can't say that about myself, and I doubt that most of the people I know can. I think as a society we're so quick to judge people like those of Arcosanti, to cast them off as "hippies" or as "crazy," but in fact we just don't understand what it's like to take that step and change our lifestyles for a cause.

Am I going to run off and join Arcosanti? No, I'm not (she said wistfully). But part of me really, really wishes I  had the balls to at least do one of their one or two week live-in programs. Maybe someday.


  1. I've driven past there several times and thought it would be interesting. Thanks for the overview! Happy New Year!

  2. Interesting, very interesting. This is the kind of thing that I would actually not mind doing. Since moving to Germany, I've had more desire to live a simpler life. Not because of anything inherintely related to Germany; just because I'm too lazy to completely unpack everything we own. Hopefully the Arcosanti (or someone else) can figure out how to make this idea really work.

    BTW, how lovely is it that you and your husband go on a Christmas trip every year? Love that idea!*

  3. What an intriguing journey you had at Arcosanti! Your perspective on the community and its mission really resonated with me. It’s refreshing to see people genuinely committed to creating a sustainable future, even if the vision isn’t fully realized yet.

    As someone working on a self-sustainable city project myself, I can appreciate the challenges and aspirations involved in such ambitious initiatives. While Arcosanti may seem unconventional, the passion and dedication of its residents are inspiring.

    If anyone's interested in exploring similar ideas of sustainability and community, feel free to check out my project here: Self-Sustainable City Project Let’s keep the conversation going about creating better living spaces for all!