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What is the Experimental Desert Community in Arizona, and Who Designed it?

Arcosanti is an experimental desert community located 70 miles outside of Phoenix Arizona. The town was conceived by visionary architect Paolo Soleri, proposing an alternative to urban sprawl that is more sustainable and community centred. Join me in discovering how it came it to be, and some of its most exciting design details. 

Built on the values of community and environmental accountability, arcosanti’s goal is to pursue ‘lean’ alternatives to urban sprawl. These ideas are based on soleri’s theory of compact city design — a concept he referred to as ‘arcology’, a portmanteau of architecture and ecology. The town broke ground in 1970, and its construction remains ongoing. it is also here where soleri was laid to rest in 2013 after he passed away at the age of 93. Soleri’s buildings accomplish the trick of appearing both organic and machine-made, with soft curves decorated in angular flourishes. The arcosanti residents nestle in apartments that might be mistaken for hobbit dwellings, sunk partly into the ground but generously lit by semi-circular windows (the older the resident, the grander the apartment). The breadth of the city is easily walkable, no more than 15 minutes across, meandering up and down small staircases that connect miniature plazas. On the outskirts, half-built apartments are surrounded by leftover construction equipment, as if a child had suddenly quit playing with her toys.


What is Arcosanti? 

The goal of Arcosanti is to explore the concept of arcology, which combines architecture and ecology. The project has the goals of combining the social interaction and accessibility of an urban environment with sound environmental principles, such as minimal resource use and access to the natural environment.  The project has been building an experimental town on 25 acres (10 ha) of a 4,060-acre (1,640 ha) land preserve, 860 acres (350 hectares) of which are owned by the Cosanti Foundation, with the remainder leased from the state. Ground was broken in 1970 to begin construction on the site and has continued at a varying pace through the present. The most recently completed building was finished in 1989. The population has tended to vary between 50 and 150 people, many of them students and volunteers. The goal was for Arcosanti to house a population of 5,000 people. Thirteen major structures were built on the site, some several stories tall. One master plan, designed in 2001, envisioned a massive complex, called “Arcosanti 5000”, that would dwarf the current buildings.

Many features are particular to the design and construction of Arcosanti. For example, tilt-up concrete panels are cast in a bed of silt acquired from the surrounding area, giving the concrete a unique texture and color that helps it blend with the landscape. Many panels were cast with embedded art. Most buildings are oriented southward to capture the sun’s light and heat – roof designs admit the maximal amount of sunlight in the winter and a minimal amount during the summer. The structure built to shelter bronze-casting is built in the form of an apse, a quarter-sphere or semi-dome. The layout of all the buildings is intricate and organic, rather than the grid typical of most US cities, with the goals of maximal accessibility to all elements, a combination of increased social interaction and bonds, together with privacy for the residents. Not all of the grounds are wheelchair accessible.

Existing structures at Arcosanti are meant to begin to provide for the complete needs of a community. They include: a five-story visitors’ center/cafe/gift shop; a bronze-casting apse; a ceramics apse; two large barrel vaults; a ring of apartment residences and quasi-public spaces around an outdoor amphitheater; a community swimming pool; an office complex, above which is an apartment that was originally Soleri’s suite. A two-bedroom “Sky Suite” occupies the highest point in the complex; it, as well as a set of rooms below the pool, is available for overnight guests. Most of the buildings have accessible roofs.


Arcosanti has a Camp area, built by and for the original construction crew. It is used today as housing for approximately one fourth of the Arcosanti population. Camp has a small greenhouse, with easy access to gardens and large agricultural fields that, as of March 2017, were not being cultivated. Terraced greenhouses are planned along the slope of the main building site for winter plant and garden space, and to collect heat to distribute through the buildings. Arcosanti was conceived of and remains primarily an education center, with students from around the world visiting to attend workshops, classes, and to assist with the continuing construction. Forty thousand tourists visit yearly. Tourists can take a guided tour of the site or stay overnight in guest accommodations.  Some Arcosanti funding comes from sales of bells made and cast from clay and bronze on site. Additional funding comes from donations and fees for workshops. Much of the present construction at Arcosanti has been done by workshop participants and volunteers. The average salary at Arcosanti for much of its history was barely above minimum wage.

