CORDES JUNCTION, Ariz. - Give them points for effort.
In Arizona's high desert between Phoenix and Sedona, a stubborn knot of non-conformists is participating in a grand communal experiment, one that rejects many of the conventions of urban and suburban habitation. It is Arcosanti, a 37-year work-in-progress that presents an alternative to the American norm of living one place, working another, and spending half a lifetime creeping along roads in between.
It is the design baby of Paolo Soleri, an architect who came to Arizona in the 1940s as a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West. He set about establishing the sustainable community of Arcosanti on the lip of the Agua Fria River Canyon in 1970, and ... uh, just
As a side enterprise, Soleri achieved commercial success with his signature wind bells of cast bronze and ceramics, which with the slightest breeze emit haunting tones that seem perfectly attuned to Arizona's stark exteriors.
The approach to Arcosanti, from Interstate 17, involves bumping along a dirt road for a couple of miles. Then it can be seen in the distance, rising incongruously from the desert landscape like an interplanetary outpost, as if sprung from the imagination of George Lucas. It's a jumble of boxy towers, arches, giant porthole windows, glass-dome ceilings, odd protrusions, slanted roofs and random accents of wood. A construction crane - idle throughout my visit - looms over
Guests are welcomed to Arcosanti for tours, overnight stays, week-long seminars and month-long workshops. There's a bakery and a cafe on the premises, and of course a place to purchase bells - a stunning, sun-washed gallery where hundreds of them are displayed, of every imaginable size and timbre.
The residents of this experimental town number about 100 from May through November, including design and architecture students on summer break. The population falls to about half that in winter. On a tour, one of Arcosanti's devotees can provide a sense of the place - and what life here is like.
Tucker Zenski, a 20-something transplant from Boston, said he hadn't left the grounds in weeks. "You're not going clubbin' or to bars every night, so you kind of have to make your own fun," he said. "If you want to see a play, you'd better write one. It creates a lot of imagination."
Which is fitting, because that's what Arcosanti was built on. It grew from Soleri's alarm over the sprawl, waste and ravenous consumption of resources in America's population centers - and you need only drive an hour south for Exhibit A in this state, the greater Phoenix area.
On this 860-acre plot, a complex of buildings went up in the '70s. They were constructed from silt-cast concrete, essentially the same principle employed in the wind bells themselves.
The little community was oriented to capture the sun's rays in winter and be vented by canyon breezes in summer. Apartments were integrated with working spaces, so that the heat from a foundry by day might warm a bedroom by night. Greenhouse construction elements became another source of light and warmth. An agricultural operation was established in the river bed, and basins were created to catch rainwater to irrigate it.
In the cluster of a dozen buildings, there is no central air conditioning or heating. And aside from a couple of dirt tracks around the outer edge, there are no roads and no garages.
The chosen site makes a lot of this possible - a key element in a sustainable community, even one this small. While the low-desert Phoenix furnace lies 70 miles to the south, Arcosanti is at 3,750 feet, which means it experiences milder summer conditions - average highs in the mid-90s, with temperatures dropping to a pleasant mid-70s range the instant the sun goes down.
The town also sits atop a bountiful aquifer, an important source of water. And it abuts the 71,000 protected acres of the Agua Fria National Monument - not a bad backyard.
An overnight stay provides a taste of existence here, if not an immersion. There are hostel-type accommodations for about 30 guests.
Greenhouse Guestrooms have both shared and private baths and are priced from $25 to $45 per night. At the other end of the spectrum is the Sky Suite ($75), which perches atop the complex and appears situated for sensational views of sunrises, sunsets and starry nights. (I couldn't get in there; it books up far in advance.)
There is nothing conventional about a stay here - which taps into the very spirit of Arcosanti. There is a pool, but it is heated only by the sun, which means it isn't an option in winter or early spring. There are no TVs in the rooms.
Meals are buffet-style in the cafe (and during the summer growing season might feature corn, squash, peppers, olives, garlic and peaches grown on the grounds). If you want an adult beverage before, during or after dinner, you'll have to bring it in.
As for entertainment, it might be wise to pack a deck of cards or a good book. There are periodic music concerts during the summer, but beyond that you're on your own when the sun goes down. (There is WiFi coverage for Internet connections.)
It's clearly an ascetic existence for the residents here. By its very nature, Arcosanti appeals to people - mostly young men, it seems - who wish to withdraw from conventional living environments and test a different model. Many seem lost in their thoughts, or desirous of sharing them only with each other. This is a gentle way of saying don't expect a lot of extroverted behavior when you encounter residents on the grounds or in the cafe.
