Built along a jumbled, rocky canyon in the scrubby high desert between Flagstaff and Phoenix, the experimental town of Arcosanti is a place of pilgrimage for people who love architecture and design. Located at the end of a gravel road off I-17, the organically growing settlement is the brainchild of the late Paolo Soleri, an Italian-American architect and founder of Arcology, a school of thought that seeks to unite the disciplines of architecture with ecology. The goal? To find efficient alternatives to urban sprawl with an eye to city planning that reduces the consumption of materials and energy while increasing quality of life. Admirable ideals, to be sure.
Arcosanti was founded in 1970 with a forecast of eventually housing thousands, and it has grown into a mind-bending mix of form and function — a mash-up of Euclidean geometry, de-constructed Palladian formalism, and organic futurism. Notable structures include the open-ended Romanesque half-dome of the Ceramics Apse and the soaring Vaults. Altogether, it looks a bit like a sci-fi Italian hilltop town, fitting to its visionary founder. And then there are the bells. Abstract bronze and ceramic wind chimes are a specialty of Soleri’s successors, and they spin and chime throughout the development.
Nearly five decades after Arcosanti was begun, it currently houses some 60 people (though the original vision is still in play). But a few hundred additional people reside their every year, often staying for six-week, hands-on workshops that let them join in the ongoing construction. Shovels and wheelbarrows are educational supplies in these residencies as much as pen and paper.
Can’t stay that long? There are also lodging options for a night or two, ranging from shared dormitories to private rooms. Arcosanti offers daily one-hour tours, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with a break for noontime lunch. Longer, more in-depth guided experiences are available by reservation, as well. There’s also a sunny, high-ceilinged cafe offering veggie-forward buffet meals and a gift shop. Frequent musical events are held at Arcosanti, including the immersive FORM festival this month with eclectic headliners like Florence + The Machine, Bonobo, and Khruangbin.
This is all interesting enough, of course, but there are a couple of caveats to consider before visiting Arcosanti. First, its terrain is not the best for people with mobility issues, and families might find that it’s not the best destination for fussy young ones. Second, there’s a social-political issue: In 2017, at the beginning of the #metoo movement, Soleri’s daughter Daniela made a claim that he sexually assaulted her in her youth. The foundation that oversees Arcosanti acknowledged her claim, as well as the fact that her father was a visionary and difficult leader who strayed into abusive narcissism like so many other leaders of movements. Nonetheless, he’s six years gone, and Arcosanti still grows.
If you don’t have time to visit Arcosanti proper, its mother site, Cosanti, is open daily in Scottsdale and offers scads of bells and jewelry for collectors. In addition, the Soleri Bridge and Plaza is the architectural centerpiece of the bustling Western city’s vibrant urban core. It’s great for “Wish You Were Here” photos and selfies. (arcosanti.org)