From Phoenix to Flagstaff, I-17 is home to interesting exit signs with the names of random, small towns throughout Arizona. Most places are fairly well known to Arizona residents, like Black Canyon City, Camp Verde and Munds Park. However, other places remain a mystery to the typical driver, whether the person is an Arizona native.
Just over 70 miles from Phoenix lies an exit with a McDonald’s, a Shell gas station, a Subway and a Family Dollar Tree. Ask anyone, the majority of people will refer to it as Cordes Lakes or Cordes Junction, the turnoff you take if Prescott is your destination.
For others, the turnoff is more than a rest stop. It leads to home.
Home is a place that’s not exactly a city, but not really a town either, considering the population is currently a whopping 72 people that fluctuates consistently.
This place holds an idea, a dream, a theory all developed by one Italian architect by the name of Paolo Soleri.
This place is called Arcosanti.
Nestled on 25 acres of 860 acres of preserved land in the somewhat dry, central Upper Sonoran grasslands, Soleri purchased the mesa in 1969. Construction started in 1970, and it’s been continuing ever since.
To fully grasp the idea of Arcosanti, one must go back to an era of hippie communes, utopian communities and bell bottom jeans.
Soleri was born and raised in Turin, Italy where he spent the first 28 years of his life. In 1946, he received his doctorate in architecture from the Turin Polytechnic and then traveled to the United States the following year to work under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona.
Upon returning to Italy in 1950, Soleri was in charge of a large ceramics facility. Here, he learned how to create exquisite ceramic and bronze bells, which are ultimately a primary funding resource for Arcosanti today.
After six more years in Italy, Soleri finally settled in Scottsdale in 1956, Arizona with his wife, Colly. Here, he established the Cosanti Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to education, exploration, and experimentation with urban planning.
This urban planning derives from Soleri pursuing a philosophy he developed while working with Wright called arcology. It literally means to mesh the ideals architecture and ecology together.
The idea of arcology stems from an alternative idea to the hustling and bustling cities most Americans see littered across the US. A quick, seven minute video presented to tourists at Arcosanti, explains how cities are decaying at a rapid pace due to mass urban sprawl. As the US built out around the time Soleri began Arcosanti, the cities were seeing decay, the presence of community between people lacked significantly, and relying on cars became the norm.
Soleri’s answer to urban sprawl was massive beehive megastructures with multidimensions and layers throughout that were built vertically in order to prevent using land mass.
“He was influenced by the architecture of medieval market towns, European Italian hill towns,” said Christopher Alexander, a local designer in Flagstaff who spent time at Arcosanti in the ‘80s.
Soleri attempted to take this vision to a whole new level when sketching his arcology city. In his book, The City in the Image of Man, Soleri’s sketches show how he implemented different aspects of a city, like parks, shopping, agriculture and living spaces, into a high-density structure.
The start of these structures took place at Cosanti in Scottsdale back in 1955. At the time, Scottsdale wasn’t the bustling city it is today. In the ‘50s, it was a sprawling Sonoran desert filled with abundant fruit orchards and horse stables. When Soleri began to build Cosanti, the city of Scottsdale was beginning to grow to the size it was today. Soleri described how he could see the construction moving closer on his skyline.
The word Cosanti comes from the Italian terms “cosa” and “anti,” and when put together, it means, “before (or against) things.” The chosen name represents Soleri’s idea of abandoning materialism and embracing and preserving the nature that surrounds human beings.
Cosanti was also Soleri’s home, a place where architecture was the main focus and the ceramic and bronze bells were made daily. Like Arcosanti, the bio-climatic environmental structures located just off Double Tree Road on a 5-acre piece of land is largely unknown even to Arizona natives.
The site has five different apses, a semicircle structure typically found in churches, and other unique architectural structures, each with its own purpose. The apses are there specifically for passive heating, collecting the energy from the sun as it rises and sets. The rest of the buildings are arranged in a specific manner, such as building below ground level while surrounded by heaps of earth in order to keep buildings insulted enough to retain heat in the winter, and to cool down the interior during the summer.
To build these apses, Soleri used an earth-casting technique that’s also used with the ceramic bells. Essentially, concrete is poured over previously shaped molds in the earth. Once it’s dry and solid, the concrete is dug out from the earth, revealing the apse that’s left.
These apses are also seen in Arcosanti, and they are just the beginning of his vision for the massive, beehive-like structures seen in his sketches and models.
