Human beings have always dreamt of a free society in which to live in harmony and justice with others. Throughout the centuries, several intellectuals have wondered how to create a fair society based on upright principles. From Plato to Thomas More, numerous utopian ideas were conceived, but they never left the unrealisable World of Ideas.
Architect Paolo Soleri, with his works and writings, questioned the very concept of modern city and how we live on this planet. He tried to provide a practical alternative to the contemporary urban sprawl and the scenario of the predicted catastrophic future due to global pollution.
His idea, Arcology, a crasis of “architecture” and “ecology”, suggests a highly integrated and compact three-dimensional urban structure in contrast with the uncontrolled consumption of land, energy and time.
PAOLO SOLERI AND ARCOLOGY
A sketch by Paolo Soleri
Soleri graduated from the Polytechnic University of Turin in 1946 and moved to the US the year after, where he worked at Wright’s school-studio Taliesin West for two years.
His learning experience was mainly based on the empirical observation of his master’s teachings. He had arrived in America without knowing how to speak English and was therefore given the task of handyman/cook/waiter. He held the job enthusiastically, as it allowed him to move and study freely everything that happened, without being constrained in a single field.
Wright believed that the current problem with the city was its separation from the countryside. Therefore he theorised Broadacre City, an urban system based on decentralization and lengthwise expansion, in order to provide each inhabitant with minimum space to build their home and cultivate their land, depending on the person’s needs.
As he started to disagree with his master’s theories, he went back to Italy and decided to go to Vietri and learn at best the typical art of ceramics from the Solimene family, at first as an apprentice, while later on he opened his own factory. Throughout his entire journey, the sense of touch, touching and kneading clay and other materials were key elements.
Arizona’s pure landscape and untamable nature brought him back to the United States, where he founded Cosanti, some sort of school-construction site in which the students of the University of Arizona experienced communal living by building an ecological environment, that was self-financed thanks to the manufacturing and selling of handcrafted items using sand.
Cosanti is an “urban laboratory” conceived as Taliesin’s continuation. Its name comes from the union of “cosa” (thing) and “anti” (before), meaning therefore “before things”. Cosanti is based on a priori procedures, and on the studying and testing of new housing ways and solutions. It’s the foundation on which Soleri will build his city, Arcosanti.
Paolo Soleri was therefore an experimenter of architectural language, and not only. His work interlaced architecture with biological and social aspects by introducing the themes of environmental sustainability and overpopulation.
The architect from Turin strongly believed that man needed to be put at the centre of everything in modern city planning, in order to recover the sense of social relationships and of a fairer society.
ARCOSANTI: THE DEVELOPMENT
Arcosanti from above
Several volunteers, inspired by Soleri’s dream, travelled to the desert in 1970 to build the first arcology prototype from scratch: Arcosanti. The city consists in a permanent experimentation construction site, on which new aggregation solutions are tested with an eye towards evolution.
All projects by Soleri are preceded by in-depth considerations about society and the instincts that arise among human beings. He succeeded in carrying out a careful analysis of the historical period he was living in, and his conclusions are now more current than ever. Soleri spent his entire existence being almost entirely neglected by his peers, who couldn’t understand him, but his project is an important message for today’s world, in which overpopulation, pollution and lack of resources are becoming more and more predominant.
It’s necessary to completely rethink architecture and the “use and consumption of the Earth’s resources, instead of its capital. It’s essential if we wish to keep open a few options for the future”.
In the modern city, man has become a hermit, and society forces him to chase the myths of wealth and success by making him spend several hours of his free time stuck in his car in traffic, to cover the greater and greater distances between the residential areas and the workplaces-service places. The slavery of man with his car is thus established, and it determines the current urban planning.
This leads to the urban sprawl phenomenon in American suburbs, in which residential areas spread for kilometres, in line with the American dream of the single-family house with the white fence. In order to contrast this uncontrolled urban expansion and the supremacy of the car, the city must grow upwards and become three-dimensional, while adapting to the surrounding nature and protecting it.
Cities must go back to a human scale, so that cars are no longer necessary and pedestrians can move freely, safely and efficiently.
Buildings are densely populated thanks to the union of functions and services, in order to limit travelling and needless areas, by following minimalist principles as opposed to the materialistic ideal of compulsive hoarding.
A passive energy system is used which takes advantage of technology and the use of highly insulating materials that guarantee efficiency and thermal comfort. Energy is obtained from both the sunlight and the heat produced by the very same inhabitants, without any further energy waste. The city is thus optimised, and it heats up and cools down naturally. It’s also autonomous thanks to a sewage system and water treatment.
Modern cities are separated from companies and production plants, which are located outside its boundaries. It’s necessary to reclaim the production methods by bringing agriculture and manufacture back in the city. Everything that is necessary for the town’s sustenance and functioning must be found inside and must be easily accessible to everyone, thus creating a connection between food, energy and people.
The city and its parts become one. It’s no longer a mere container, but rather it reflects the single lives that it’s made up of.
Public space is fundamental as it goes back to being a place for gathering and exchange, and it creates a sense of community.
