It was early, a summer morning in 2013 when David and I walked down the steps into Arcosanti, a very small city (if one can call it that) founded as an urban laboratory by the Italian architect Paolo Soleri. We were a bit dazzled by the morning sun after a long drive through the desert of Arizona (US) and a night sleeping in the car on a parking lot outside Arcosanti. We entered and walked through the big communal canteen where breakfast was about to be served, hearing the first people in their morning moods. We headed towards the residential and working areas, ignoring the signs offering guided tours for a fee. As always when sneaking into a place, the act of trespassing provides some excitement, though in this case the place itself for sure added to this experience…
Stairs lead left, right, up and down. They seem to be the roads of this place, providing excess to public and private domains that exist immediately under and next to them. A view into one of the metal workshops shows a window into a domestic room, framing a lamp, reading chair and some pillows that indicate a bed. Waking up in that room must provide a view down into the working space, an immediate connection to the community. On a very small footprint private spaces intermingle with the communal and public areas. In some places the domains of public and private are so small and compact that the borders are nearly visible and can be crossed with every step one takes. For instance an open amphitheater has been built in the middle of a circular set of houses, resulting in a clearly communal 'backyard'. Also several food-providing gardens exist between different pathways. They look like small forgotten ‘public green spaces’, though with a second look one realises the personal initiative and care that is put into them.
Even when Arcosanti is more like a community within a building-complex than a proper city its diversity in space and architectural form is numerous, giving the sense that this built environment is a city indeed, in all its density and complexity. Paolo Soleri, who designed and initiated this urban experiment in the 1970s, wrote extensively about the density of cities and the need for an “urban implosion.” This in contrast to the urban “explosion” better known as the urban sprawl. The sprawl of low-rise architecture in the outer city rings was already an urban trend at the time, visible in America’s vast and growing cities like Los Angeles. Soleri’s arguments for the imploded city involved the environment at large, projecting an ecologically sustainable scenario for the future cities of the world. He introduced the term “arcology,” composed from the two words: ecology and architecture. This term was introduced in his most popular book, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, which points towards his interest in the study of nature (ecology) and the study of culture (architecture).1 Lisa McCullough explains Soleri’s interpretation of this term as follows:
The gist of arcology is the reversal and inversion of urban sprawl towards the inner limits of compact logistical efficiency. Arcological thinking halts the movement of dispersal that is the essence of sprawl and throws it into reversal—into implosion—retaining but radically shortening all the vital interconnections between people, places and things. This urban logic shrinks massive cities into intensely interconnected, densely populated, three-dimensional forms on a tightly zoned footprint. Suburbia is curtailed to be more like a tutu than a bridal train or a Milky Way (as seen looking over greater Los Angeles at night, for example).2
It is interesting to look into Soleri’s theories after experiencing Arcosanti, not as a simple one to one check on how his ecological 'ideals' are put into practice, but to argue further than these ideals.3 While discovering Arcosanti one’s interest is drawn to the city itself more than to the nature around it, wondering about how its dense architecture influences culture and the small politics of daily life. The set view of nature outside the city is, strangely enough, a tool to reflect back on the direct encounter of Arcosanti’s architecture and the human activity within it. Soleri’s urban theory of implosion has a clear argument when looking at it from an ecological perspective. Shrinking the footprint of mega cities would literally save millions of square meters of valuable nature. Though what the argument is from a human and cultural perspective remains less logical. What kind of cultural ideal would require a ban on roads and cars within the city? Why do we want to live in small spaces and in sight of our neighbors, in urban density, diversity and compression? Even when realising that the preservation of nature is an urgent and given fact, is there a reason to implode our cities beyond saving nature around us?