“When the possibility arose in 1970 to begin constructing a prototype town, the urban laboratory Arcosanti, the natural choice was to locate it near where Paolo Soleri already lived and worked in Arizona,” said current Cosanti Foundation president Jeff Stein. “The climate was favorable, and was available, and very little research had ever been done on how to live successfully in a desert environment. We are performing that research now at Arcosanti.”
The general perception of Arcosanti is a mix of suspicion or appreciation. Many people who have studied Arcosanti or Paolo Soleri have an admiration for Soleri’s ideal for an urban laboratory. However, people who have visited the property and only once, or have just heard rumors, have a negative view of it.
Oddly enough, the best place to see this divide in on travel websites like Yelp or TripAdvisor. There have never seen a more varied group of reviews. Many people said this was their fourth or fifth time visiting there, or others had seen it while driving past on I-17. The reviews seemed about 50/50 when it came whether or not they would attend. On Yelp and TripAdvisor, there are numerous comments like these:
“This place reminded me of some post apocalyptic cult-like compound. Or the backdrop or some B-rated horror film. Mostly deserted with some dilapidated structures. My wife and I thought the whole place had a creepy vibe. We got the heck out as soon as we could.”
“Our impression was this creative expression of utopian living was lacking in energy, passion, and continuation of Soleri’s vision.”
“My overall impression was a ramshackle conglomeration of utilitarian, outdated and unkempt buildings housing a few diehard hippies clinging to an alternative lifestyle.”
Soleri is controversial in some ways. Not necessarily for the presence of Arcosanti but for the original design of it. The original design of Arcosanti looks like something out of the Star Wars franchise but much, much larger.
Local designer, Christopher Alexander’s perception of Soleri’s arcology models reflect those of many who walk through Arcosanti.
At Arcosanti, there is a large model in the visitor’s center showing the vision of a 5,000 person city. Alexander explains the scale of the structure does not work for a population of that many humans.
“[Soleri] was great with forms great on the macro scale, but his architecture never really filled in a lot of gaps, it was more like the big picture,” Alexander said. “When he got older his stuff got more — I only use this word in terms of describing the architecture style — but there was a fascistic element to it. It was just big, very Roman and the forms got to be very crisp and geometric type things.”
Regardless of criticisms, Soleri and made sure to travel back and forth between his home at Cosanti to Arcosanti often. He began construction in 1970 and the property has been in constant construction since then. Soleri worked on the project from 1970 until his death in 2013.
The buildings are not professionally — meaning they weren’t built by certified and professionally trained construction workers or contractors — built because for over four decades, Soleri enlisted other architects, students and volunteers from all over the world who simply believed in the idea to help him construct his arcology town. Arcosanti was Soleri’s baby: A forty-something year-old child that he poured his heart and soul into for the sake of mankind.
Then Arcosanti has lost its father. Paolo Soleri passed away April 9, 2013, and with him went the passion, backbone, and ideology of Arcosanti.
Left are the people. The people who believed in him. The people who were inspired by him. And the people who decided to take a chance on him and on a sustainable community in central Arizona.
For now, each person does his or her part in order to work toward the future of Arcosanti, and to attempt to achieve Soleri’s dream.
For any non-profit organization, finances are an important factor. For a non-profit organization like Arcosanti, finances mean everything.
One of the first questions asked about Arcosanti is how it survives.
Looking at its financial statement from 2014, the Cosanti Foundation has a revenue of approximately $1.2 million, and about $7.21 in assets. For a place that’s constantly building itself, you’d think there would be more money in the bank.
Clearly, this is one of the setbacks that Arcosanti faces.
A second question asked about Arcosanti is what and how it receives this $1.2 million each year, especially because visitors can go there for free.
Arcosanti refers to its income as an annual operating budget. About 25 percent of this budget comes from contributions and grants. The rest of the income comes from various categories.
In the hospitality sector, Arcosanti receives about 35,000 visitors a year. However, only 11,000 of these visitors take a tour.
Site tours are $10 for students and $15 for regular visitors. It also offers architecture and planning tours that run $15 for students and $25 for regular visitors.
About 35,000 visitors end up eating at the Arcosanti café for either breakfast, lunch, or dinner.
Breakfast is continental at $5 a person, and then lunch and dinner are both $10 for an all-you-can-eat buffet.
The more expensive tourist part are the guest rooms, but there are only about 3,000 overnight stays annually. These rooms range based on size and bathroom options, and all come with a complimentary continental breakfast.
If a single traveler wishes to stay, his or her options range from $30, $35, and $40. This changes based on the room size, small or regular, and if the bathroom is shared or private.
The double occupancy rooms also range, but from $40, $45 and $50. Once again, the room size of small or regular and shared or private bathrooms play a factor in price.
