Arcosanti: An Urban Laboratory

Updated: Nov 4, 2019

“So what’s next? How are you going to impact future generations? What are you going to do?


These questions were posed to me and fellow students by professor Barry Vacker (Temple University) in our concluding lecture at Arcosanti, after spending ten long days "roughing it" in the desert of Arizona.


"View of the city of Arcosanti from the mesa." (Photo by Kerry Shanahan, 2019)

For our 2019 spring break I along with 16 other students traveled to Arcosanti, a world-famous “urban laboratory” and architectural site. Construction began in 1970 with the aim of reorganizing the sprawling urban landscape into more compact and efficient spaces. Arcosanti was created to be a model sustainable city where, as one resident put it “walking, working, living, and learning” could all exist in one place.


"View from Arcosanti Cafe & Art Gallery." (Photo by Kerry Shanahan, 2019)

The philosophy at Arcosanti holds that art should be woven seamlessly into everyday life. That is one reason why Arcosanti is so beautifully and thoughtfully constructed. But outside of its aesthetic value, Arcosanti's design offers a deeper functionality. This urban laboratory was conceived to offer a lean alternative to traditional ways of organizing a city. In a way, Arcosanti merges ancient building methods with modern technology in order to solve our complex problems of the 21st century.


Arcosanti is based on the idea of “arcology” which stands for architecture + ecology.


In Arcosanti’s compact and walkable space, there is no need for fossil fuel consuming transportation. If we imagined Arcosanti on a larger scale, we would see a highly efficient set of passages that allow pedestrians to move quickly and freely with less reliance on automobiles. The principle of arcology is to grow upward and inward and to preserve as much of nature as possible and bring it closer to the city. A direct reaction to the ever-expanding urban sprawl, arcology provides us with a method for sustainable living on a macro-scale.


Arcosanti is built using a number of sustainable practices such as passive solar, water-based radiant floor heating, a greywater system, and an oxidation pond. Additionally, the residents of Arcosanti compost all of their food waste and use the soil to feed their garden where, when funding and residency allow for it, they grow most of their food.


“Arcosanti Residents Creating Bronze Bells”


Today, Arcosanti’s population remains at around 100 residents or less and has over 30,000 visitors a year. Some residents have been living in Arcosanti for decades and have made it their homes for the long term. In contrast, some residents only stay for a couple of weeks or several months. Everyone who makes the move into Arcosanti completes a six-week workshop that is comprised of various tasks based on what needs to be done around town. Some workshop students created concrete accessibility ramps, while others were tasked with building a new room in the greenhouse. All workshop students, however, are taught how to cast the iconic Arcosanti ceramic and bronze bells. Many of the residents are artists and the bells and sculptures they produce are sold around the world and central to the Arcosanti economy.


“View of the desert from outside the Arcosanti dorms.” (Photo by Jess Mihalczo, 2019)

I traveled to Arcosanti, AZ for a course offered by Temple University’s KleinGO office called Media, Ecology, and Technology. This course is taught every year by Temple University professors Dr. Patrick Murphy and Dr. Barry Vacker. Dr. Murphy teaches courses on media, the environment, and globalization and is author of the book The Media Commons: Globalization and Environmental Discourses. Dr. Vacker teaches courses on media theory and has numerous publications; he is also a mixed media artist and his recent exhibition explored media technology and the Anthropocene.


Unlike other programs at Arcosanti which focus primarily on architecture, art, or sustainability, the innovative KleinGO program is the first and only media studies program to be taught in Arcosanti. This provided us with a completely unique and one-of-a-kind experience in the city.


