The Enduring Allure of Utopian Communities

By Sarah Davidson desertutopia7 Arcosanti is best described as a never-realized utopia. Dreamed up by architect Paolo Soleri in 1970, the (self-described) despot imagined a thriving city of 5000 in the middle of the Arizona desert. Soleri’s uncompromising vision doomed his ambitions, but Arcology, Soleri’s benevolent if deeply quixotic philosophy, persists in attracting thousands of visitors and a few dozen transient residents each year.

With aims of “demonstrating positive response to the many problems of urban civilization, population, pollution, energy and natural resource depletion, food scarcity and quality of life,” no small task, “Arcology recognizes the necessity of the radical reorganization of the sprawling urban landscape into dense, integrated, three-dimensional cities in order to support the complex activities that sustain human culture. The city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind.”

The planning sketches and drawings, drawn in coloured pencil and spilling across pages, seem themselves to reflect some of this story. They have every appearance of relics of a desert sci-fi fantasy: faded, roughly hewn and and subtly warm-toned while also filled with strongly modernist shapes.

desertutopia2 Paolo Soleri-MACRO COSANTI TOWER  With ecology and architecture at its root, and prodigious ambitions, Arcosanti failed to grow into a city. The 3 percent that was ever completed still exists, and has succeeded in becoming itself a romantic relic of 20th century idealism. The New York Times ran a feature and a photo essay on the city in 2012, and though the article is about financial challenges and Soleri’s retirement from the board of the project, the accompanying photo essay does little to demolish the romance of his vision, capturing the concrete forms and the light of the desert at dusk.

Although Arcosanti is a rather ambitious example of utopian vision, the dream of a home and sense of belonging—with no economic strings attached—is a popular one. Witness the ongoing movement of earthships and tiny homes. Or my personal favourite, the now-classic Shelter, “a cult classic from the heyday of teach-ins and VWs, […] organized like a big scrapbook, it seamlessly blends vernacular building traditions from all over the world with far-out American hippie shelters, including geodesic domes, gypsy wagons, tree houses, windmills, and bizarre ferrocement living sculptures.” (The Art of Natural Building) desertutopia8 The connection between everyday city life and a self-sustaining shelter might seem tenuous, but perhaps that distance from Vancouver explains some of the appeal of the architectural utopia. It’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that PuSH Festival’s presentation of The Love Song of R. Buckminster Fuller (featuring a live score by indie rock band Yo La Tengo) was a popular event this week. The movie traced the career of the architect and inventor who “spoke persuasively about contemporary design and architecture’s ability to tackle issues of sustainability and conservation, and to stimulate radical societal change,” and is best known for inventing the geodesic ‘Bucky’ dome, an optimistic architecture if ever there was one.

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