Starting in 1970, participants have come to help build Arcosanti by enrolling in workshops. During the traditional five- or six-week workshop, they attend lectures about Paolo Soleri and the principles of Arcology design while gaining hands-on learning experience by aiding construction. Although the program attracts many who are interested in art, crafts, architecture and urban planning, it is also pertinent to those interested in philosophy, sociology, science, and agriculture. Today, workshops are shorter in duration, one week or less, and focus on learning, including experiential learning. Workshops are offered in glass blowing, siltcasting, photography and other hands-on activities.


The History of Arcosanti

In 1956 Paolo and Colly Soleri purchased the land in Paradise Valley, Arizona, upon which the Cosanti studios were built. Their first official activities began there in 1959. Soleri coined the term “Arcology” in 1969 to describe his designs for ecologically sound human habitats, as elaborated in The City in the Image of Man, published by MIT Press to accompany a 1970 exhibition of the same name at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, DC. The book develops the concept of Arcology and its design variations for different settings. Arcosanti, introduced as the last (30th) example of this exercise, was originally planned to house a relatively small population of 1,500 people. The physical construction of Arcosanti began in 1970. Then, from 1975-77 the Xerox Corporation sponsored a major Soleri exhibition, featuring a series of new arcology designs that suggested a sustainable urban habitat employing alternative energy sources. The project was called Two Suns Arcology: The Cities Energized by the Sun. The Arcosanti master plan went through a major overhaul reflecting this methodology. In the following year, Plant Show venues gave Soleri additional funding to update the Arcosanti design. The projected population was increased to 5,000. In 1978 a mishap affected their financial wellbeing. During a festival held at the site on 7 October,  a grass fire ignited in the area being used as a parking lot and over 180 cars were damaged or destroyed.  This had the practical effect of ending the possibility of future music festivals at the site, due to the massive cost in damage payouts.


Ten years into the construction of the first prototype arcology, a developmental adjustment was made to gain momentum for the project. The Critical Mass concept was introduced as an incremental phase to house 10 percent of the projected population of 5,000. A series of small-scale structures, providing various amenities, were designed to support a viable community. This was intended to support the next major step, the completion of Arcosanti. Developed from the Super Critical Mass in “Arcosanti 2000”, with the design elements of “Nudging Space Arcology” added, Arcosanti 5000 features seven phases of truncated super-apse structures. It re-establishes the macro nature of this prototype arcology for 5,000 people. This design is in development, awaiting architectural and structural resolutions. In 2009 Paolo Soleri celebrated his 90th birthday at Arcosanti, joined by 300 alumni and guests for the occasion. The official schedule started on June 19; this first day was devoted to alumni. Ongoing events included Kundalini yoga, a morning bell-carving workshop, a silent auction, and an exhibition with the newest renderings of Critical Mass. The festivities continued into the night with a bronze pour in the Foundry, followed by a techno party in the Vaults, and performances on a stage in the Ceramics Apse. On July 14, 2011, the Cosanti Foundation announced that its founder Soleri had retired as its President and CEO. “There are other things that I want to accomplish,” said the 92-year-old Soleri. “I am ready to leave the management of the Foundation and its primary project – the urban laboratory Arcosanti – to the next generation.” That generation was to be led by Boston architect Jeff Stein. Stein’s proposals for Arcosanti began with: a half-dozen new apartment buildings; a canopy for the amphitheater; a renovated commercial bakery; and a storage unit for Paolo Soleri’s collection of architectural models.


Who was Paolo Soleri? 

Soleri was born in Turin, Italy, Europe. He was awarded his “laurea” (master’s degree) in architecture from the Politecnico di Torino in 1946. He visited the United States in December 1946 and spent a year and a half in fellowship with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona, and at Taliesin in Spring Green, Wisconsin. During this time, he gained international recognition for a bridge design that was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art. In 1950, Soleri, with his wife Colly (née Corolyn Woods), returned to Italy where he was commissioned to build a large ceramics factory, Ceramica Artistica Solimene, in Vietri on the Amalfi coast.

