Having exited Rt.17 from Phoenix for Rt.69 heading towards Prescott Valley often over the 18 months of my Arizona residency, I was surprised that I had never heard of Arcosanti, (link, link) and indeed had driven past the small sign amongst numerous exit road works and diversions that read, simply, unceremoniously, white letters on green, Arcosanti, with a directional arrow. As described to me by various people who had visited and toured … “a commune, an eco-architectural concept, a wonder, a huge futuristic village that would accommodate 5,000 residents once complete and be completely self-sustaining” ... and “they now make bronze windbells.” Now all this may sound too “woo-woo ” for me, but truth be told, as dismissive as I am about things ethereal and bizarrely imagined, I am a bit of a “woo woo” at heart. I have long roots in meatless diets, hand-made crafts, holistic medicines, alternative living and environmental design etc., so Arcosanti, in concept, should have been right up my alley. The disconnect for me was partially that I had missed-it-by-a-mile, literally, and partially why a brilliant ecological, architectural concept which broke ground in the 1970s was still under construction in 2012? The expected 5,000 capacity residents capped at 150. Why hadn’t it work? Why was it still being built?
Planning and scheduling around other people’s and other group’s plans and schedules can often be difficult. So when I was squeezing round, plan pegs into square, schedule holes for my weekend goals, trying to incorporate time with family friends in Prescott Valley, Friday afternoon and evening, trying to include meeting up with my Desert Adventures group camping out on Mingus Mountain, near Jerome, for lunch on Saturday, and keep a reserved tour, dinner and evening of modern dance, el fresco, at Arconsanti Saturday evening; I was not expecting a perfect result. Forced plans often end dismally. But as imperfect and completely myopic as these plans were in concept, and despite ‘Auntie Eileen’ being away on business, Marc still in semi-permanent exile in Westminster, CA., and Laura being the only family friend available; the resultant weekend flowed with the faux facade of precision planning and meticulous attention.
September is perfect weather in Arizona. The baking heat in the valley still fights for dominance and for tenure, the High Country climes cling to summer warmth, but late evenings quietly indicate that Autumn, often late and extended here, is finally arriving. The days may still be hot and bright, but evenings, before midnight, finally requiring more clothing coverage than short sleeves. “4th Friday Art Walk” (link) around Prescott main square reveled in early autumn openness. Surrounding courthouse square, every vendor, store and gallery were open and buzzing, free hors d’oeuvres and deserts on display to entice you to buy unaffordable art, delicious olive oils, balsamic vinegars, (link) and twinkling trinkets. There were throngs of people mostly of a distinctive vintage, a certain income, thinking minds with broad appreciations and acceptances. I was ready to be surrounded by the warmth of intelligent chatter, intellectual curiosity, amongst the clink of wine glasses and open beer bottles, to hear the chime of silverware on china, the steady hum of many conversations and to enjoy Laura’s exclusive company at Bill’s Pizza (Link). A perfect way to end the week. Company and empathy.
The snaking Rt.89A to Jerome, journeyed on Saturday morning, is a steady climb from open, beige valley grasslands into salmon pink soils through pine forests, twisting and turning constantly back on route in progress that is often down to miniscule miles per hour. I had no hope of locating the Desert group let alone a good parking spot, but car-karma placed me perfectly in town center and cliff side with my eye line peering downwards through windshield and over hood towards the group gathering on a small park lawn they had booked for the day. Perfect timing, perfect day, perfect good fortune. A social group, like most, requires frequent attendance for slow familiarity and gradual welcome. Vegetarians learn social manners quickly. If you adhere strictly to a diet, you had better duplicate that discipline to attending social gatherings because its guaranteed that someone would go to the trouble and thought of catering bean burgers along with their beef burgers especially for you. Indeed, they had … and I was glad that I had made the effort too, to be there.
The loop route out from Jerome via Cottonwood to avoid the side-winder entrance route had me arriving few minutes before Laura at Arcosanti with enough time to wander the visitor center, consider the bronze windbells and collect our inclusive, $40 tickets. The Arcosanti disconnect between breaking ground to … well … very little progress over decades, was partially explained by the tour guide after the introduction video. “We have had a few set backs over the years,” and then went on to explain about the open air music fest Arcosanti hosted in 1978 where the onslaught of cars and crowds caught them off guard. Open fields, grass cut low and prepared for many cars were soon filled by too many cars and so open fields not prepared for cars were used additionally. In an Arizona, late summer heat, hot cars, hotter exhaust muflers and dry grass soon saw combustion, ignition and flames that finally engulfed 180 cars. The ensuing litigations and recently, the economic downturn had cast a persistent cloud over Arcosanti and their Ecology, Architectural ambitions. (Fire Link) (Link-Photos)
But, the disconnect for me, as I peered over blueprints and architectural models, was also soil versus structure, clay versus concrete, organic versus geometric. Untamed wilderness in disharmony with man’s dwellings, warm soils hosting cold concrete, nature’s shapes contrasting against constructed sharp angles, hard lines, odd arches and semi-domes. As incongruous and out-of-place as an office block on a beach front. Nothing belonged. Neither, it seemed, did the transient tenants who resided here for only short months of observation, studies and contributions.
Our tour guide, charming, articulate and slim, gliding past and ignoring yellow, plastic, corrugated sheets where windows ought to be, the sweep of her thin arm, showing off a library of cast-off-books on rickety shelves, foam exposed, thread bare sofas, using imaginative descriptions and predictions uttered in romantic, hopeful tones couldn’t verbally paint over a disappointment to conjure up an Arc de Triomphe. My ears decoded and my cynical eyes noticed. The weeds growing in corners. Untrimmed grass. Litter indifferently scattered under washing hung out to dry. The insolent and uncaring gazes of resident inmates towards casual visitors. As our guide explained the intricacies of casting bronze in the semi-dome foundry, my eyes drifted upwards into the two apartments above, and swimming in a disciplined gene pool I inherited from my mother, and she from her mother before, I mentally straightened furniture, dusted shelves, drew back curtains, removed cluttered and futilely tried to restore order and inspire pride.
To illustrate and emphasis diligent and professional care whilst pouring molten bronze, our guide explained that the throbbing beat of rap music was respectfully silenced for laser sharp focus. But, my mind connected this music with the 7 a.m. foundry start time, the dwellings above and their sleeping residents, connected too with the young man who was dribbling and pounding a basketball under a domed ceiling, oblivious to the audible, assaulting concussion that ensued and I wondered anew about people, though communed with nature, eco-architecture, thought it appropriate to rape nature with violent sound?
The moon had risen high over the open amphitheatre by late evening before a slight chill cooled the warmth of the Human Nature Dance Theater recital (Link) and their renditions of writhing bodies, (“movement exploration,”) mime, evocative music and voice. A calming end to a thought-provoking day, but time to return to the constant warmth of the Phoenix valley. As I exited the 1 mile before the Rt.69 entrance, following Laura’s mini-van in a cloud of opaque dust, rattling over hard corrugations on a road I realized had no chance of ever being paved, I had a few final thoughts for the grand ambitions of Arcosanti. Firstly, I would never subject my car to this road again, and secondly … no business nor architectural vision, 3% complete after 4 decades, could ever be considered a success.