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Crisis Urbanism: medieval citadels to Soleri’s arcologies

William Gibson was 22 when he visited a 1970 exhibition hosted by Paolo Soleri, an idealist architect who envisioned self-contained cities capable of blending architecture and ecology.

Such “arcologies” would function as a living organism developing its own culture, resources, and a circular economy.

To Soleri, Arcologies were an evolutionary leap forward of urbanism in a time of collective reflection on the limits of the Earth. Gibson envisioned a less favorable outcome. In Neuromancer, corporations build and control their own self-contained citadels or arcologies.

Not even the teleworking era we have entered can deny the parallelisms of Gibson’s world of corporate citadels with the reality and trends we see today: would people willingly inhabit mega-residential self-enclosed campuses designed and run by Apple, Tesla, Google-Alphabet, or Facebook-Metaverse? How about arcologies running on blockchain’s decentralized autonomous organizations or DAOs?

From Turin to explorer of “Arizona vernacular”

Born in Turin, Paolo Soleri came to the US in 1946 as an undergraduate of Frank Lloyd Wright’s school at Taliesin West, Arizona. He dedicated his mature years to building Cosanti (his home-studio) and Arcosanti, a template for self-contained cities near Scottsdale, Arizona.

Like old cathedrals and other civilization-scale projects from the past, Arcosanti remained a work-in-progress beyond Soleri’s death in 2013 to this day. Arcosanti lies on a hill downslope in the Arizona high desert amid European cypresses and local vegetation.

Yet, to us, Arcosanti bears the familiarity of memorable places visited. Kirsten visited Arcosanti in 2000 to interview Soleri for a TV project (to those thinking Kirsten began making videos with YouTube, she was working on TV first in San Francisco in the early nineties and then in New York at the turn of the century). She came back with me one year after Soleri’s death, in the summer of 2014. The experience could have well belonged to a sci-fi sitcom. A friend at the Cosanti Foundation arranged things so we could sleep in one of the condos built for visitors.

Aided by monsoon-season persistent storms, the interior was mild, while the thermal mass of the floors and concrete structure felt like a sacred respite, especially after days of traveling through the desert. Long stretches of road, saguaro hills, and the feeling of observing our travels from the perspective of a local on some sleepy gas station, his eyes on that white Toyota Prius with three kids on the back seat and a trunk full of food and gear in need of lower temperatures. Of course, he might have thought. The CA plate was a given.

The critters from the area also liked how nice it was inside. When we woke up at twilight to get ready for the day and maybe go for a run around the hills surrounding the arcology, a group of desert tarantulas rested on the bathroom’s wall. At first, I thought they were some freshman paraphernalia, but I rubbed my eyes, and one of them just answered my movements with a run outside.

I remembered then that we had opened all windows after crashing into the apartment the previous night. Some days before, I also remembered somebody telling us that they only bit when feeling threatened despite being both poisonous and the biggest spiders around.

World’s first self-sustaining city-building: a prototype

The morning felt already warm. This “world’s first archology prototype” aimed at experimenting with density alternatives to urban sprawl just 68 miles north of the fast-growing, sprawly, scorching hot Phoenix, but both worlds felt conceptually from two different dimensions. Going through the pictures taken during that jog up and down the hill, I can remember the naïve sense of awe invading me that day as I felt a connection with the sceneries of comic books and science fiction novels.

If built to show the bright side of an urban design of the future, Arcosanti’s idealistic proposals have turned out to be a looked after evolution for cities today, as extreme weather events and supply chain disruptions highlight the need for redundant systems to maintain the energy, food, and production of a circular economy.

Just some years before, at the beginning of the century, critics had played down Paolo Soleri’s project for being too radical and detached from any quantifiable purpose or utility. So when we came back home after a long road trip across the Southwest, we were already thinking in a long piece about urbanism experiments in the desert, a unique blend of modern-rustic, survivalist, hobo-steampunk, Space Western.

When Kirsten edited this “spaghetti western on lean urbanism,” as we called, there was one missing part: Paolo Soleri himself, since he had passed away the precedent year. But, despite moves and trips over the years between the US Coasts and Europe to join me, she still kept her archive of Soleri’s interview from 2000. Spoiler: the mentioned documentary of architecture utopias across the Southwest finishes with Soleri talking to us from a turn-of-the-century conversation that had never aired on TV. Paolo Soleri:

“The first model of something doesn’t show all. I always compare it to the first washing machine, the first typewriter, the first motorcycle, or whatever. You have to do it again and again; that’s why you need laboratories where you accept the notion of failure. So transformation is very much what life is.”