Soleri adapted ceramics industry processes learned at this time to use in his award-winning designs and production of ceramic and bronze windbells and silt-cast architectural structures. For more than 40 years, proceeds from sales of the wind-bells have been an important source of funds for construction that is meant to test his theoretical work. Ceramic and bronze bells continue to be produced and sold at Arcosanti and Cosanti in Arizona.In 1956, Soleri settled in Scottsdale, Arizona, with Colly and the elder of their two daughters; the younger was born in Arizona. He began building Arcosanti in 1970 with the help of architecture and design students, as a  place to test his urban design hypotheses. This “urban laboratory” (so-dubbed by Ada Louise Huxtable, who at the time was the architecture critic of The New York Times) became internationally renowned.

Paolo and Colly Soleri made a lifelong commitment to research and experimentation in urban planning. They established the Cosanti Foundation, a not-for-profit educational non-profit foundation. Soleri’s philosophy and works were strongly influenced by the Jesuit paleontologist and philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Soleri died on 9 April 2013 and was buried at Arcosanti in its private cemetery, beside his wife

The International Architecture Symposium “Mensch und Raum” (Man and Space) at the Vienna University of Technology in 1984 received international attention. Paolo Soleri participated with, among others. Soleri was a distinguished lecturer in the College of Architecture at Arizona State University and a member of the Lindisfarne Association.In 1966, Paolo Soleri began working on the design for the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater in Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was built for the IAIA (Institute of American Indian Arts) on what is now the campus of the Santa Fe Indian School using large silt cast forms. The property is owned by the nineteen Native American Pueblos of New Mexico and is therefore not protected by local or state preservation laws.

A landmark exhibition, “City in the Image of Man – The Architectural Visions of Paolo Soleri”, organized in 1970 by the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, traveled extensively thereafter in the U.S. and Canada, breaking records for attendance. “Two Suns Arcology, A Concept for Future Cities” opened in 1976 at the Xerox Square Center in Rochester, New York. In 1989, “Paolo Soleri Habitats: Ecologic Minutiae”, an exhibition of arcologies, space habitats, and bridges, was presented at the New York Academy of Sciences. More recently, “Soleri’s Cities, Architecture for the Planet Earth and Beyond” was featured at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts in Scottsdale, AZ. A Soleri bell appears in the film What the *Bleep* Do We Know? His work has been exhibited worldwide.

In 1976, Paolo Soleri was a key participant at UN Habitat I, the first UN forum on human settlements, held it Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, North America. Soleri appeared there together with Buckminster Fuller. Both architects had strong social visions for their design, and combined their philosophies of human development, sustainability, and innovation into their architecture. The Paolo Soleri Archives, the collection of Soleri’s drawings and writings, is located at Arcosanti. The Soleri Archives is managed by Sue Kirsch under the direction of Tomiaki Tamura, a Cosanti Board Trustee and Arcosanti’s Director of Special Projects. Tomiaki Tamura resides at Arcosanti. An interview with Soleri was featured in the environmental documentary The 11th Hour (2007).

On 10 December 2010, the Soleri Bridge and Plaza was completed.  The structure had been commissioned by Scottsdale Public Art. The 130-foot (40 m) pedestrian bridge based on Paolo Soleri’s design is located on the South Bank of the Arizona Canal and connects a developed retail area of the Scottsdale Waterfront with Old Town Scottsdale. The bridge is incorporated into a 22,000 sq ft (2,000 m2) plaza including silt cast artwork, as well as a large bell assembly called The Goldwater Bell, also designed by Paolo Soleri.


Who is Jeff Stein? 