The next option is a room with kitchen that comes with twin beds and a private bath for $65, no matter the occupancy.
The last option is the Sky Suite and it runs for $100 a night. This allows for multiple people (sleeping pads are offered), as well as a living room, kitchenette and two bedrooms.
Other ways Arcosanti makes money for accommodation is off of co-use money from the residents. Typically, this is about $200 a month for each person.
After tourism and hospitality, there is the sale of goods, such as the bronze and ceramic bells.
The bells are made both at Cosanti and Arcosanti. Bells are sold at various ranges, from double digits to tens of thousands of dollars.
Arcosanti residents and employees will say the bells are the number one source of commission. However, in regards to revenue on the financial statement specifically for goods (bells, tiles, other items sold), the non-profit showed up in the negatives for at least $3,400.
When asked about records of financials, Sue in the archive room claimed they didn’t have any officials records because they didn’t keep track of that section of the non-profit. This seemed very peculiar considering the archive room kept track of basically everything else involving Arcosanti, Soleri and Cosanti.
Perhaps the bells help provide for the workers, but in reality, there is no evidence it’s actually helping Arcosanti survive.
The real funding behind Arcosanti are the workshops and educational programs provided.
There are nine workshops throughout the year, programs varying from five weeks, two weeks, and one week.
A five week workshop will cost someone $1,750. A two week workshop costs $1,075, and the one week workshop costs $700 because it’s only a seminar.
Also, participants must put down a $50 deposit when applying for workshops.
These large fees cover the registration fee, meals, accommodation, tuition and the ‘Arcosanti’ experience as a whole.
Out of the approximate $830,000 under “program revenue,” about $270,000 of this is from the accommodation category. The other $560,000 is from the workshops and any of the educational programs provided to schools and participating organizations.
The rest of the money lies in assets, meaning everything Soleri owned and everything the non-profit handles, such as the land of both Cosanti and Arcosanti, as well as Soleri’s house and vehicle.
On the other hand, the expenses almost outweigh the profits.
The most money goes to paying out employees for wages, salaries, and benefits, as well as higher up officials and directors. The rest of expenses lies in fees such as occupancy, advertising, office expenses, and travel.
As a total for 2014, the Cosanti Foundation spent about $1.1 million, leaving about $116,000 to play with.
For a non-profit focused on education and construction, that isn’t much money floating around. If it wasn’t for the workshops, Arcosanti may cease to exist.
However, Arcosanti is attempting to make strides.
For instance, it just partnered up with a university in Scotland for a study abroad program for architecture and engineering students. These students would live at Arcosanti for a semester, help out around the site, and ultimately learn how to build using arcology methods. And most importantly, this provides more income for the non-profit.
Another way Arcosanti attempts to make money is by having various events every year.
The site is known for having concerts, art shows, and festivals that are usually open to the public.
In April there is the Arcosanti Bluegrass Festival where attendees have to pay $10 to enjoy.
Some events, however, like Italian night, offer dinner and a concert which costs $40 per person.
Depending on the type of event, the ticket costs range from free, to about $85 which are typically for symposiums. Additionally, most of the events offer dinner, which helps add to Arcosanti’s revenue.
After crunching the numbers, it makes sense why Sue never really wanted to keep track of financials.
The Cosanti Foundation might as well be on a ventilator, because it’s barely alive.
Walking around the site, it’s very possible to imagine. But after talking with residents, you’d think it was flourishing.
Unless a massive donation falls into the Foundation’s lap, it’s doubtful any progress will ever be made at Arcosanti.
When residents wake up in Arcosanti, they may be in several different places on the site based on their seniority. There are roughly 72 people of varying ages and backgrounds currently living in Arcosanti. Residents who have lived here since the urban laboratory’s inception in the ‘70s are most likely in the best housing, while newer residents live in the smallest conditions. The better housing consists of sprawling lofts or multiple-roomed family housing, the smaller housing are smaller cubes.
If they are taking their workshop, they will be in the dorms, an area within the main site but still fairly isolated from the rest of the living quarters. The workshops are a program Arcosanti runs to teach participants about the concept of Arcosanti, learn about construction and the arcology — the mix of ecology and architecture.
Almost all current and former Arcosanti residents took a workshop before deciding to apply to live in Arcosanti. The registration fee is $50, a one-week seminar is $650, a two-week workshop is $1,025 and a five-week workshop is $1,700. Workshops can range from just one or two people to over 50 and a lot of the people on the workshop are international architecture or sustainable communities college students.
