Looking for an interesting detour for your day trip from Phoenix? Drive about an hour north to Mayer, Arizona, to discover Arcosanti. Developed in 1970, Arcosanti represents the fusion of ecology and architecture (arcology) in a unique celebration of the five earth elements – fire, water, air, earth, and space. This experimental town in Central Arizona is a worthy road trip pit stop. Here’s what you can expect on a tour of the Arcosanti site.
How Arcosanti Began
Founded in 1970 by the Italian-American architect Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti is a prototype arcology–a sustainable urban community. He aimed to minimize urban sprawl, reduce energy consumption, and foster social interaction and a sense of community.
About 9,000 dedicated volunteers built Arcosanti over 50 years ago. The volunteers participated in workshops and spent anywhere from five weeks to 50 years creating and supporting the programs.
This urban laboratory attracts various people, from architects, designers, apologists, and scholars. Ecologists study and examine Arcosanti. New residents continue to go and live at Arcosanti.
I spoke with Renee, a new foundry artist in residence who is drawn to the unique, other-worldly atmosphere at Arcosanti. Visiting when she was 12 years old with her father, it made a lasting impression. She went to Arcosanti because it vastly differs from how she grew up. In her words, “It’s like a different planet.” She can work on her mental and physical health and well-being.
After earning her graphic design degree, Renee is pursuing her Master’s in Foundry Arts at Arcosanti. She will earn her Heat Master certification after three months of intense study. A Heat Master is the one who controls the heat to make metals melt and then pour into the molds.
The Principles of Arcology
Soleri coined the term “arcology” by combining architecture and ecology. The idea was to create a highly integrated living environment combining the best of urban and natural living.
Arcosanti is now a thriving community of artists, architects, and volunteers worldwide who live and work together.
At Arcosanti in the early summer of 2023, I was enchanted by the sound of the wind bells on my approach.
Sound of the Bells
Arcosanti crafts bells in bronze and ceramics. The production of these artistic pieces fund Arcosanti’s operations. Workshops and training are another source of income.
The element of air translates to wind at Arcosanti, which allows the bells to create melodic sounds carried in the wind to visitors and residents.
These unique bells add a touch of artistry to the surroundings but also are a reminder of the importance of harmony between humans and nature.
Artisans Pour Bronze and Fire Ceramics
The earth elements are brought together under high fire temperatures to melt the bronze and bake the ceramics, producing treasured and memorable pieces for visitors and collectors.
Water for the Greenhouses
Water, another earth element, is scarce in the desert and is a precious commodity needed to grow produce in greenhouses. One of the projects taking center stage at Arcosanti is how to develop greenhouses and food production on the site.
The food produced is prepared and sold at the café in the main building.
Space at Arcosanti
The Arcosanti building designs by visionary Paolo Soleri emphasize sustainability, artistry, and community. In a call to reduce urban sprawl, this compact human habitat blends with the natural landscape and promotes a more balanced way of living.
One of the unique features of Arcosanti is its use of “vaults.” These vaults are curved, concrete structures that serve as roofs for buildings and outdoor spaces. Buildings designed to be structurally efficient provide maximum strength with minimal materials.
The vaults also create a distinctive aesthetic, a hallmark of Arcosanti’s design. Vaults allow for efficient use of space, as they can cover large areas without needing internal columns or supports.
The vaults are integral to Arcosanti’s design, demonstrating Soleri’s commitment to creating beautiful, functional architecture.
Road Trip in the Central Arizona Desert
Arcosanti’s central location in Arizona makes it an ideal starting point for exciting day trips and my favorite road trips.
About 70 miles north of Phoenix and Scottsdale in the high desert at 3,732 feet elevation, Arcosanti is about an hour’s drive from other popular destinations in the region. Here are other area faves:
- Sedona is about 38 miles north of Arcosanti. Sedona is known for its numerous hiking trails, red rock formations, and spiritual energy, and it is also famous for its innovative architecture and sustainable living practices.
- Prescott is known for art galleries, museums, and antique shops if you’re looking for activities in the city. It’s also within the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine forest in the world.
- Tucson is about 100 miles southeast and is about the same elevation as Arcosanti. Surrounded by mountains, it’s known for its rich cultural history.
Why Arcosanti Remains Small
Throughout my visit and tour, the question kept running through my mind. Why hasn’t Arcosanti grown more? While it is a brilliant concept, what are the challenges to growth?