“Looking out from the mesa at Arcosanti.” Two Temple Students photographed by Kerry Shanahan, 2019

Each day in Arcosanti started with a lecture from either Dr. Murphy, Dr. Vacker or an Arcosanti resident themselves. The lectures included some topics such as Unlimited Growth vs Earth’s Limits, Earth as a Living System, Consumer Culture, Global Thinking, and the Anthropocene. Most of our afternoons were then free for us to roam about and contemplate the lecture topics while experiencing Arcosanti in real-time. But even though it was plenty free time, there was no wasted time in Arcosanti. Every moment I spent wandering around Arcosanti, I was learning something. Whether it was noticing that the floors in my dorm room were warm and realizing that it was the radiant heating system, or simply hiking up to the mesa adjacent from the city and taking it all in. It is truly an experience that can not be described in words.


There is plenty of free time but no wasted time in Arcosanti.


“The 2019 Temple University ‘Arconauts’ at Biosphere 2”

As a part of the course, we left Arcosanti three different times. The first was a day trip to Biosphere 2, a facility currently run by the University of Arizona. Biosphere 2 was originally created as an experiment to replicate Earth’s biosphere for a 1990 Mars colonization project. Though the experiment ultimately failed, because it was impossible to replicate Earth’s delicate and complex system, the knowledge gleaned from the project has proven useful for ecological and environmental studies. Today, the facility is used for research on a number of geological, ecological and climate-related studies and serves as a learning center for the public.


“A hiking trail in the Agua Fria National Monument”

Our second trip was to the Agua Fria National Monument, located just a few miles down the road along the Agua Fria River. The Agua Fria River flows from under the desert to the surface and has been a water source for thousands of years. This monument is home to ancient petroglyphs and a wide range of vegetation and animals.


“Jumping for joy on the South Rim of the Grand Canyon.” (Photo by Kerry Shanahan, 2019)

Our last trip was an overnight experience at the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. This was my first time ever seeing the Grand Canyon, and when I laid eyes on it I couldn’t believe what I saw. Nearly 2 billion years of geological history were laid out before me creating a seemingly unreal, picturesque view. It was at that moment that everything we had been learning over the course of the week finally clicked in my brain. We are all part of a greater living system. The Earth in itself is a living organism that over billions of years has grown and changed, much like we experience in our own lives, and it is our duty to treat it with respect.


Each evening in Arcosanti we wrapped up the day by viewing films that examined the relationship between media, ecology, and technology such as Baraka (1992), Mother! (2017), and Princess Mononoke (1997). By the end of the week, I had developed a new perspective of the world, a view of the world on a grander scale.


For my final project for the course, I created a spoken word poem from compilations of quotes from lectures, Arcosanti residents, and the films we screened that tells the story of my experience in Arcosanti. Each line in the poem is a piece of a different quote. Here is what I came up with.


At Arcosanti,

It’s a different landscape.

A whole new way of thinking.

A system that’s designed for the greater public good.


The idea has always been about opening your eyes.

To set an example.

To think further.

An environment in harmony with man.


At Arcosanti,

God may not be perfect.

But it’s still you

Growing on Earth

Walking, working, living, learning, all in one place.


If you look 20 years into the future,

The inspiration,

An aesthetic philosophical vision,

Can almost look like an organism in itself.

A new era on planet Earth

Will force us to think differently.


I’m just trying to say,

It’s not about

What we are.

I’m just trying to say,

The earth is more than just a home.


We’re the passengers on spaceship Earth,

The life and light of centuries of sunshine.

Your own imagination

Is our place in the universe.


We’re here,

Think further.


What will the world look?

How long will they be able to sustain?

It’s not a system

That can be replicated.


Don’t worry,

Community is something that happens by default.

It’s more about opening your eyes and using your own imagination.


At Arcosanti,

We’re actually doing things.

Well,

We were a bit of a wild bunch over the years.


But it takes

Motivated people, and

We’re here.


See,

The plan is

Think and act long term.


The plan is

Do more with less.


If I had to guess,

20 years into the future,

We

May not

Say

“Well this is what it is”


But,

That

People took action.

With no pilot or manual.


The earth is

A living system and we are a part of it.

Where have you been hiding?






To learn more about Arcosanti you can visit their website here.


To learn more about the Arcosanti KleinGO program at Temple University you can visit the KleinGO portal here.


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