“I took a workshop at Arcosanti in the summer of 1981,” said architect Christopher Alexander. “There were 40 people on my workshop which is a good number and 10 different countries were represented in those 40 people.”
Sue, a return resident of Arcosanti and the manager of the Arcosanti archives, rooms full of Soleri’s old materials, drawings and sketches, had her workshop in 1978 and it was fairly similar to the structure now. She says she owes her interest in Arcosanti to one thing.
Sue moved in a couple months after her tour and has lived in Arcosanti on and off since then.
To actually be considered to live in Arcosanti, prospective residents must write a letter of intent stating why they want to live here and what their role in the project would be. The project is sometimes how the people of Arcosanti refer to the property as if it were something constantly changing and something with a finite end date.
“We don’t encourage slackers or you know people that just want to come and hang out,” Sue said.
However, she said when someone is here for five weeks it becomes obvious whether or not they are able to get along in Arcosanti. The letter of intent goes to the community council, which a group of people who live on the property, deal with the day-to-day activities at the site and are separate from the Cosanti foundation.
Within a few weeks they will hear whether or not they are to become Arcosanti’s newest member.
If they are a new member, then they are probably located in Camp, an area a couple hundred feet away from the site. Camp is where most of the younger and newer members of Arcosanti live and because of this it has more of a party atmosphere than the rest of the area.
Most people at Arcosanti, whether they have lived there for 20 years or two months have probably spent some of that time in Camp. Isaac, 21, a current Arcosanti resident for almost four years, spent his first two and a half years at Camp.
“I loved it down there,” Isaac said with a shy smile. “The living conditions down there are typically more spartan. The people who live down there are typically younger and can deal with those sorts of accommodations. And those younger people are typically the type who will also party.”
Most members of Arcosanti who lived in Camp at one point or another talk about it with this kind of wistfulness. “Camp” is a fitting name for it as it seems to conjure up feelings of nostalgia. Camp is, at least in terms of location, isolated from the rest of the worksite and unlike the rest of the site it is residential only.
“When we have quiet hours, usually we just go down to camp and continue the party there,” said Laura, a resident of Arcosanti for three years and a tour guide. She also lived in Camp at the beginning of her residency here.
If they are living in Camp, then they may be living with several other people. Each bedroom space is an 8x8x8 cube and then the living area, bathrooms and kitchens are all shared spaces. As of March, 2016 there were 19 people currently living in Camp. Each individual space in camp is made to hold four separate people.
However, some newer members such as Clark, 28, instead live in the smaller housing all over the property. The 28-year-old has lived on the property since November of 2015 and lives under the visitors’ center in a small cement room. The room resembles a prison cell without the window bars. The walls are cold and the room echoes with every sound.
If they are an older resident in Arcosanti — older meaning they’ve been on the property for a couple of years — they could live all over the site. Isaac, lives next to the vaults, while some other members live under or above community buildings.
If they have been here for the longest time — including the two residents living in Arcosanti since the ‘70s — then they live in the best possible housing. This housing may include loft-style with one bigger room room or with many separate rooms like a traditional house. Some of these housing options overlook one of the main amphitheaters or they may be more isolated and include a backyard.
Also unless they are one of the oldest — meaning they’ve lived here the longest — people here, they probably live with two or three other people. These people can be random roommates, close friends, their family members or their romantic partner.
Arcosanti, at it’s most populated, has held 180 to 200 people. In this situation, residents were camping out next to the site in the desert instead of living inside the actual site. According to Sue, the site could comfortably house 150 people.
Chihiro, a part-time resident who did her workshop in 2006, works nine months of the year as a tour guide and spends the rest of her time volunteering in the archive room. She is part of the alumni group Japan and takes tour groups from Japan to visit Arcosanti.
When an Arcosanti resident says, “bye I’m going to work!” at Arcosanti, they may need to specify which job they are going to. Most people in Arcosanti have more than one job. For instance, many people might volunteer their time in the archive room or in public relations while also being paid as a tour guide or as a cashier in the cafe.
While she was there she worked in both the cafe and in public relations. “My partner Travis and I would cook dinner on Fridays in the cafe doing the register for a couple months. That was great for PR, because I got to meet people face-to-face instead of behind a desk.”
Also they may be a part-time, full-time or volunteer worker, which determines how much they pay for rent. If they volunteer 40 hours or more a week, then they don’t pay rent. Full-time volunteers also have their meals subsidized.
“You’re not really making any money but you’re not necessarily spending any money either,” explains Bemesderfer.