Two significant factors keep Arcosanti small. First, there isn’t a way to feed residents effectively. Because of its desert location, water is scarce and hasn’t been enough to sustain food growth to provide for the number of people that live there.
Second, the population is aging. The concept of high-density buildings that are tall with many stairs makes it difficult to access all the floors. Thus, building up without some means of access, like elevators, is impractical.
The Cosanti Foundation
Arcosanti, operated by The Cosanti Foundation, is a non-profit organization that promotes the principles of arcology and preserves Soleri’s legacy. The foundation also oversees Cosanti Originals, a gift shop where you can find unique ceramics, bronze wind bells, and other handcrafted items inspired by Soleri’s vision.
The Tour of Arcosanti
The only way to see Arcosanti is by a guided tour of the public spaces. Because people live at the site, those living spaces are inaccessible.
Bonnie was our earthy, lively tour guide. Bursting with facts and a joyful delivery, she kept the group entertained throughout the tour,
The tour begins in the Visitors Center with a video about how the urban laboratory began, who the players were, and the master plan. The video viewing space is in the back corner of the Visitors Center, and one must pass by all the bell displays. Visitors are welcome to ring the bells. Based on their size and shape, the bell’s rings are unique.
The Gift Shop doubles as the Visitor’s Center, displays the bells, and is at the entry and exit doors. There is only one way in and out of this space.
A resident of Arcosanti guides an in-depth tour. As a resident, one must volunteer one’s skills 30 to 40 hours a week. Some choose to work in the greenhouse, conduct tours, or do many other tasks to keep the operation in business.
Highlights on the Tour of Arcosanti
Artisans were working in the Ceramics Apse, built between 1971 and 1973, on various stages of production. Bonnie demonstrated how to create the molds and described the slip-casting process of ceramic bell-making.
The Amphitheater, surrounded by buildings that house residents and classrooms, demonstrates the mixture of different ways to live and work together.
A unique feature of the Amphitheater is a moat in the lower area below some seating. The moat acts as a rainwater catchment.
We were treated to a show that not all visitors get to see. A pouring of molten bronze into bell molds occurred during our tour, so we hot-footed it to the Foundry, where we got ringside “seats” (standing) at a safe distance to observe the process. Experiencing this work confirmed my purchase of a wind bell for my home.
She Buys Travel Tip: Many stairways and uneven pavement make touring difficult for those with mobility issues. Visitors must sign a waiver to tour the site.
Guest Rooms at Arcosanti
Visitors can stay overnight in guestrooms on-site. You can learn more on the Arcosanti website. The accommodations are basic, with communal spaces, a view of the surrounding cliffs, and the Agua Fria River riparian area. They are accessible by an inclining path and stairs.
Air conditioners are available in all guestrooms but not in all other site areas. Be prepared for extreme variations in temperature, especially during the summer months.
About Paolo Soleri
Paolo Soleri was an Italian-American architect and philosopher whose vision was to create a compact, self-sufficient urban laboratory that would serve as an alternative to the sprawling cities of the modern world.
Born in Turin, Italy in1919, Soleri studied architecture at the Politecnico di Torino before moving to the United States in 1947. He worked with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona for several years before founding Arcosanti.
Soleri’s work has been exhibited in various museums in New York, such as the Guggenheim Museum and the Museum of Modern Art, and his ideas continue to be studied and explored by architects and urban designers.
About Jeff Stein
Jeff Stein was an American architect who was the chief designer and one of the co-founders of Arcosanti. Stein’s vision for Arcosanti was to create a sustainable city that could house thousands of people while minimizing environmental impact.
Paolo Soleri heavily influenced Stein’s design philosophy because he worked closely with Soleri on the project.
Today, Stein’s legacy lives on at Arcosanti, where his innovative designs and ideas inspire new generations of architects and urban planners.
About Tomiaki Tamura
Tomiaki Tamura was a close collaborator and friend of Paolo Soleri and served as a vital member of the Arcosanti team for many years. He was particularly involved in the construction of the site and worked with Soleri to refine and perfect the techniques used to build the unique structures at Arcosanti.
Tamura was also deeply committed to the vision of Arcosanti as a sustainable, community-oriented alternative to traditional urban living and played a significant role in promoting this vision to a broader audience.
In recognition of his contributions, Tamura was awarded the Paolo Soleri Medal by the Cosanti Foundation in 2017.
Arcosanti is open to visitors year-round but is closed on major holidays. Visiting this other-worldly destination gives you food for thought and a glimpse into a unique lifestyle that expands your knowledge.