Imaginary worlds to build a better real one

Soleri was willing to accept skepticism from a postwar America with middle classes who had grown more prosperous and settled in suburban homes, further and further away from cultural, productive, and transportation synergies. Despite facing the ostracism of the eccentric early adopter, His concept of arcology would have one prosperous outcome in the metaverse.

Coming from the dusty entrance road, the low cluster of buildings shows a timeless, sober style that could belong both to a science fiction movie set or to an advanced society lost in time and space —maybe a kind, small-scale version of the oniric cityscapes depicted by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Jean Giraud (Mœbius) in the fictional universe of the graphic novel The Incal.

Today, what the visitor sees now is the result of Soleri’s Quixotic effort along with students, architects, and urban designers who worked there for decades on a participative budget that includes donations, classes fees, and sales of bells designed and cast on-site.

Trip across the US Southwest. Logistics: 2 adult, 3 children-trip with camera equipment, kids books, healthy, non-perishable snacks, and a couple CDs; as a result, the documentary “A spaghetti western on lean urbanism”

But back when Gibson saw the models of the future self-contained city-school Paolo Soleri was about to start developing in a high mesa of the Arizona desert, cyberpunk, or the installments of The Incal in the French underground magazine Métal Hurlant didn’t exist.

Years after depicting dystopian, corporate arcologies in his early novels, Gibson met Blade Runner director Ridley Scott. Comparing notes over lunch, they both mentioned Soleri’s work as a common influence.

Arcosanti’s imprint in science fiction has not inspired the idealistic designs capable of improving human urbanism as Soleri himself had envisioned in The City in the Image of Man, a foundational article published at MIT Press that accompanied the 1970 exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington DC that would inspire William Gibson’s future work.

Larry Niven’s arcology of Todos Santos

American suburbia could have taken radically different approaches but ended up favoring decentralized clusters of homes rising as homogeneous, car-dependent residential areas connected to downtowns through amplified expressways and colossal highway interchanges. Los Angeles, the city amid highways, became the poster child of a social experiment in the context of the Great Migration, the end of redlining, and the Civil Rights protests.

Los Angeles also epitomizes another postwar American anxiety, the origin shift of immigrants from Germany, Italy, or Canada to those coming from Asia and Latin America instead. But, unlike Godzilla as the transubstantiation of the nuclear trauma in the Japanese postwar psyche, the cultural threat represented by immigrants coming to Central Valley from the other side of the border was a more equivocal scare.

Arrival at Arcosanti, July 13, 2014; the monsoons had cooled Arizona’s high desert; we hopped out of the car so the kids could enjoy a bit of fresh air after days of scorching heat outside the car or climate-controlled motels

Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle found this Godzilla built with layers upon layers of cultural anxiety in a dystopian sci-fi novel: Oath of Fealty (1981) depicted a futuristic LA in which a self-contained city-building, the arcology of Todos Santos (interesting fact: this wealthy city-building bears the name of “All Saints” within the City of Angels), built and owned by a corporation, allows a minority of Angelenos to enjoy living standards the rest of the crime-ravaged city lacks. The gated community relies on a fascistic private security corps that enables the citadel’s inhabitants to secede from the city surrounding them.

“The building was a thousand feet in height rising starkly from a square base two miles on a side. It rested among green parklands and orange groves and low concrete structures so that it stood in total isolation, a glittering block of whites and flashing windows dotted with colors. The sheer bulk dwarfed everything else in view.”

From the Incal to Elysium

The better living standards of the population in the gated arcology of Todos Santos comes at a cost: its dwellers have to give up privacy in the heavily surveilled city-building and share a brain implant, hence linking the hive-structure (the building itself) with the work-in-progress of a totalitarian hive-mind. It’s a feudal society where the few fence off the rest, who end up trying to break the gates of Todos Santos.

Published in 1981, this story of techno-feudalism depicts a world idealists such as the ideologue of pastoral Jeffersonian suburbia, Frank Lloyd Wright, or his disciple Paolo Soleri for that matter, would not have liked to inhabit.

Neill Blomkamp’s film Elysium (2013) builds its plot on the same social anxieties already fueling Oath of Fealty. This time, though, the privileged residents of the prosperous minority are not living in an arcology but inside one artificial structure orbiting the Earth with the design of a Stanford torus. In 1970, the same Larry Niven had written Ringworld, set in a rotating-wheel artificial world.