If they are a part-time worker, something they call 2020, they are most likely working part-time in the cafe or in the foundry while volunteering the other half of their time. This schedule is flexible so they could be volunteering and working as much as they want. If they are doing this, they pay about $200 a month in rent. This is the plan many of the Arcosanti residents use.
If they are a full-time worker, like Sue, then they pay the highest amount for housing but they are making a living wage. They are most likely employed as a manager of a certain part of Arcosanti, like Sue.
“The whole project is based on us bringing to it, not taking away from it,” Sue said.
Both of these incomes, part-time and full-time, are fairly small. Part-time pay is minimum wage. But according to the residents, people come here to live not to make money.
“There’s an understanding that you aren’t going to be making $20,000 a year,” Clark said.
And technically none of these people are actually paying “rent” they are paying a co-use fee, which is legally different. Also they could be employed by two different companies.
They may be working for Cosanti Originals Inc. This includes residents working making the Soleri windbells in the foundry or the ceramics studio, or working in the cafe as a cook or cashier, in the gallery doing tours or register, or guest services. If they are employed by Cosanti Originals, they are most likely being paid for the part-time work.
If they are employed by the Cosanti Foundation, then they are a little more rare. The Cosanti Foundation is where most of the volunteers work, however, paid positions are available for management. The Cosanti Foundation has: planning, construction, maintenance, agriculture, landscaping, archives or the information office.
And of course, they may just live at Arcosanti and be working on their own projects. Many residents are writing books, working on art projects or even independently studying architecture.
If they are a child in Arcosanti they may attend school. There are only three families currently living in Arcosanti and only two of those families have school age children. One child is homeschooled in Arcosanti while the other one goes to school in Mayer, which is the nearest city. When children go to school in Mayer 17 miles away, which several have throughout the years, they are either driven or bike to Cordes Junction so they can be picked up by a school bus.
Or they may be like Isaac and be in college. He attends Yavapai College in Prescott, so he has to leave Arcosanti four days a week. The site offered him an interesting housing opportunity as a way to work and live in Arizona while gaining residency.
“I really enjoyed the concepts of combining architecture with ecology and I really thought it looked beautiful out here,” Isaac explained. “I also wanted to get Arizona state residency so I go to school at NAU for a lot cheaper.”
He plans on leaving Arcosanti within six months to attend Northern Arizona University.
And no matter who they are in Arcosanti, they are attending daily meetings at 11:45 a.m. in the vault. Residents call out “morning meeting” in a sing-song voice all around the property. Non-residents are usually not allowed at morning meetings but tours sometimes go through there.
During these meetings, residents do make announcements, usually concerning workshops they are holding, welcoming new members and saying goodbye to departing ones. There are healing, welding, architecture, cooking, yoga, health and even essential oil workshops that residents were holding for the benefit of other residents.
“I really enjoy how willing everyone is to share that knowledge that they have with you,” Isaac said. “There’s a huge variety of talents and skills that exist here that are getting shared and passed around, which is wonderful.”
During morning meetings, members are scattered all around the amphitheater area, sitting on the ground or on benches or parts of the dome-like structure they are under. No one person controls the meeting, although a lot of the main news comes from Arcosanti co-presidents Jeff Stein and Mary Hoadley.
Residents may fall in love and start a family at Arcosanti. Some residents, such as Clark, have a long distance relationship outside of the site. But many people meet a future spouse or partner here. Bemesderfer met her partner here and eventually moved with him to Portland.
“There’s something about all this that is kind of a crucible for real and lasting connections,” Bemesderfer said. “It is so in your face right from the very beginning. There are no walls. And everybody is involved in the same activities, part of the same grand experiment.”
Sue is a part of a three-generation family that resides in Arcosanti. And according to her, quite a few people meet, marry and moved away and started families after living together at Arcosanti.
“You’re eating with them in the cafe and living close together,” Isaac said. “If you’re in camp you’re hanging out with each other every single night and working together. You’re seeing each other for 12 hours out of the day.”
But no matter how long they’ve been in Arcosanti, what housing they live in or what job they have, they feel that sense of community.
“You don’t stay strangers very long here,” Clark said. “There are very intimate relationships, you don’t need to know somebody fairly well to trust that if you were to ask for help you could get help.”
While Arcosanti is mainly known for its prolific leader, unique architectural style and ecological focus, the experimental city has a long and checkered history with music. This history includes multiple large music festivals in the ‘70s, a giant-car fire igniting the grasslands outside of the site and an annual exclusive three-day EDM festival.
