As you leave Sun City, taking the 101 to I-17 North, the landscape changes. Eventually you can see saguaro scattered on the hillsides and in canyons, and you pass places like Big Bug Creek, Bloody Basin Road, Horsethief Basin and Badger Springs. Shortly after the settlement known as Bumblebee, you feel an altitude change. Soon you are on a plateau and you have reached Arcosanti, the partly realized vision of Italian-American architect Paulo Soleri.
“Dress in layers,” warned Lifelong Learning Club Field Trip Organizer Pat Tonnema. “Wear sturdy shoes and bring your cane if you use one,” she cautioned because “there are some steps and the walkways are not all perfectly smooth.”
About 45 Lifelong Learners participated in the Arcosanti experience Nov. 30 and were greeted by Sophia Rabb, the Guest Experience Manager, who explained to the group that Soleri coined the word “arcology,” which combines architecture and ecology. Some might call Soleri a “utopian idealist” and even a dreamer, but it is clear he was a visionary who believed heartily that people could build inclusive cities which could meet human needs in ways that would have minimal environmental impact. Rabb noted that about half of the city area of Phoenix was devoted to automobiles which Solari would see as “disporportionate.” Rather than building a city in a sprawling horizontal plan, the vision was “up and out,” and instead of single purpose buildings (banks, post offices, homes) spreading out, Arcosanti is constructed as “a stacking operation with work space and living spaces all in the same place.”
The efficient use of space and land mass also utilizes passive heat and solar concepts congruent with sun and shade with the changing climate patterns of the year. Tilted concrete panels facilitate viewing the Milky Way; most buildings have a southern exposure to facilitate the sun’s light and heat, and roof designs make use of a lime wash and admit maximum sun in the winter but a minimal amount in the summer. Wooden panels can be removed in the amphitheater for water to wash down into a moat for cooling in the summer. Rabb told the Lifelong Learners that “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” had recently been presented there, and it didn't take much imagination to envision the protective charms of fairies and Puck seeking the magical flower nectar that causes a person to fall in love. The popular Shakespeare play is an example of how the Arcosanti community brings cultural events, films, musical concerts and other events to the residents. Many Arcosanti people continue to construct and maintain Soleri’s vision of a collaborative community.
Among their projects is the production of the legendary Arcosanti bells. Some of these are made by “slip casting” demonstrated by Sophie Rabb, and other chiming bells are fashioned from bronze. The bronze casting was witnessed by the Lifelong Learning group who spontaneously applauded afterward. One Learner said that observing the process left her “breathless.”
Arcosanti and its inventor are controversial. The project began in earnest in 1970 after Soleri had won (in 1963) a high award from his cohorts: the American Institute of Architects Gold Medal for Craftsmanship. Solari was a lecturer in architecture at Arizona State University and his vision and work continue to attract creative, thoughtful people to Arcosanti. One resident, Shanti, said “This place held onto me.” About 50 residents currently live at Arcosanti, but Soleri hoped the city in the desert would accommodate 5,000 people.
The Lifelong Learning Club of Sun City offers field trips designed to further their mission of providing educational opportunities at a low cost for members. Sun City residents with a current Recreation Centers of Sun City membership can contact Lifelong Learning President MIchael Powell for more information: firstname.lastname@example.org.