Any isolated community needs some kind of enterprise to help sustain it, and at Arcosanti that is the production of the wind bells. About 50,000 of them are sold annually through the gallery, at Cosanti in the Phoenix suburb of Paradise Valley, or online.
One of the highlights of spending the night here - or arriving for a day trip right when Arcosanti opens at 9 a.m. - is observing the casting of the bells in the foundry. Bronze is fired until it is molten - 2,300 degrees - while casts are made in silt that is packed into wood forms. Then workers, dressed in protective garb that makes them look like medieval combatants, carefully pour the glowing orange liquid into the forms. (It's a good idea to call ahead to make sure bronze pouring is on the work schedule.)
The finished product is arrayed throughout Arcosanti's gallery. But if you're a guest here, there is a spot that exhibits the bells in an even more flattering setting. Find the trail that leads down the canyon wall to the overhang of the foundry apse. Three dozen Soleri bells have been hung in this alcove, and when the afternoon breeze comes up, they produce an ethereal symphony of desert tones.
Guests may freely roam the grounds. While doing so, you can't help but notice the evidence of best intentions not yet realized.
It might be steel pins protruding from an interior wall and electrical conduit snaking down to a light-switch box. Or rusted, bent rebar protruding from the end of a building, awaiting an addition that never quite happened. You might suppress a chuckle when you're told that the awning over the performance amphitheater is "temporary"; it was put up in 1989.
Spokesman Stefan Grace concedes that the construction is "plodding along, subject to finances," which is to say contributions, grant money, and income from wind bells, workshops and tourist visits.
Most of the current buildings went up in the early 1970s, when a zealous army of 5,000 volunteers was on hand and building codes and inspections weren't nearly as rigorous as they are today. The still-to-come features of Soleri's design are elaborate hyper structures and an energy apron, "and you can't have a volunteer labor force building something that's 23 stories tall," Grace said.
Looming over all is the question of what will happen to Arcosanti's bold aspirations when Soleri is no longer around to guide them; he turns 88 next month. Soleri visits the site occasionally, but spends most of his time at Cosanti near Phoenix.
"It takes a lot of patience to live here," said Zenski, who led our tour. "Some people want to see things get built. They want to tell the world, 'You want a solution to global warming? Look at us. We don't use cars."'
From the outside, this all might seem quaint - the prospect of a self-sufficient space station of a town thriving on a high-desert mesa in Arizona.
But then you reflect on how developers today trumpet their mixed-use designs, in which loft housing perches above shops and eateries in downtown districts. You notice that townhouse complexes are springing up wherever there is a Metro stop in Los Angeles' fledgling transit system. And, as you sit in traffic, you lament the ramifications of the "freedom" that was espoused when the automobile began spawning the suburban housing tract 60 years ago.
Then Arcosanti doesn't seem quite so far out on a kook fringe, after all.
IF YOU GO
GETTING THERE: Arcosanti is about an hour's drive north of Phoenix on Interstate 17. Take Exit 262 (Cordes Junction) and follow the signs to Arcosanti. The road to the facility is unpaved. Arcosanti is open to the public daily from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m.
TOURS: Tours are offered daily on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., except at noon; suggested donation is $8 for adults. Specialty tours - focusing on architecture, organic gardening or bird-watching - may also be arranged; suggested donation $12.
LODGING: Accommodations at Arcosanti range from Greenhouse Guestrooms with shared or private baths ($25 to $45) to the Sky Suite ($75), which is a two-bedroom unit with a kitchenette and space for six (including three sleeping mats). Buffet meals are available in the cafe, priced at $4.75 for breakfast, $7.95 for lunch or dinner (Continental breakfast is included with some room categories).
SEMINARS, WORKSHOPS: One-week seminars, priced at $475, provide an overview of Arcosanti, including its history and theory, with presentations by staff members. There is also a half-day hike in the Aqua Fria River region. Four-week workshops, costing $1,125, are more hands-on, involving work at the complex in construction, facilities maintenance, archives, agriculture or landscaping, with a field trip to the Cosanti Fellowship and to Taliesin West in the Phoenix area.
EVENTS: Various arts programs are planned for select weekend nights through October, including a poetry festival, a concert pianist, experimental space music, and dance theater "inspired by landscape and the perennial questions of what it means to be human."
COSANTI: Closer to Phoenix, Cosanti does not offer tours but has a wide selection of wind bells displayed for sale. Located at 6433 E. Doubletree Ranch Road, Paradise Valley, it is open Monday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. www.cosanti.com; (800) 752-3187, (480) 948-6145.
INFORMATION: www.arcosanti.org; (928) 632-7135.