“They had festivals all the way through the early ‘70s into the mid-‘70s,” said Christopher Alexander. “Jackson Browne used to play there, he played there at least twice I’m pretty sure.”
In the early years, the festivals included more than just music. Arcosanti festivals were always themed and included workshops in addition to the concerts. In 1976 and 1977, Arcosanti held its first two festivals. Jackson Browne headlined the first two and they drew around 5,000 people each time.
“[The festival] would bring together a lot of people who ordinarily wouldn’t meet each other or be talking to each other,” said Arcosanti President Jeff Stein.
However, the first two festivals were nothing compared to the third in October of ’78. Instead of the Jackson Browne as the sole headliner, the festival featured Stephen Stills, Todd Rundgren and Richie Havens. And instead of the 5,000 attendees, the festival attracted triple that amount with 15,000 people.
“The Arcosanti festivals brought together thinkers and doers, philosophers, artists, performing artists ... and the ‘78 festival really did that,” Stein said.
The Oct. 7, 1978 festival was a two-day event featuring 25 performers of jazz combos, theater troupes, file singers, a laser light show and instrumental guitar groups. The headliners closed out both days: Stephen Stills on Saturday and Todd Rundgren on Sunday. The site was so incredibly crowded there was barely enough standing room, even for residents.
During Ralph Towner’s solo guitar set on Saturday, several loud cracks, pops and bangs went off in the makeshift parking lot. The Arcosanti site sits on six or seven acres while the whole property is around 860 acres. Because of the 15,000 attendees, there were cars parked tightly on almost every part of the land.
“A lot of these cars in that era were first generation catalytic converters which got really hot in the cars and so during the middle of the concert these cars started exploding,” Alexander said.
There is no official record of the fire. According to an article by the AZ Edge, neither Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office, Mayer Fire Department, the Central Yavapai Fire District or the State Fire Marshal’s Office has anything on it. However, the article also reports that volunteer fire departments from Mayer and Black Canyon City responded.
According to witness reports and articles from the time, one car went up in flames triggering many more. In the article with the AZ Edge, Stein said 55 cars exploded while other accounts say it was between 126 and 180 cars.
Firefighters had to hold back festival attendees from checking on their cars. Fire crews finally extinguished the flames around 7 p.m. that night. No one was injured in the fire but many cars were damaged or completely destroyed.
“The rumor was—and again I don’t know if this was true—that after that the Yavapai county outlawed outdoor concerts of a certain scale,” Alexander said.
Flames engulfed rows of cars while the festival was at a standstill. According to several oral accounts, some cars contained ammunition which shot out during the fire. Soleri reportedly called the whole scene “very unfortunate.”
The fields outside of Arcosanti were littered with car parts for years afterward: old tire parts, smashed radiators and charred bumpers. According to Alexander, the Cosanti Foundation had to pay out settlements to all the car owners and they weren’t finished with these settlements to until the early ‘80s.
This experience almost completely ended Arcosanti festivals forever. The ’78 festival was the biggest show in terms of attendance numbers. Festivals and gatherings still continued into 1980 and 1981, however, they dramatically changed. Instead of the musically charged events, the last couple of festivals were more educational and focused more on ecology, architecture and Soleri’s combination of the two, arcology
“We had an unfortunate experience last year with the fire and we’re not prepared to have a full-scale festival this year,” Colly Soleri, Paolo’s wife, said in September 1979.
The annual arts events came to an end in the mid-‘80s. Soleri and other leaders believed these would be the last of the large scale festivals.
“It became clear to us, we figured this out, that we weren’t going to be making money on these things,” Stein said. “And the amount of energy and effort it took to bring all these people together at this spot was significant, and it took our attention off the major work here, which is construction, and so we scaled back.”
These festivals had several unintended positive aspects as well. During Alexander’s time in Arcosanti, those excess car parts were used for artistic purposes.
“For years there used to be all these rusted car parts out there. There was a sculptor who used to turn some of that stuff into art,” Alexander said.
Alexander also described ‘techno sweats’ which was when residents would heat up the old car parts in Camp and use them to make a sweat lodge.
“Then we used to do things like what we had a techno sweat down in camp which was like a little sweat building,” Alexander said. “But we would heat up old car parts and take them in there and kind of how people heat up rocks for sweat and then they’d glowing and we’d have this techno sweat. And a lot of those were from those car parts that had been there.”
Arcosanti’s festival days seemed over until Kate Bemesderfer and the band Hundred Waters visited Flagstaff. Bemesderfer came in 2012 to work for Arcosanti as public relations. At the time, Hundred Waters was working on their album and asked Bemesderfer if they could have a concert on the site. For that three-day show there were 500 people, mostly residents, and friends and family of the band.
