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Trip Diary

Arcosanti | November 2015

Words and photos by Maleeha Sambur

Arcosanti has hovered near the top of my travel wish list for years, and when a destination wedding brought us to Arizona, my husband and I decided to stop there for a night en route to Sedona. We arrived in pitch darkness, bumping along an unpaved, unlit road, dodging prickly-pear cacti that sprang at us like sinister ghosts in the glare of our headlights, and praying our rental car would stay the course. Eventually, we found Lance, an Arcosanti resident who was nice enough to guide us, and the harrowing approach proved well worth it: over the next 16 hours, we witnessed a dazzling night sky speckled with stars, caught a magnificent sunrise from the beautiful Sky Suite (a concrete-and-glass dream), and learned about the life's work of Arcosanti's founder, the visionary architect and urban designer Paolo Soleri. 

Located in Arizona's high desert, 70 miles north of Phoenix, Arcosanti is Soleri's unrealized utopian dream. The Turin-born architect and urban designer, who once studied under Frank Lloyd Wright, was deeply concerned about the problem of urban sprawl in America, which he saw as mutually devastating to both humans and the environment. He sought a more sustainable alternative, imagining a different future for urban planning that would be guided by the principles of arcology (architecture in harmony with ecology), in which spaces were designed to increase interaction between people and the environment while also reducing land waste, pollution, and the inefficient use of energy and natural resources. In 1970, with the help of like-minded volunteers, he began to build Arcosanti as a prototype --  a sort of urban laboratory in which to test his theories.

Soleri died in 2013, without his dream fully brought to life. He had planned for a city of 5,000, but many of his designs for it never came to fruition, and today there are just 90 residents who live and work at Arcosanti, committed to carrying out his plans. Arcosanti's primary source of income comes from the sale of bronze and ceramic wind bells, which are crafted and sold on site. It also hosts students through a variety of hands-on educational programs, organizes several workshops and cultural events, and allows visitors to tour its facilities, with the option to stay overnight. 

Walking around the concrete structures in the crisp night air, we made our way to our lodging, the sparsely furnished Sky Suite, where, exhausted from our travels, we promptly passed out. We woke before sunrise, wrapping ourselves in wool blankets to ward off the chill, and perched in front of a large round window, patiently waiting for the sun. The stars, along with Jupiter, Mars, and a startlingly bright Venus, were still visible as the first light crested over the canyon. 

Once fully awake, we bundled up and headed to the on-site cafe, which featured massive round floor-to-ceiling windows, an enormous, brightly colored wind sock suspended from the ceiling, and well-worn, handcrafted furniture in warm wood tones. We chose a sun-drenched table in a cozy nook, and with the whole room to ourselves, enjoyed the quiet as sunlight warmed our backs. After breakfast, we set out to explore the grounds, now awash in beautiful early morning light, running and jumping through the painted concrete Vault, poking around the pool, and peeking into the solar greenhouse.

We checked in for our guided tour, led by a resident, who took us through the main buildings, explaining how they were constructed. We learned that the size, shape, and thickness of each slab of concrete, and the dimensions and placement of every window, were calibrated to Soleri's exact measurements so that they would interact most efficiently with the sun's movement, harnessing natural light and heat. As if to prove his point, the sun started to warm us right then and we peeled off our jackets.

The tour also allowed us to observe Arcosanti's day-to-day activities. We saw silt-cast ceramics being crafted under the half dome of the Ceramics Apse, as well as a bronze pour, where molten bronze was transferred into molds to make wind bells, as our guide talked about what it's like to live and work at Arcosanti. Outside of keeping Arcosanti running and working on building projects, residents keep up a busy calendar of recreational activities that include putting on Italian-themed dinner parties, craft sessions, team sports, and a live concert series.

While tours of Arcosanti are available daily, I highly recommend staying overnight so you can watch it transform under different light conditions and have the opportunity to explore the grounds a bit further than the tours allow. Of course, the spare but beautiful rooms are themselves something to enjoy, and an absolute bargain at only $50/night ($100 will get you the two bedroom Sky Suite, which we highly recommend). Keep in mind that it's not meant to be a hotel and isn't run as such, but it's a unique experience that's well worth it. Just don't try driving in after dark!