Arizona index


Arcosanti is a small community which has been built in the middle of the Arizona wilderness. The design is developed by the architect Paolo Soleri. I had always wanted to go there to photograph the place, and recently, Maribeth and I had the opportunity.

Our visit to Arcosanti was most interesting. On the day we arrived, there were numerous forest fires in the region. One was quite distant in the mountains, and the others were actually fires that flared up after we had passed the location on I-17. Because of our scheduling, we arrived after 5 pm, not knowing that they have a visitor's center, and that it had already closed. We quickly found that out, but we didn't see any reason why we couldn't walk around the place and photograph it, and we proceeded to do so. As we approached the visitor's center, a man went by, and we immediately ended up in a conversation about the fires. The conversation was brief, and the man then walked off. We got the impression that he and the others were trying to size us up from the beginning. We learned that we would not be allowed to go directly into the pottery area, because of signs, which we honored. However, we were able to take some photographs into the area. Throughout all of this, I had the feeling that we were being watched, but that people were also ignoring us and going about their business.

One of the very first things we noticed upon arrival was a small display of the various windbell designs that are apparently marketed as part of the source of revenue. Soleri has designed some unique windbells, which I think are quite beautiful. The most famous consists of three tuned triangles arranged like an elongated tetrahedron. There is a clapper in the middle which strikes the triangles when the wind is blowing. The entire thing is made of some kind of metal, quite likely copper, because it has that wonderful green appearance of weathered copper. These bells are on sale in many area gift shops in Arizona.

The next thing we noticed is that there was a small collection of people on the roof of the arch-covered common area. They were watching the fires, and one of them had an old 35 mm movie camera with an orange filter, and he was actually filming the fire. At first, we didn't approach them, but after a bit, someone suggested where we could find the stairs to the roof, so we went up there. We did talk to some of them, and it wasn't long before they accepted us completely. All the while, we were taking pictures.

Before we departed from the group on the roof, we learned that they had missed the dinner hour in their enthusiasm for watching the fires. They did invite us to dine with them, but we declined because we were more interested in taking photographs.

Part of the conversations we had with people turned to our own activities. I was able to describe my own home, which is a solar heated rammed earth home on twenty acres of virgin desert. People were intensely interested in this, and the other things we told them about our personal lifestyles. Maribeth talked about gardening, and how she had recently been able to acquire her dream home, and was landscaping it. We also talked about our reasons for traveling, and how we were using natural healing methods to overcome our health problems. The people seemed to think that our approach to life was quite compatible with their own, and I think to some extent, they are right. I do think this helped greatly in their decision that they should welcome us.

To me, Arcosanti has a rather religious or spiritual feel about it. I felt that the people there were living there for much more than a mere sojourn to study Soleri's architectural ideas. At first, I assumed that the apparent unkempt nature of the place meant that they didn't have enough money to maintain it, but I quickly learned that part of the appearance was actually due to the unusual methods of construction employed. One resident explained to us that Soleri didn't like the idea of waste, and because normally forms are used to make walls and other structures out of concrete and then discarded, he chose instead to have people dig forms out of the ground. When the concrete was removed from the form, a little of the sand would stick to the outside permanently, giving it that unkempt appearance. Other features that appeared unkempt were the paint decorations in some places, and these were definitely in need of a new coat. But the apartments looked well kept and inviting.

Some of the residents explained to us that people interested in studying Soleri's ideas could actually come there and take coursework. Presumably they get college credit for this. At the same time, these people form the construction crews. This is a project that is slow in the building; it has been there for a very long time, and no one is in any hurry to finish it. One gets the sense that it will never truly be finished. Of course, if Soleri can no longer design it, it isn't clear who will. The funding for the project comes from a foundation which Soleri has established.

We were able to have some prolonged conversations with a few people. They told us where they were from, and what some of their dreams were. Altogether, we were made to feel most welcome.

The residents also explained that they were raising various crops in the valley, especially certain grains. The photos of the grapes which I have displayed show a curious inattention to the principles of good horticulture. The people didn't know that if you prune the vine, you will get many more grapes, and the grapes will be much larger and juicier. In addition, some plants were allowed to grow wild, and they were obviously not being watered. I was delighted to find an artichoke head in bloom, and the wild growing sunflowers were buzzing with bees. A few people had private gardens, and their methods are most interesting from a visual standpoint. Evidently, the colony lives on a strictly vegetarian diet. The lack of attention to what are to my mind excellent vegetarian plants left me with a feel that this is a primitive group discovering things from scratch.

One couple explained the architecture to us in some detail. The apartments are constructed so that there are overhangs. These allow sun in in the winter, but shut it out in the summer. The place can be opened up, and there being no pollution in the area, the air is normally fresh. Of course, that day the fires were spoiling the air quite a bit. The project is, in general, minimally heated and cooled. The couple that explained these things were newcomers, and the woman had quite a nasty sunburn. But she was unaware that the aloe growing about the place was the perfect thing to apply. The curious mixture of intimate knowledge of certain aspects of their living and the lack of knowledge of other things which seem to go hand in hand with what they do know was very interesting to me. Also interesting to me was the fact that although the project itself is very beautiful and innovative, there is a strange mixture of the ugly in some places, as people erect a structure of convenience for some practical purpose, usually to provide a place to make objects of art.

At one point, we met the mascot. This very old cat can hardly move, but is dearly loved by all. I didn't ask if they feed the cat meat.

I was absolutely delighted to discover the small koi pond. By the time I found it, it was quite dark, and I was not at all sure the photographs I took would come out, but they did!

Another very curious thing we found is that there was an ampitheatre area which contained a number of chairs, an enclosed moat, and on the stage, a large grand piano, unshielded from the weather except by a very temporary tent, and the half dome of the stage area. I didn't try it to see if it was in tune; I figured I didn't have to.

All in all, our visit was a pleasant one. It felt like a place where I'd like to dally awhile, but I am quite sure that the spiritual feel of the place would be quite strange to me, and I am not at all sure how I'd react. I am also quite sure that my own faith would be a real curiosity to everyone there. I get the strong impression that the people are very much focused on this life, and how they can go about creating a peaceful world through their humanistic efforts at art. I would love to discuss religion with them, but it would have to be from a position of long acquaintance and mutual trust.

Arizona index