Jeffrey Stein AIA, award winning architect and writer, is President of the Cosanti Foundation in Arizona. The Foundation, begun 60 years ago by internationally renowned architect Paolo Soleri, is responsible for ongoing design and construction of the urban laboratory Arcosanti in central Arizona. A longtime Soleri collaborator, Stein is former Dean of the Boston Architectural College. He has taught at architecture schools in the US and at the Technicum Winterthur, Zurich, and Ecole d’Architecture Languedoc-Rousillon, in Montpellier, France. Mr. Stein has written regularly for ARCHITECTURE BOSTON magazine and was architecture critic for the New England newspaper, BANKER+TRADESMAN. He lectures widely about urban design, including at the recent Tel Aviv-Yafo Centennial Conference on Urban Sustainability, and last fall’s 9th World EcoCities Congress in Montreal. His work at Arcosanti was the recent cover story for SUSTAINABILITY magazine; his talk in San Francisco was featured in the global TEDxCITY. This is Stein’s second Techonomy appearance. “We’re here imagining cities are the newest thing,” says Jeff Stein, co-president of Arcosanti. Stein was taking a break from architecture school in the 1970s when he stumbled upon the book that made Soleri famous, “Arcology: The City in the Image of Man.” 


“I called the Cosanti Foundation (created to support the development of Arcosanti) and talked to Paolo Soleri’s wife, who said they had this workshop program at Arcosanti if I was interested,” Stein recalled. “It turned out I was.”Stein arrived in 1976 and stayed seven years. Soleri’s idea for Arcosanti was not outlandish for its time, he said. Stein became a co-president in 2011, after Soleri resigned at age 91. “Soleri thought if we could be better humans than we were, then we are going to need an architecture that supports that, and that’s what Arcosanti started to become,” Stein said. Soleri began cultivating an environment that prioritized sustainable living and social interaction, but Arcosanti residents weren’t completely disconnected from the conveniences of modern-day living. Over the years, Stein said, about 8,000 people have participated in workshops, internships and residency programs. And thousands of visitors from all over the globe have stopped to explore Soleri’s grand experiment. For the nearly 80 residents who live here, though, Arcosanti is their home.

“Cities happened only 7,000 years or so ago. We haven’t had time to design them properly for human evolution.” Stein lives in a second-floor south-facing apartment. “The thickness of the room is predicated on sun angles,” he says. “On the winter solstice, the sun shines all the way in.” His abode connects to a solar greenhouse that provides heat in the winter and food year-round. Arcosanti is also built for efficiency. To get to work, Stein has a 30-second commute. He walks out to his balcony, shimmies down a ladder, and turns in to his first-story office. Stein’s building cluster has a courtyard with fig trees. The courtyard is one of the numerous meeting places in the city’s lanes and open spaces. “At a time when climate is changing and seas are rising, there’s going to be great migration into the coasts,” Stein says. “We’re trying to be part of the global conversation of how eight million people can live on the planet.”



But as construction on Acrosanti has languished, other cities and designers have started to surpass Soleri’s ideas. Nations like Qatar and Saudi Arabia are developing cities with pneumatic trash tubes, robot workers, drone taxis, and solar-powered skywalks. Malaysia is looking to build a city with self-watering plants and self-repairing windows. If Alphabet’s planned community in Toronto comes to fruition, it could feature heated roadways for driverless vehicles and underground sensors. Compared to these projects, Arcosanti’s low-lying, half-domed structures and sand-colored facades now look like parts of an outdated hippie village. However, this doesn’t seem to have been Solenti’s aim for the project. As opposed to seeking technological innovation, the goal was to create an alternative form of living based on community and an alternative to the growing consumerism that drove so much of American culture, and still does. Soleri’s ideas are far from outdated. The architect was an early proponent of local food sourcing, solar energy, and walkable neighborhoods — concepts that are now considered paragons of urban design. With an inclusive vision and the right funding, these concepts still have the potential to help address issues like climate change and overcrowding.


By the time Soleri envisioned Arcosanti in the late 1960s, he had garnered acclaim as a protegee of Frank Lloyd Wright and an inductee to the Museum of Modern Art. He and his wife had also founded the Cosanti Foundation, a non-profit organization that owns the land where Arcosanti now sits. While as a community, the project didn’t reach the level of success hoped for, the architecture of the space remains a marvel. You can now stay there through Airbnb, or just go for a day visit. So, if you’re ever in Arizona, it seems worth the drive! 

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