Over time many urban development strategies have shown an opposite way of thinking. Haussmann’s rigorous city plan for Paris is an example, in which the old chaotic Paris of the 1850s had to make way for a new one. Small streets with architectural and class diversity would change into big “homogenous” boulevards, in order to represent their inhabitants from a single (rich) class.4 Another example is the modern thinking of a few decades later. In the beginning of the twentieth century modernism taught us to separate our daily actions and plan them into different (urban) areas, while “clean architecture”, space, light and air would heal us from our claustrophobia. “Space” was the word of that time, certainly not density. Moving forward in urban history the modern motto changes into a postmodern one. Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown claim that “meaning” is the word, not space.5 Icons, billboards and illuminated commercials take over the role of architecture to communicate; all focused towards the urban protagonist travelling at speed on the highways through the city. The car is “hot” and driving is portrayed as a performative experience. Driving is a moment to enjoy, we agree when watching the urban critic Reyner Banham driving through the outskirts of Los Angeles.6 Roughly speaking, where we are now on the timeline of western urban history is most likely a result and mixture of these mentalities. So, what kind of ideal would accept urban density, compact architecture and architectural diversity as an enjoyable goal?
It might be helpful to look at Arcosanti in this case as a 1:1 model. Why did it provide excitement and the idea that this place was a living system, enjoyable and actually happening? Why is this place not reigned by the feeling of claustrophobia, why is there air, space and light in access? Another term, invented by Paolo Soleri, might point us in the right direction. Next to the term arcology Soleri introduced the word miniaturization, which he uses to describe “the implosive ‘shrinking’ of organic and inorganic processes at any scale.” He continues:
The term [miniaturization] does not refer to reducing absolute scale, simply “making things smaller”, but rather to maintaining the interactivity, complexity, and circuitry of a system while reducing the amount of space and time required for them to function. The power of miniaturization is exemplified in an insect brain, a microchip, a sonnet […]. The shrinking magnitudes of powerful computers demonstrate this superbly. But just as miniaturization is not a matter of simply making things smaller, neither is Soleri’s self-proclaimed minimalism a matter of making things simpler, but rather of making complexity more streamlined and effective, more frugal, thus enabling it to become even more complex.7
This theory might explain why Arcosanti felt like a city indeed, even being as small as it is. It apparently maintained all the elements a city needs. But what does it actually need? One of the city parameters described by the Belgium architect Wim Cuyvers pops into my mind: Spaces of transgression, (which are the kinds of spaces that, “solely can be defined in terms of opposites: non-privatised, not privately owned, non-economical, unclaimed and uncontrolled,”) are in his eyes essential in an urban environment.8 In these kinds of spaces there is a possibility to transgress the norm of a society. In other words, these places are a way to escape from a feeling of oppression; from the ‘claustrophobia’ of a dense society in terms of a social control. Wim Cuyvers recognises these places as the real public space, as “no mans land,” while being a space where there is no counter reaction when self-initiating any planned or spontaneous action. Therefore often they can be recognised by the amount of carelessness or chaos. “On the spots where nobody takes responsibility garbage is collected.”9
Philosopher and sociologist Slavoj Žižek writes in his text Architectural Parallax, Spandrels and Other Phenomena of Class Struggle about a similar kind of space, a so-called ‘leftover space’, in relation to architectural design. He explains the necessity for this kind of space through his socio-political perspective, pointing out the neutral political value of the un-programmed space. He poses the question: aren’t these “functionally empty spaces open for exaptation?” Žižek states, “the struggle is open here—the struggle for who will appropriate them.”10 He extracts the explanation for this both physical and political leftover space from a notion introduced by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin. When understanding Gould and Lewontins linguistic source of the “spandrel,” we might understand more how this “leftover space,” or in Wim Cuyvers terminology this “no mans land,” is (or can be) created by means of architectural design:
The notion I propose here is ex-aptation, introduced by Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin: it refers to features that did not arise as adaptations through natural selection but rather as side effects of adaptive processes and that have been co-opted for a biological function. What should draw our attention here is that Gould and Lewontin borrowed the architectural term “spandrel” (using the pendentives of San Marco in Venice as an example) to designate the class of forms and spaces that arise as necessary byproducts of another decision in design, and not as adaptations for direct utility in themselves. In architecture, the prototypical spandrel is the triangular space “left over” on top, when a rectangular wall is pierced by a passageway capped with a rounded arch. By extension, a spandrel is any geometric configuration of space inevitably left over as a consequence of other architectural decisions. Say, the spaces between the pillars of a bridge, can subsequently be used by homeless persons for sleeping, even though such spaces were not designed for providing such shelter. And as the church spandrels may then incidentally become the locus for decorations such as portraits of the four evangelists, so anatomical spandrels may be co-opted for uses that they were not selected for in the first place.11
The byproducts of designed urban spaces are free from class or power structures, and are therefore claimed by Žižek, and in extension as well by Cuyvers, as an essential element in an urban environment. These spaces enlarge the possibilities of an urban society, and as a result enlarge the mental space of a city. They provide an “extra space.”