“It was three months and we built up to it,” Kate said. “That was possibly the most valuable thing of having FORM here was learning that Arcosanti could do that again. It had been a very long time since the site had hosted large events of any kind.”
That was the first FORM event and, now in 2016, the amount of FORM attendees is up from 500 to 1,200. Even after Bemesderfer left the site, she continued to work on the project until it became the annual three-day event it is today.
“For FORM, it’s about taking three days and bringing all these together in a way they never could,” Bemesderfer said. “It’s distilling the whole experience of Arcosanti down to three days and then adding a whole lot of music to the mix.”
While Arcosanti may never have the scale of the infamous ’78 festival, they are branching out into music once again. Also, despite major headliners such as Skrillex and Bonobo, the concert is relatively small, especially compared to other festivals. And most residents, such as Isaac and Clark, like the smaller size.
“If you’ve got 10,000 people watching you, then you can’t really be yourself or try new musical things. And when it’s only a smaller group they’re more open to trying new things,” Isaac said.
FORM is also completely free and people attend by applying. FORM is reminiscent of the old concerts, just with EDM instead of rock ’n’ roll. Some of the older headliners are even returning to play again.
“One of my favorites is Walter Parks—he used to jam with Richie Havens back in Woodstock—and this is one of his favorite places,” Clark said. “I’ve seen him twice here now and he just hangs out and just drinks with us. He’s a super chill guy.”
The question that pops up time and time again is: will Arcosanti survive? Did Arcosanti die with Paolo Soleri?
According to people both inside and outside of Arcosanti when Soleri died, the whole organization — both former and current members — grieved heavily. Soleri died at the age of 93 and his death was somewhat expected. He had been mostly hands-on until the end but had passed his control of the project to a group of co-presidents.
“It was kind of like when a grandparent passes away,” Isaac said.
Shortly after he passed away, they held a memorial service inside the actual town. Former members and residents gathered together to celebrate the life of the influential man.
“We had a pretty big memorial afterward that a good number of alumni were invited to. That really helped as far as networking, to get those connections together and help this place grow via outside funding help we can get,” said Isaac.”
In a way, it seems as if the current and former residents of Arcosanti as well as their supporters are looking for a new champion for the experiment. Jeff Stein one of the presidents of Arcosanti now but he is more often than not referred to as the sole president. Stein is part of a seven-member committee that is in charge of the Cosanti foundation as well as the residents of Arcosanti.
The committee consists of co-presidents Jeff Stein, Mary Hoadley — who lives on the site and has been with the Cosanti Foundation since 1970 — Tomiaki Tamura and Roger Tomalty — also the husband of Hoadley. Russell Ferguson and Matteo DiMichele are also board members who work outside of the site.
However, Stein is seen by the residents as the de facto leader. He moves from Cosanti to Arcosanti in the same way Soleri would. But according to some residents, he doesn’t have the same kind of power Soleri had over the site and it’s future. Although Soleri has passed away, he still holds the power over Arcosanti.
“I find that Jeff Stein doesn’t have nearly the power that Paolo Soleri did which is unfortunate,” Isaac said. “It takes a board of seven people a lot longer to come to a consensus than it does one person.”
Soleri is still actively part of everything Arcosanti does. During tours, Soleri is the main subject, and he is the main focus.
“He’s such a genius,” gushed Ariel, a resident of seven weeks, as she led a tour. “I’ve been studying him and he was just such a great man.”
Genius is word thrown around a lot about Soleri. Residents and visitors always use it when referring to him, especially in terms of his architecture projects. When Soleri was alive, he would meet with the residents of Arcosanti at least once a week. He traveled up from his home in Cosanti, where he did most of his architectural and writing work. During these visits, he would walk around to the different departments and ask questions, get to know volunteers and ask if they needed help.
“He made himself very much available to people,” said long-time resident and archive manager Sue.
He would also have something called School of Thought in the afternoon. This is where residents, former residents or even some visitors and tourists could ask him questions. According to Sue, there would always be these burning questions that were explored and they were all filmed. There are at least 12 years of films and one film for each weekly visit. When residents talk about these visits they do with a nostalgic smile, it is so evident they treasured those hours.
“We used to sit in up in the crescent seating and he’d entertain questions,” said former resident and architect Christopher Alexander. “Usually he was answering pretty dumb questions. But if people got a little too critical, he would just usually say in his broken English ‘go buy your own Mesa, go do it yourself.’ I actually took that to heart.”
