By Anita Lum
Posted On January 29, 2022
Being relatively new to the Prescott area, I was scouring a map to decide which direction might be best for a planned day trip – Cottonwood first or Jerome? I noticed a blip on the map reading “Arcosanti” and I remembered seeing that word on a freeway exit sign too - so now my curiosity was peaked and of course I had to Google it.
I was intrigued by the message on Arcosanti’s homepage that described their mission: “to inspire a reimagined urbanism … through experimentation and application of the principles of arcology, a combination of the words architecture and ecology that offers an alternative to urban sprawl.” So, I made up my mind I’d have to visit there at some point. I mean, why not, “the World’s First Prototype Arcology” was in our backyard. I instantly conjured up in my mind a pristine complex vibrant with lush vegetation, and a colorful, warm and inviting atmosphere.
There is over a mile of unpaved road leading to the entrance. It was well-maintained but there was an area that needed to be avoided just as one approached the parking lot. Our first impression was that the facility was in definite need of some TLC. Glass on doors needed cleaning, weeds needed to be pulled, debris needed sweeping - in general curb-appeal was lacking.
It is suggested to make a tour reservation online so we did. There is a small portion of the tour fee charged in advance when making the reservation, and the balance is charged upon arrival. Note that this facility is not easy for persons who use a wheelchair. In fact, the only accessible space on the property is the parking lot. There are no elevators; so, in order to get up to the Visitor Center, where the tours commence, expect to be climbing stairs. At of the time of this writing, masks are also required indoors (even though there has never been a mask mandate in Yavapai County). Most of the tour is outdoors, however.
After checking in, we were told we had a few minutes before the start of the tour. So, we spent a few minutes walking around and admiring the beautiful bells and tiles that they have for sale. The tour commenced with a 9-minute film recounting the history of Arcosanti. Our tour guide was a young lady who has her own jewelry business based in Austin but became a resident of the complex a few years back.
We learned that Paolo Soleri’s vision was to create a contained and compact, self-sustaining community. The method used to create the structures at Arcosanti was “earth-casting” where they poured concrete over the earth and afterwards, soil was excavated out from the remaining shell. Soleri was attempting to solve issues associated with urban sprawl. The practice of frugality and minimization of natural resources was what he preached so it made sense that the structures are several stories high to maximize space, reducing the footprint. Eighty or so residents occupy a variety of accommodations. Soleri had planned that Arcosanti would eventually house 5000 residents; however, the population has seldom gone over 150. Our guide shared with us that she lived in “camp” - an area that was comprised of three “cubes”, one served as her bedroom, one a closet and one a living area. Kitchen and bathroom facilities were shared. Other folks live in multi-room apartments some with kitchens and bathrooms. I asked if they paid rent but we learned that as a non-profit organization, the Cosanti Foundation cannot collect rent. So, instead, residents all pay some type of fee but it is the same no matter what type of accommodation they are inhabiting. And, apparently, one can become a resident only if an employee of the Cosanti Foundation or an artisan who holds a workshop and is invited to stay when space is available.
Our group’s first stop was the brass bell-making area where the casting method was demonstrated. Liquid bronze is poured into a sand mold that the artist has etched with their personal pattern or drawing. It was interesting to learn that there are only thirty-two distinct Soleri bell patterns used to form these sand molds.
The next stop was the workshop where the ceramic bells are made. As many of the other areas on the campus, this area was designed as a multi-purpose facility: it easily converts into a stage with semi-circle bench seating. After the shaped ceramic bells have air-dried, the artisans carve them with their unique designs.
We next moved to a small grassy area with a view to the blue-grey trees that outline the Agua Fria River. In the distance, we could see the “camp”, the wastewater treatment area and the community pool. A 3000 gallon per day grey water treatment was installed in 2016. The natural wastewater (blackwater) treatment system is treated via an oxidation pond.
One of the last stops was at the outdoor amphitheatre, also known as the Colly Soleri Music Center. Colly was Paolo’s wife. The moat around the stage can be filled with water for ambiance and to provide a separation between the audience and performers. Perusing the Arcosanti website, it seems like musical events have not been held here since 2017 - so even before Covid.
Beyond the pool area was the wastewater treatment area. There are three wells that service Arcosanti - they are fed from the Agua Fria River. Other than the well water, however, the facility is dependent on APS power and even though the Cosanti Foundation owns over 800 acres, they admittedly do not grow enough food to feed everyone. Residents go into Prescott Valley or beyond for food and other supplies.
We had anticipated seeing a well-kept, vital community with immaculate landscaping but unfortunately, that was not the case. Tarps covered rooftops in some areas. Most walkways were uneven and needed patching. Torn shade cloths flapped in the breeze. Overall, the place is in disrepair, lacks character and was reminiscent of a visit I paid to east Berlin pre-1987. As a key concept of this facility was self-sustainability, we were also surprised that we did not see any areas where there were fruit-bearing trees or areas along the walkways planted with vegetables or herbs. We did see a greenhouse jutting out just past Soleri’s former apartment but the tour did not take us quite that far. They talked of a “food forest” near the “camp” but not sure what is being grown there.
Our guide did make it a point to mention after Soleri passed, that focus on the mission was somewhat lost but there is new management in place now that is committed to resurrecting the dream.
All in all, it was a few hours well-spent, visiting someplace new and getting a glimpse of what life is like at Arcosanti. Just because I didn’t find it sensational, doesn’t mean I regret the visit. Then again, I tend to have an insatiable curiosity when it comes to exploring new places whether near or far. So, my advice is to get out there and go see behind the walls of Arcosanti!