Paolo Soleri didn't just build buildings, he imagined giant self-sufficient cities run by solar power. In the seventies, young architects flocked to Arizona to help sand-cast concrete and build his vision, responding to the call:
If you are truly concerned about the problems of pollution, waste, energy depletion, land, water, air and biological conservation, poverty, segregation, intolerance, population containment, fear and disillusionment, Join us.
Thousands did, and they still come, paying for the privilege. I quoted Steve Rose of the Guardian a few years back:
It was not a community for community's sake, eating tofu and giving each other back rubs," says Roger Tolman, who oversaw construction. "It was the opposite of the hippy scene: a community of construction workers. If you were going to be here, you were going to work - harder than you'd ever worked in your life.
The problem I am confronting is the present design of cities only a few stories high, stretching outward in unwieldy sprawl for miles. As a result of their sprawl, they literally transform the earth, turn farms into parking lots and waste enormous amounts of time and energy transporting people, goods and services over their expanses. My proposition is urban implosion rather than explosion.
Arcology is capable of demonstrating a positive response to the many problems of urban civilization, those of population, pollution, energy and natural resource depletion, food scarcity, and quality of life. The city structure must contract, or miniaturize, in order to support the complex activities that sustain human culture and give it new perception and renewed trust in society and its future. A central tenet of arcology is that the city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind.
Rather than a "crazy guy" ranting in the wilderness, Soleri has proved to be a voice of reason. Nobody wanted to hear his diagnosis of the ills of US society, but it has been proved right - the car-centric, inefficient, horizontal suburban model has left us in poor shape to cope with climate-change problems. Yet Soleri is sceptical of new-found admirers of his philosophy. "They take a very shallow understanding of it," he says. In Soleri's view, we need to reformulate, rather than simply reform, our strategy for civilisation. His outlook is not hopeful. "Materialism is, by definition, the antithesis of green," he says. "We have this unstoppable, energetic, self-righteous drive that's innate in us, but which has been reoriented by limitless consumption. Per se, it doesn't have anything evil about it. It's a hindrance. But multiply that hindrance by billions, and you've got catastrophe.
Paolo Soleri, dead at 93. Read an excellent article in the New York Times about Arcosanti's past, present and future.