Sustaining Soleri

Written by Suzanne Heyn Category: Valley News Issue: April 2014
Group Free

One year after Arcosanti founder Paolo Soleri’s death, board members work to keep his ideas alive.

Not even birds could scavenge scraps from the avocado rinds Paolo Soleri composted, so frugal was the famed architect and philosopher who founded the experimental community Arcosanti in 1970.

During his life, Soleri’s charismatic personality and philosophy of sustainable urbanism attracted legions of volunteers to help build the eco-friendly, artisanal village, located 70 miles north of Phoenix. Soleri died last April at 93, leaving casual observers to wonder if the project would continue.

One year later, community leaders, faced with the lingering effects of a recession, work to continue the mission. The site attracts thousands of visitors annually, and leaders hope sales of art, books and attendance at events will generate enough income to finish constructing the community that’s just five percent complete after more than 40 years.

Arcosanti, along with Soleri’s Paradise Valley residence and studio, Cosanti, remains a tourist attraction. Last year, 35,000 people visited Arcosanti and 90 attended five-week workshops, a prerequisite to residency. Anywhere from 50 to 150 people live at Arcosanti, with just a handful of residents at Cosanti.

“People came [to Arcosanti] for [Soleri] and stayed for the idea,” says Roger Tomalty, board member of the Cosanti Foundation, the community’s governing nonprofit. “Arcology” – Soleri’s signature philosophy combining architecture and ecology – sought to provide an alternative to the single-family, two-car-garage lifestyle Soleri believed polluted the earth, wasted resources and corrupted society by isolating people. With arcology, Soleri wanted to create an alternative, a dense urban village. Arcosanti was the petri dish.

Since its founding, Arcosanti has attracted an estimated 7,000 residents and workshop participants who have come and gone, helping to build the compact structures of the community. Construction at Arcosanti continues, with the pace of progress driven by available funding. Soleri planned for a community large enough to sustain 5,000 people.

Soleri Windbell chimes, from below.

Compounding the loss of its leader, Arcosanti has suffered through the recent economic downturn, with reduced profits from the goods and services that sustain it financially, such as bronze and ceramic windbells made on-site, books, workshops, concerts and events. Workshop participants pay $1,550 for five weeks, and residents who stay on pay $160 monthly rent. The income Arcosanti now generates can sustain it indefinitely, says Jeff Stein, Cosanti Foundation president. “We’re not worried about surviving.”

But they’d like to see Arcosanti grow, and board members hope that as people begin buying things again, resurging profits will allow them to resume expansion. Foundation members also hope to attract investors.Italian-born architect Soleri, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, selected the 860-acre site in Cordes Junction because the land was affordable and vast enough for the arcology experiment. Buildings occupy just 25 acres; preserving the natural landscape is central to arcology. During his life, Soleri often visited residents and workshop participants. “This place was the embodiment of his life,” foundation member Mary Hoadley says of Soleri, who remained on the board until age 92.

Arcology results in buildings with well-placed windows and walls to harness natural light and airflow that, according to Stein, reduces electricity by 20 percent. “We have designed architecture that can use the sun directly, without having to bother turning sunlight into electricity,” Stein says, adding the board wants to expand the community to “demonstrate our architectural and ecological ideas for a larger population.”

If You Go
Arcosanti and Cosanti both welcome the public year-round for tours. Visitors to Cosanti may venture on a self-guided walking tour from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday, and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Arcosanti is open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Hour-long guided tours, with a suggested $10 donation, begin on the hour, except for noon.
Arcosanti’s also hosting several special events, including:

• CONNECT, an interactive musical dining experience, April 12
• The 4th Annual High-Country Bluegrass Festival, April 26
• Carpetbag Brigade, theatrical performers on stilts, May 31
• Juneteenth Jazz Festival, June 7 and 8

For more information, visit