A sketch by Paolo Soleri
Arcosanti’s function plan is based on the creation of a terraced city, also because of the morphology of the land. The town consists of two large structures that hold approximately 5,000 inhabitants.
The buildings are partly made of cast-in-place concrete and partly built with the ground moulding method, thus taking advantage of the site’s clayey soil to make the shapes into which the concrete is going to be cast.
This technique lends a peculiar colour to the elements, which, once ready, are assembled to create even complex structures.
The South Vault is the most significant construction of all, and the first structure on the hilltop. It consists of twelve curved concrete panels and its diameter is over eighteen metres long. The North Vault was added afterwards in order to use the underlying covered space for shows and events.
A sketch by Paolo Soleri
Another strongly emblematic construction in Arcosanti is the Ceramic Apse, used for ceramic manufacture. The apsal structure was built by combining the cast-in-place concrete technique with prefabricated elements. The apse faces south, therefore the microclimate inside is perfect for outdoor activities.
And finally, the Soleri Office Drafting is a three-storey housing and studio complex, in which the very same architect lived until his death in 2013. The top floor holds an apartment, the intermediate floor is occupied by the administrative offices of the Cosanti Foundation, which currently represents the nonprofit institution, focused on the study of new urban design solutions and on financing new projects, at the base of Arcosanti’s financial administration, while the ground floor holds a conference room with an attached greenhouse for heating the rooms in the winter.
Vaults, apses and circles are recurring motifs in Arcosanti, in both the structures and the decorations on the buildings, some sort of geometric and structural reference to the Earth.
To this day, only 5% of Soleri’s project has been implemented, but the inhabitants of the community are still following his teachings and are constructing the buildings that he imagined. They are still dependent on energy supplies from outside, but it is estimated that energy self-sufficiency will be reached within the next few years.
WORKSHOPS AND ARCOLOGY
The community of Arcosanti is visited by thousands of tourists every year and workshops on agriculture, design and much more are arranged every day, in which the tourists can take part too. It’s some sort of gateway to the town project to let the tourists know what it means to live in this peculiar community.
Paolo Soleri wasn’t the only intellectual to try and theorise a new model of society over the last century. Ville Radieuse and Hiberseimer’s Vertical City were fundamental within the considerations on green areas and the building as an organism that integrates functions and infrastructures. However, the theories expressed previously were still based on the economic and production needs imposed by capitalism, and didn’t take into consideration a radical transformation of the community. According to Le Corbusier and Wright, the car is the very same engine of the city, it brings benefits and improves people’s lives. The issue addressed is the road, and how to make mobility smoother and more practical, not the car itself!
Soleri carries out his analysis. He considers global warming and how to slow down our planet’s current decay. This is only possible by radically rethinking the way we live, by “reformulating”, that is creating a brand new system by moving away from the previous attempts to improve a preexisting system, attempts that were considered “reforms”.
ARCOLOGY AND THE FUTURE
A sketch by Paolo Soleri
Urban planning in China and in other developing countries needs to face a high population growth followed by rapid urbanisation, and at the same time it must take into consideration the limited unoccupied land and natural resources, as well as climate change. The Chinese people mainly live in the cities, where cars are more and more needed.
Within this context, Soleri began to take an interest in creating cities in which soil, farmland, energy and resource consumption is cut down to a minimum. Lean Linear City was first introduced in 2004 during a conference in Macau, and after that it was presented at the “3-d City: Future China” exhibition in Beijing in 2009.
This new type of city stems from the concept of arcology, which is developed in one single three-dimensional entity that crosses continents and connects people that are kilometres apart.
Soleri defines it an urban superorganism, in which separate functional aspects work together and create a more logical system where urbanism, power generation and logistics are tied together. “In an arcology, the built environment and the inhabitants’ life processes interact like organs, tissues and cells in a highly evolved organism”. The city becomes a live and functioning body in which three key elements coexist. The mobility, the city’s circulatory system, connects its inhabitants and brings them sustenance with its arteries. The structure, the skeleton, shields the city from potential natural disasters and deals with passive energy production. And lastly, all of the interconnected cultural aspects make the system work.
The city is made of linked modules that create two continuous urban axes connected by bridges, which stretch out in parallel for kilometres by following the prevailing winds of a region or its waterways.
These modules come together like the vertebrae of the spinal column and can hold 3,000 inhabitants, thus creating micro urban centres that are self-determined, as the very same residents decide which functions and services there are going to be, depending on their needs. Each module is one of a kind, as the approaches and relationships will be unique, and they will satisfy all needs. It’s a place to live, work, create, exchange, produce energy and food, and spend one’s free time at the parks. This way the city is given back to the farmers, who are gradually moving from the countryside to the major centres.
The Linear City can be created anywhere, as its structure follows the natural landscape, but a period of experimentation and testing is fundamental. The same building process is designed to create one module at a time, so that the city unfolds on the land in a gradual and uninterrupted way.
A rendering of Lean Linear City
A portrait of Paolo Soleri in Arcosanti