Arcosanti (Photo: Cody/Flickr)

Down a dirt road, about an hour from Phoenix, Paolo Soleri’s vision of a sustainable city rises out of the desert. Five thousand people were supposed to live here, in a dense, concrete city that was meant, the Chicago Tribune wrote, to be “more permanent than the pyramids.” Construction began in 1970—and continues to this day, forty-five years later. The result, Arcosanti, is the work of more than 7,000 volunteers. 

Soleri, who died in 2013, built this city to realize his vision of arcology—a city that combined architecture and ecology to form one dense, sustainable living system. Arcosanti was designed to pack humans tight enough together that the land around could stay open and unbuilt; passive cooling and smart water treatment systems minimized the resources the people here need to survive.

The residential population has never reached close to 5,000, but there is a small community of people who have settled in Arcosanti. Some stay for a few months; some stay for years. Atlas Obscura talked to a few of them about why they came to Arcosanti and what life in Soleri’s dream city is like.

Arcosanti (Photo: Cody/Flickr)

Scott Riley
Designer, writer
Age: 62
Time at Arcosanti: 15 years, this time around

Riley on a trip to Sarajevo. (Photo: Courtesy of Scott Riley)

What was your first impression of Arcosanti?
I was raised in Arizona, I went to college in California. I knew about Soleri. My first visit to the site was in 1970, actually. It was a little more like being on Mars. It was more nomadic than it is now, and it was rife with 70s energy. And very happening.

It’s a real hands on place. It’s an enactment of sorts. It’s a play that’s being enacted in some way. It’s kind of intentional, kind of not.

If it’s a play, what’s your role?
My role has changed a lot. When I first came here, I was much more of an observer. I participated, but I was under the radar. Which is actually a pretty fun place to be.

It’s always fun to be under the radar. People can get all kinds of things accomplished. Van Gogh was under the radar, and he was one of the most famous artists of all time. Pollack had to disappear to Long Island to do his work. You hear musicians who duck the radar at some point. Accomplishments happens at both levels. So, it’s a symbiotic relationship. You need the people above the radar to manage stuff.

Sometimes I’ll tell people — there’s this whole question about who’s in charge. My role now is above the radar, but a lot of it just has to do with making sure the designs get done and the materials are purchased so the people who show up in the morning have something to do. So who’s in charge? Me or them?

What’s a favorite memory?
This friend of mine, he liked very hot Korean food. He called it No Mercy, that’s how hot he’d cook it. At one point, he was going to go to Burning Man, but it turned out he couldn’t go. I gave him the idea—let’s have a Burning Tongue dinner instead.

We ended up having 25 people. You had to bring a dish. There were no bystanders allowed. We had a No Mercy table and a Little Mercy table. We had it out in the middle of the amphitheater with tables around. That kind of thing, it comes out of — sometimes here you can do little adjustments and then have a bigger impact. All we had to do was suggest it, and it’s like you’re tapping into the energy.

What’s your favorite spot in the whole community?
You know the tourists — everyone sees the top of the mesa, which is very beautiful. But the property works its way along the Agua Fria— it’s an old ranch—and the riparian area can be very magical. My favorite season is definitely the monsoon season. We get these terrific storms and rain and thunder. Combine a monsoon storm with walking around afterward, and the water’s moving around, and lots of birds and great horned owls, and bobcats and deer that come up in the early morning in the winter…

Arcosanti (Photo: Cody/Flickr

Erin O’Loughlin
Ceramic Artisan
Age: 26
Time at Arcosanti: 2 years

(Photo: Courtesy of Erin O’Loughlin)

What was your first impression of Arcosanti?
It’s sort of like a small little company town. You work for your 8 hour day, and you’re finished work. Instead of getting in the car and driving home, you can walk back to your apartment or find friends and hang out in community room. Then in a few hours, you go to the cafe and see everyone on site and have a meal together, instead of needing to be by yourself in your own apartment and need to get in a car to see people.