The toddler was about to turn two some weeks after; he looks at his mum in a rather enchanting environment, as she walks through a corridor by Arcosanti’s entrance

For arcologies to stay prosperous, the citadel, techno-feudalist model needs to give way to a more symbiotic, permeable model of the city limit, as the one experimented by prosperous Renaissance walled city-states; only a share of prosperity brings stability to any society self-contained in a structure equivalent to a city-building.

In the Incal saga, the city-well Ter-21 imagined by Jodorowsky and Moebius is a circular arcology populated by the elites of a cast society. The city-building, surrounded by an acid lake, takes from Soleri the metaphor of considering Arcosanti as a superorganism isolated in the desert that survives thanks to integrating its components and collaboration of dwellers, whose prosperity depends on the wealth of the whole. This de facto communitarianism works as a multi-scale, fractal-like interdependence.

The valuable feedback of science fiction

Like videogames and other self-enclosed universes sensitive to the evolution of complex variability, science fiction writers build coherent worlds where they can push the boundaries of tensions usually developing in the real world.

Stretched to the limits, annihilation wars, social and climate unrest, pandemics, and/or bioweapons break the institutional and technical world sustaining modern civilization, with immediate consequences to supply chains, commerce, and eventually basic infrastructures.

When such worlds abandon the realm of speculation they inhabit in books, graphic novels, magazines or videogames, and become a real-life experiment, simulation becomes real experimentation. Thus, Arcosanti joins the genealogy of experimental places that ever existed to accelerate our knowledge about human societies when they are pushed to the limits.

Drawings from El Bosco, Gustave Doré, Giovan Battista Piranesi, Salvador Dalí, M.C. Escher, or Moebius may influence the way we imagine oneiric worlds; and sci-fi movies can now recreate any universe we may end up conceiving thanks to the acceleration of computing and graphic power since in 1975 George Lucas founded Industrial Light & Magic to help with Star Wars.

When complex systems break and aren’t maintained nor repaired, self-sufficient designs try to counter chaos and societal collapse: enter arcologies, citadels capable of producing their own energy and food, as well as transforming sewage into nutrients for food production: the circular, self-supporting community equivalent of the feudal citadels that rose in Eurasia after the fall of mighty empires. Since the Barbarian invasions of Rome from 400 AD on, citadels became both an instrument of survival and hegemony above those relying on the walled city to survive but living outside the walls.

Ideal citadels: from the golden ratio to the Columbian exchange

During the Renaissance, the Sforzinda, the ideal city named after Francesco Sforza, Duke of Milan, used geometry as a portal to social perfection: its designer, Antonio di Pietro Averlino (“Filarete”), described it as an eight-point star created by overlaying squares to assure equidistant corners: a circular moat that aimed at blending fortifications with celestial harmony.

Early European defensive forts and colonies in explored territories acquired more worldly, limited designs but were often self-dependent social experiments, real-world arcologies of the Age of Discovery. Such was the walled city of Manila during the Spanish 16th-century early settlement, with a walled city inhabited by colonizers and their servants and a big settlement outside the walls where Chinese merchants controlled the goods offered for the Manila-Acapulco Spanish galleons in exchange for silver and gold coming from the mines in New Spain (Mexico) and the Potosí in the Viceroyalty of Peru.

Emplacement of Paolo Soleri’s experiment on urbanism, the self-sustained city-building of Arcosanti by Arizona’s high desert

As Charles C. Mann explains in his essay about the global consequences of the asymmetrical clash of hemispheres that we now call “Columbian exchange,” walled commercial outposts such as Manila needed to defend and provide themselves with all living needs for months at a time. They were at once self-contained, isolated societies weeks or months away from reaching the metropolis by land or sea. Still, at the same time, they became the accelerators of the first actual globalization process, setting up the beginning of the “Homogenocene.”

We may not be as close to techno-feudalism (or plain neo-feudalism) as some survivalists and collapsollogues hypothesize, but extreme weather events, a pandemic, and a ripple effect in supply chains were enough to raise awareness about the risky evolution of globalized production in the last decades: a microchip shortage in the world’s production hub for this component creates production constraints in industries across the board, from smartphones to cars, but also the most strategic energy production sector for the coming years: wind turbines and solar arrays.

Heavenly imaginary city-buildings, real chaotic ones

In his own terms, Paolo Soleri was testing in Arcosanti (which he planned to host 5,000 permanent residents eventually), a civilization template for more complex times and extreme environments in our planet and beyond.

During the Age of Enlightenment, utopian projects aspired to fulfill the ideals of social equity and progress and perfectionism, from phalanstères to factory colonies of the industrial era.