Yet, every article that talks about Arcosanti always addresses whether or not Arcosanti is a failure. Was Arcosanti the exact place that Soleri envisioned? The answer to that isn’t clear.
Arcosanti does not house the 5,000 people Soleri had originally planned and four decades later his idea has clearly not spread so heavily that buildings are now constructed in his vision. Also some believe now that he has died, Arcosanti will be stunted. According to Alexander, Soleri never wanted to sell his project and would prefer that the project stay with his residents.
Many people even say Arcosanti was a failure before Soleri died, and that the prime of the experiment was in the ‘70s when it was first being built. A Wired article in April of 2013 described it as a failed experiment. That it had already died in the ‘80s.
“By the time I arrived in 1998, however, Arcosanti had changed,” James McGirk a former resident of Arcosanti said in a Wired article. “The enthusiasm that built most of the project in the 1970s and early 1980s had gone. What was left had curdled into the sluggish but pleasant pace of a non-profit foundation (which, to be fair, it was).”
McGirk spent time in Arcosanti when he was just an 18-year-old architecture student. He said later in his article that the project that is Arcosanti had been undone by the people who lived here. However, despite his criticism, he did say he suspects Soleri’s time would come.
“In drawings, Soleri’s work is intricately detailed but organic,” McGirk continued. “Tall towers adorned with arches and flowing buttresses that swooped and wobbled for miles and miles. From a distance Arcosanti looked like that too. But up close you could see the grain of it. The granules of stone embedded in the slightly crumbling concrete. It looked primitive and ancient. I had imagined something like Sid Mead’s soaring cities; instead this was like a crumbling Roman ruin.”
Alexander looks at Arcosanti in this way too. He is both hopeful and doubtful for the future of Arcosanti. He values his time there, but he believes that now Soleri has died Arcosanti and the site of the project will not continue.
“That was the golden era of Arcosanti, probably was the ‘70s. And that’s when a lot of the major buildings really were built and they were all concrete,” Alexander said. “Right now it’s a real critical stage. I mean this is the point it will probably really fail.”
But how do we measure failure? For the most part, the members of Arcosanti seem satisfied with their life. Most members actually believe Arcosanti would not be the same if it had a larger population and structure. Clark, a current five-month resident, and Kate Bemesderfer, a former 20-month resident, share this belief.
“It would not be the same Arcosanti,” Bemesderfer said. “And if we grow, what will happen, is we’ll have people who want to be part of that bigger thing and then people who don’t want to be part of that bigger thing.”
According to the people living there, Arcosanti is doing fine. They constantly have people cycling through the project as well as core members from the ‘70s and ‘80s staying consistent. The community still thrives although the overall goal may not.
“There was also this thing between Paolo and the people who live there, where the people who lived there wanted him to acknowledge and recognize that there was a community there already. And he always kind of had the point of view that the community is not really happening until the architecture was finished,” Alexander said.
What also thrives are Soleri’s ideas. His arcologies maybe be futuristic and sometimes overbearing, but his ideas of shrinking sprawling cities and reducing the impact on the environment have stuck around. His ideas ideas have especially taken flight with Dutch and Japanese architects. If you travel to each of these countries, you might something that looks like Arcosanti.
“I think it’s the seed of the ideas, the impact is gonna be felt within the next 50 years,” Alexander said. “You’ll definitely see the imprint. I keep seeing things where it’s like ‘yeah that looks like that’s an arcology’ but more on a smaller scale.”
Maybe of the residents — current and former — see his ideas as discussion topics instead of hard-and-fast rules. Soleri’s presence in the architecture world may have changed things for the better.
“It’s important to know that Soleri’s ideas are open to interpretation,” Sue said. “He wanted to open up conversation.”
So when asking the question: is Arcosanti a failure?
Arcosanti is a different place at night. Because they are so isolated from any major city, the stars are very clearly visible from the sky. The surrounding valley is lit by the bright and numerous freckles of stars in the sky. It’s almost magical.
On the roof of the east crescent amphitheater, residents sit on the Sky Theater. Huddled up together in blankets they watch the night sky, sometimes pointing out important star formations or sometimes just in silence. Their view is open, there are no buildings obstructing them, and they can see an expansive scene of the outcropping mesas. Soleri, when he was alive, would watch the stars with them in the same state of wonder.
The feeling of community is so strong when they are here, when they are silently gazing toward the heavens. All these individuals many times give up their jobs and houses to come here and be a part of this tight-knit group.
This powerful scene isn’t visible to passersby on the freeway unless they turned off on Exit 263 and saw this great experiment for themselves.