Ten years ago I spent some time in Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri's experimental community in Arizona modeled after his visionary ideas of combining ecology with architecture. (I was there in search of an interview. And although I was told Soleri no longer gave interviews, I was lucky enough to secure one.) Although the genesis of Soleri's ideas go back much further, they were published in his book
Arcology in 1969. "Arcology" is the word he coined for an architecture combined with the principals of ecology.
The city as city is the focus of Soleri's thought. The transformation of the city will be necessary, he argues, if we are to survive in a future that is quickly becoming present, that is, as a time of unsustainable consumption on multiple fronts. Soleri proposes cities of great density built on a small footprint thus preserving agricultural land and conserving huge amounts of energy. In addition, the very density of such a city would, in Soleri's view, give birth to a heightened vitality of life.
Ever the opponent of urban sprawl and the ubiquity of the automobile, for over forty years Soleri has lectured to architecture students from all over the world who continue to make the pilgrimage to Arcosanti. He has thus been a consistent influence (largely unacknowledged, as far as I can tell) in much of the thinking that has appeared in the last two decades in schools of architecture and urban planning.
While I was at Arcosanti I listened in as he spoke to a group of young Japanese architects. There were also young architects visiting from other countries. While there, I met a young American architect from Louisville, KY, Jeff Rawlins. Maybe some of Soleri's ideas could be scaled down, he thought. Take a six or eight block area, for instance. There would be a community garden, of course, as the integration of garden and city was long envisioned by Soleri. It just one example of the many ways Soleri was far ahead of many of the ideas now being embraced in urban planning.
Richard Whittaker: You have some thoughts about how some of Soleri's ideas might be adapted on smaller scales?
Jeff Rawlins: Our inner cities are decaying. So that wasteland becomes a fertile place for something to happen. If you were to build an arcology in the middle of the desert, you would have to create a community in order to build it. You'd have to have enough workers to build it. But, in the city you already have that infrastructure. One might go in and create a smaller version of an arcology in a six or eight block area. And we'd start to see social changes, the renewal of community. The idea of gardening with nature right there at your doorstep. That could become something that people would desire in a city. Therefore that organism, as it were, planted in the city, might start to grow. And, as with an organism, you would probably get seeds for new ones that might evolve even further.
I not sure you could do it in the worst neighborhoods, but I think there are neighborhoods where it would work. It's funny how, in ecology, plants work. When corn and beans are planted together one of them brings nitrogen to the surface and the nitrogen feeds the other plant. It's like a springboard. I think that springboard effect could work in this way in our cities.
RW: You're a young architect from Louisville- you've been practicing for seven years-do you see any way you could try to have an influence in this direction in Louisville?
JR: A lot of our cities now are redeveloping downtown areas and are looking for redevelopment companies-for instance Lousiville is developing a number of city blocks and seeking firms-and it depends a lot on being in the right crowd at the right time. It's politics-shaking the right hand.
RW: Having the right language?
JR: Yes. And having the right person who introduces the idea. There are a lot of variables in trying something new and getting it out to the public. One sort of formulates the ideas as one goes and then jumps at any opportunity that might come along. I think it will happen someplace.
RW: I was talking to another young man here in Arcosanti from Chicago (Paul Bagley). He told me he had a good position inside corporate culture, but found himself asking where it was all leading. His concerns are focused around the environment, basically. And somehow all that led him here to Arcosanti. He's lived here for three years and presumably will return to mainstream culture at some point with some clearer focus and intention about how to proceed in this direction. This seems absolutely needed.
I come from the sixties myself. Some of us were political and others were psychedelic, I suppose. But many of us had ideals of one sort or another, and I think many of us have held on to something from that era. It's really heartening to me to see this spirit here in young people now.
JR: I graduated from architecture school in 1990. I moved to Louisville and worked for a couple of firms there and then I struck out on my own. I have a wood shop and I build a lot of things with my hands also. Anyway, I started working-doing some small housing and getting a foothold in the community-but seven or eight years down the road the time came to step back and ask, "What am I really doing? Am I propagating what is already out of control? Or is there a way that I can actually make a difference or feel better about what I am producing?" So being here is part of this exploration to find out where I am going and what my role is, as an architect in my community.
RW: Mr. Soleri mentioned that there is a very big architecture firm (John Jerde Associates) looking for a way to build something under his guidance and in accord with the principles of arcology. As I understand it, when Mr. Jerde was a young man, he spent time either here at Arcosanti, or at Cosanti, and now feels a debt to Mr. Soleri for what he received. But, as Mr. Soleri says, they haven't yet been able to figure out how this could be done. The problem seems be about finding a client willing to construct something that's not designed primarily for consumer use as we see in mega-malls and the like. I wonder if you have any thoughts on this?
JR: Well, consumerism is running rampant, but at the same time people are feeling less fulfilled and are searching for a connection to each other, searching for a sense of community. I think there's a willingness now to give up some things, like having your own front yard, in order to join this kind of community where you could be fulfilled more as a human being.
RW: Have you found places where you could do that?
JR: That's one of the interesting things about Arcosanti. They really promote the sense of family and community here. That's one of the reasons people will come here and end up staying four or five years. There are a lot of cities where there are small versions of this. Paris, for instance, is a city that's very dense and people are really drawn to that. Amazingly enough, a lot of places that are really dense draw a lot of people.
RW: I happened to read a "Dilbert" cartoon this morning while I was having breakfast. Dilbert is saying to a PR person: "This product would melt the polar icecaps and doom humanity." The PR person replies, "That's okay." Dilbert says, "But you're part of humanity." The PR person replies, "No I'm not. I'm in marketing." It's brutal, but had to laugh. Scott Adams doesn't pull his punches.
JR: It reminds me. Someone presented an interesting fact yesterday about LA that the average speed in LA on the freeway is 19 or 25 miles an hour. So they're reaching this gridlock.
RW: In the Bay Area real estate prices are so high that many people who work in San Francisco have had to travel 80 to 100 miles to find something affordable. Then they all get on the freeway very early in the morning and, of course, not only do they have all that distance to cover, but then there's traffic slowdown. Some people must spend over six hours a day just commuting.
JR: And yet, in San Francisco one doesn't really need a car. San Francisco is not totally foreign to the Solerian model of a city. His is more environmentally friendly because he models smaller cities with rail connections between them, which is not a bad idea. With this smaller city you can walk wherever you need to in order to fulfill all your cultural and basic needs. That is a wonderful thing. Then if you want to go out of town you take the train. But with a city like Phoenix or Indianapolis-or most of the midwest cities that continue to sprawl outward-these are problem areas because they take up so much land so fast.
Jeff Rawlins can be reached at email@example.com
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