For Arcosanti these spaces as described by Cuyvers and Žižek also seem to be essential. An urban experiment of this kind would most likely fail without them. And maybe because of its dense urban character the inclusion of these kinds of spaces is even more important. Thinking that this “extra space” might even literally provide an escape for the feeling of claustrophobia—the feeling of oppression in small spaces. In that line of thought the unclaimed, un-programmed, non-privatised space can be explained not only as an activator of transgression, or as a political free zone, but also as an activator of creativity, providing the ability to project future development, new functions, enjoyable appropriation (either temporary or permanent), and spontaneous actions. In Arcosanti, leftover spaces exist in all kinds of scales. When running around the buildings on that summer morning I recognised them, while at the same time the projections of potential (creative) actions, were there in my mind. This was the reason for our excitement and energy. This must be one of the reasons why Arcosanti is enjoyable, liveable and actually happening! Society is inspired here, activated in their creative thought. For that reason it doesn’t matter so much when a neighbour accuses you for giving one of the gardens an overdose of water (like I had overheard that morning in the communal canteen). Neighbours do see each other here, on this small urban footprint. But oh boy, if we need to we can escape it! We can hide, run, and build our own universe! The best thing we remember doing as a kid.
Because of the formal juxtaposition of the architectural volumes, there are numerous spaces that are literally a byproduct of the architectural forms. Like for instance the hidden and hollow space under the communal swimming pool. The occupation of this space is clearly temporary, and self-initiated, and fulfils a role that wasn’t planned or even thought of before the swimming pool was build. Somebody was happy to store his or her stuff there, thrilled to live there, or meet there. Anything is possible, though within the boundaries of its scale. When seen from that perspective the chaotic and improvised use of material is not a sign of decay, but a sign of a pleasurable appropriation escaping from the eye of society. Both Žižek as Cuyvers might say it is a sign of a healthy city, which incorporates a free zone to be co-opted.
When resting for a while on one of the stairs my view was directed towards a flat surface of terrace tiles. Its triangular shape was the result of an intersection of at least six access points, all in different formal shapes, leading towards different areas in different directions. Another implication of the so many leftover spaces; in this case a “layered one,” in favour of multiple functions. I imagined this cross point—normally used to move from one place to the other —as a perfect place to repose and gather with multiple: the function of a square.
Arcosanti is vertically layered in its architecture and programs; which is the principle of Paolo Soleri’s solution to grow. This principle is in a formal perspective similar to the history of the city centers of Medieval European cities. Once they gained their city rights, walls were built to protect their people. From that moment on they were forced as a city to grow inwards. They developed in an imploding manner. Slowly they grew, in height (not higher than a human could walk up the stairs though) in clusters of buildings, sometimes in a chaotic manner, often with small roads in-between. Maybe it is not a coincidence that these dense city centers are still the most popular places of these cities nowadays… Maybe Soleri’s arcological thinking—using architectural density, diversity and complexity to compress urban landscapes into “tutu’s” instead of “bridal trains”—is not only dedicated to Nature’s God (the ecological ideal), but is in principle also in favour of a human culture. In that case we learn from Arcosanti which formal architectural parameters could be used to implode the physical borders of our cities while at the same time expanding the possibilities and mental borders of societies.