BALTIMORE — It never reached the 5,000 inhabitants its creator dreamed of or produced much more than decorative wind bells, but the utopian city of Arcosanti may have just been ahead of its time. Designed by Italian architect Paolo Soleri, the compact metropolis was the embodiment of his idea of “arcology” — a fusion of architecture with ecology.
In The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis to Finster that opened earlier last month at the American Visionary Art Museum (AVAM) in Baltimore, fragments of Arcosanti are on view in the massive group show of over 150 pieces. The museum-spanning exhibition curated by filmmaker Jodi Wille and AVAM founder and director Rebecca Alban Hoffberger is centered on visionaries — many self-taught artists — and how those visions are executed, whether it’s the recently acquired “remote viewing” cosmic paintings by Ingo Swann that line the spiral staircase in the museum’s center, the allegorical art of Baptist minister Howard Finster, dream-inspired crayon works by Minnie Evans, or even some questionably-included meandering drawings by Jimi Hendrix. Outdoors a “Stargate” by Steve Heller is a portal lined with pulsing car taillights, while the polymath drawings of Walter Russell are charged with depicting the power of physical phenomena, and the photographs by Paul Koudounaris capture the details of Rome catacombs skeletons proclaimed saints as substitutes for lost relics during the Reformation and ornately decorated in jewels as part of their spiritual transformation.
Among all these Soleri has a vision that’s equal parts reality, impossible, and perhaps increasingly relevant. Arcosanti hit its peak in the 1970s, with Soleri leading the construction of his dream city out in Arizona, a city where urban sprawl would be compacted and people would live in a way minimally invasive to the environment and harmonious through close interaction. Not dissimilar from Frederick Law Olmsted before him, Soleri believed that good design could make people morally good. Born in Turin, he first came to Arizona as an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright. Yet while Wright’s own future-thinking urban plan Broadacre City — recently the focus of a MoMA exhibition — was all about beautifying a suburban spread, Soleri took the opposite approach and pulled everything a metropolis would need into one super-structure. The “Bowl” and “Tower” sections on display at AVAM are just two parts of a 50-foot scroll that formed the foundation of Arcosanti. With common areas and embedded gardens, it’s a sort of hive of interconnected, self-sufficient spaces — all enthusiastically and vividly sketched in colored crayon.
A few of the bronze wind bells Soleri designed for his city hang in the AVAM window, and they along with about a dozen structures half-finished, 70 miles north of Phoenix, are the physical realization of Arcosanti. Its sign proclaimed at the entrance: “If you are truly concerned about the problems of pollution, waste, energy depletion, land, water, air and biological conservation, poverty, segregation, intolerance, population containment, fear and disillusionment, join us.” Soleri died on April 9, 2013 at the age of 93, now buried among the pieces of his urban planning experiment legacy that he worked on until his death, long after his profile as a prophet of the future had lowered. Still, while the concrete structures might feel more retrofuture than realistic, there is something still contemporary about Soleri’s ideas. Fred A. Bernstein wrote in his New York Times obituary:
In his view, technology always moves toward miniaturization, just as nature tends toward complexity and compactness. Human habitation, he believed, must also move toward more compact, multilayered and multidimensional spaces instead of scattering or spreading across the landscape.
Like his fellow utopians such as Buckminster Fuller with his eye towards sustainability and better living even in his most outlandish ideas, Soleri’s Arcosanti can be seen as more than just a curiosity. More and more urban planning is concentrated on maximizing space and controlling sprawl, and even if we’re not likely to move into concrete domes or all live harmoniously within some sort of massive spaceship-like structure, there is a value at looking back at the failure and success of this desert vision.
The Visionary Experience: Saint Francis to Finster continues at the American Visionary Art Museum (800 Key Highway, Baltimore, Maryland) through August 30, 2015.