“You have to get off the island sometimes.” The young man standing before me is in a faded music festival T-shirt that’s worn very thin. Like everyone who lives here, Tom’s skin is tanned from days spent under the Arizona sun. He’s about 23, with a long beard and a camouflage hat shading his eyes – casual means functional here. It’s a strange metaphor to describe the place that surrounds us, because we are in the middle of the Sonoran desert – almost the middle of nowhere.
He’s taking the last tour of the day of Arcosanti. This town is the antithesis of Phoenix (70 miles south), Las Vegas, Albuquerque and other sprawling desert metropolises. Arcosanti finds the magic in urban life by honouring and uplifting its day-to-day environment. Dreamy architecture inspired by the landscape – it’s largely built into a canyon – springs up almost out of nowhere as visitors follow a dirt road from Interstate 17.
Billed as an “urban laboratory,” the experimental town is the culmination of futurist architect-cum-philosopher Paolo Soleri’s theory of arcology – that is, the union of architecture and ecology. Soleri came to America as an apprentice at Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s workshop in nearby Scottsdale. The headstrong Italian cut his apprenticeship short, but Soleri never left the desert. There he decided to realise his theories about how urban life could be, shaping a “city in the image of man.”
Soleri acquired 260 acres of land in Yavapai County in 1970. He saw Arcosanti as an answer to the anathema of modern urban life, what he called in one of his numerous books – the “inherently wasteful consumption of land, energy, and time tending to isolate people from each other and community.” With cantilevered concrete slabs bedecked by passive solar windows built into sustainable architecture designed to move upward in organic, mixed-use habitats, today Arcosanti is less than five per cent complete. Though Soleri – who…