Before I came here, I was living at home to save some money. My job happened to be right by my house. It’s such a change — there’s always something to do, people to talk to or interact with.

How has it changed while you’ve been there?
When I first got here, it was more populated than it is right now. Lately it seems to be more people leaving and not so many coming in. It makes the community smaller. and I wish the community was larger than it is.

We have some events there are hundreds of people, and there are faces you don’t know. Spaces like the cafe and amphitheater are really full. It’s refreshing to see them so used and full of people and full of life. I would love to see the full Arcosanti 5,000 vision be a real thing. it would be a different type of vibe. Right now it feels like a small town where you know everyone’s name and everyone’ business.

What’s your favorite spot in the whole community?
I really love the ceramic apse, my work space. It’s a multi-use space, and it’s perfectly designed for what it’s meant to be. You can flip it around and use it for amphitheater, too. It was the first performance space at Arcosanti. And people used to live in the back space we use for the bells. It’s a really diverse space.

Anything else?
I feel like some people have a really negative view of Arcosanti, that it’s a bunch of bums who don’t do anything and are smoking a lot of whatever and drinking, and it’s so not true. I feel like my most productive years have been here.

Soleri bells  (Photo: Kellee Gunderson/Flickr)

Lorenzo Mastino
Urban planner
Age: 28
Time at Arcosanti: 11 months

(Photo: Courtesy of Lorenzo Mastino) 

What was your first impression of Arcosanti?
I’m from Rome, and I’ve lived in big cities all my life. This was the first time I would live in a place with less than a million people. Here’s we’re 65, 70. So it was a big difference.

What are the most rewarding parts of living there?
My job is mainly drafting, modeling and producing the documents that will go to the construction team. Since we’re not that many—our construction crew varies between 3 to 5 or 6 people—sometimes there aren’t enough people. After I design something and do the drafts, I go out and work with them. In no other place, in my job position, would I be able to do that. It’s relaxing. I like doing what I do, but to be able to use my hands and make what I figured in my head, it’s very healing.

What do you tell people about Arcosanti?
With my friends, we have this thing called the Adventure Club, we try every week to go on an adventure. It might sound silly. Sometimes it’s just going hiking and finding spots we’ve never seen before. Sometimes it’s trying to throw clay or do something we’ve never done before. The idea is to live the place and explore the materials we have in different ways. One of the rules is: Don’t hold back.

What spot do you like best?
In the Minds garden, there is a spot where right now we have a fireplace. It’s a little campfire spot that we can use. The overlook from there, looking north, it’s amazing. We have a hammock there. I often go there and read at sunset. You can’t see the freeway. It’s very quiet.

One of the mesas nearby (Photo: Dave Pape/Flickr

Colleen Reckow
Holistic health coach, artist
Age: 31
Time at Arcosanti: Seven and a half years

(Photo: Courtesy of Colleen Reckow) 

What was your first impression of Arcosanti?
We live on this dirt road. It’s really bumpy—it’s like this mini-journey in itself to get here. It’s a little disorienting at first, because it’s complex. One of the founding principles of the philosophy here is complexity. It’s kind of magical.

What are the most rewarding parts of living there?
As a person, I’ve had a big transformation. I’m very different than I was when I came. I feel very open. I’m not so concerned about people’s opinions of me. I have more confidence, and it feels fantastic.

That’s one of the goals of our founder. In creating the Arcology, one of his principles was personal transformation. He believed that if we leave in more closely knit community, we’ll become better citizens. We’re living so closely, we have to resolve our differences.

What’s your favorite spot in the whole community?
We have this little grassy spot in front on my house, it was like our own little lawn space. I’ve always been drawn to it, even when I first came here, I would sit and read books there. Now I play with my son there. It’s not exactly out of the way—it’s right near the cafe, near the entry.

Arcosanti (Photo: Jon Hurd/Flickr

Visit Arcosanti with us on Obscura Day—we’ll have special, guided access to the planning office, current construction, and the Arcosanti Archives Department, where we’ll view several of Soleri’s original drawings.