Until then, imaginary cities had relied on heavenly more than human ideals, from Plato’s Atlantis to Aristophanes Nubicuculia (City of Birds), to the Biblical extrapolations of the ziggurat (the communitarian parable of the Tower of Babel from Genesis 11:1-9), to Saint Augustine’s De Civitate Dei (City of God), or Thomas Moro’s Utopia Island.

Brazillian cult movie Cidade de Deus (City of God in Portuguese, 2002, Fernando Meirelles and Kátia Lund) depicts postmodern social metastasization in self-enclosed real-world, informal and chaotic arcologies that operate on their own. Favelas such as Vidigal or Cidade de Deus share self-regulating patterns with living organisms under extreme conditions and often inspire science fiction environments such as the dystopian Los Angeles from Oath of Fealty or Elysium.

Arcosanti’s early models inspired William Gibson, Larry Niven, or Jodorowsky/Moebius, usually centrally-planned communities flirting with techno-totalitarianism. On the other end of the spectrum, informal, bottom-to-top social experiments such as Brazilian biggest favelas or the now-destroyed Kowloon Walled City (a hyper-dense informal settlement within the boundaries of Kowloon City in British Hong Kong), are the blueprint of deconstructed urbanism in dystopias mid-way between a hellish real world and a hypercompetitive metaverse.

A dystopian arcology: Todos Santos in futuristic Los Angeles

In the building of the Pompidou Museum in Paris, deconstruction architecture is a display of postmodernism applied at a large scale. The same apparently chaotic, bare-bones assembly of components seems to occur in the “futuristic Kowloon” of the suburbs of stacked RVs and shipping containers outside the futuristic Columbus, Ohio, that the protagonist of Ready Player One inhabits.

The corporate arcology of Todos Santos, a walled community that behaves as a hive mind, contrasts with the self-organizing cluster of informal buildings where organized crime or the pirate flag reign, informal citadels that share common attributes with experimental urbanism, from Burning Man, the temporary event held in Black Rock Desert, to the libertarian aspiration of assembling a floating city in international waters, or the Western frontier motif in the post-apocalyptic, societal collapse context of the Mad Max movie saga.

Before its demolition by Chinese authorities in 1994, the densely populated Kowloon Walled City hosted 50,000 residents within its 6.4-acre (2.6 -hectare) borders, hosting all the social malaise traits that utopians from every era had tried to counter.

Arcosanti Vault

As the first and foremost arcology prototype, Arcosanti has inspired small-scale real-world projects, only on this planet for the moment. The McMurdo Station in Antarctica is a research base capable of hosting 3,000 people under extreme circumstances; it’s not self-sufficient since it relies on the fuel and supplies periodically supplied by the US military.

The optimism of Paolo Soleri

In Alaska, some residential buildings contain commercial and administrative services to avoid the effects of extreme weather events. The Begich Towers Condominium is the residence of nearly the entire population of Whittier, containing most public and private facilities and venues, as well as individual dwellings.

In the other climate extreme, desertic Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates have built some of the worlds tallest, biggest multi-purpose buildings, each one a self-enclosed, climate-regulated vertical city: Dubai’s Burj Khalifa or Mecca’s Abraj Al-Bait Clock Tower represent a present-day partial view of the concept of non-sustainable arcologies, due to their environmental impact and food/energy high dependence.

Such city-buildings create controlled, self-enclosed biospheres to make human life possible despite external threats, becoming the first step towards ideas such as Buckminster Fuller’s speculative geodesic domes to behave as a protective membrane for cities.

But self-reliance in a world of collapsed institutions and lack of social contract evolving into a mesh of “citadels” or gated city-states is maybe the shortest possible path to dystopia: in the 1971 novel The World Inside, Robert Silverberg depicts a world of 75 billion people clustered inside “urbmons”, giant skyscrapers hosting thousands of people afraid to leave their building, due to the uncertainty in the face of the unknown.

Timeless in its design, Arcosanti wouldn’t displeased a visitor from ancient Rome or Athens, or somebody coming from a civilization two millennia from now in the future

In 2000, Paolo Soleri was getting ready to delegate his work in Cosanti and Arcosanti. He did not seem as worried about saving his name as in preserving the legacy of the experimental city in the desert. The new century was about to show us the benefits of big-scale experimentation. Before getting back to his work, he confessed:

“This parallel transformation offers us the means to transcend our limitations.”

“So, the question is: how can we make sure that the next step can be more promising than the last?”