Lauren Schieler

Friday, May 3, 2019

Arcosanti: Grand experiment in sustainable living approaches its 50th year

ARCOSANTI – At the end of a 2-mile dirt road in the Arizona desert lives a community of people longing to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

For nearly 50 years, Arcosanti has drawn innovators who wish to leave city life behind and experiment with an alternative, more sustainable lifestyle.

Some stay for a few months; some never leave.

One who never left is Mary Hoadley. She was 25 when she dropped out of graduate school in 1970, just as the project – the brainchild of architect and urban planner Paolo Soleri – was breaking ground. She was unsure what she wanted to do with her life. It was her love for architecture that attracted her to help develop Arcosanti. She planned to stay a few weeks, but the weeks turned into months and the months into years. Now 75, Hoadley has devoted most of her life to Arcosanti.

“I got captivated by the idea of going off into the desert to build a prototype alternative to sprawl,” Hoadley said. “It was as appealing 50 years ago as it is today, and as needed.”

Over the past half century, Hoadley has been among a revolving cast of residents in making simple life changes to reduce their carbon footprint.

In Arcosanti’s early years, Hoadley recalled, she tried to persuade a neighbor to compost. She planned to collect the organic waste and feed it to the chickens who roamed the campus. But they often ended up disappointed. The neighbor’s bucket of compost usually was nearly empty. Even the avocado peels that were there had been scraped clean. Few scraps were left for the birds.

That frugality was a hallmark of Hoadley’s neighbor, Soleri himself.

Man with a vision

The idea of creating a community where sustainable living was an everyday experience was only the beginning for Soleri, who was born and trained in Italy. Jeff Stein, a former resident who was one of Arcosanti’s co-presidents and now serves as the president of the Cosanti Foundation, said Soleri recognized that the consumption Americans embraced would not be healthy for the planet.

Soleri also realized that to criticize a particular lifestyle, he needed to provide a better alternative.

“The problem I am confronting is the present design of cities only a few stories high, stretching outward in unwieldy sprawl for miles,” Soleri said in 1977. “As a result, they literally transform the earth, turn farms into parking lots, wasting enormous amounts of time and energy transporting people, goods, and services over their expanses. My solution is urban implosion rather than explosion.”

The revolutionary urban laboratory he created stands as a near 50-year experiment today in the rocky desert 65 miles north of Phoenix.

Soleri attracted people of all walks of life to help cultivate his urban ideas based on the concept of arcology, which merges architecture with ecology. In time, Arcosanti was supposed to accommodate up to 5,000 people.

The land for Arcosanti was bought with a loan. Money for the project was an issue from the beginning, said Tim Bell, director of communications at Arcosanti.

“In the early days of construction, it was entirely volunteer labor out here,” Bell said.

Hoadley said Soleri “was definitely a kind of arrogant narcissist, but to work alongside him was a big lesson on how to do as much as you can with little things you had at hand.”

Stein said working on the project put you “in the thick of things.”

“There were journalists and filmmakers and broadcasters and architects and people with ideas from all over the world there on a weekly basis,” he said.

Stein was taking a break from architecture school in the 1970s when he stumbled upon the book that made Soleri famous, “Arcology: The City in the Image of Man.”