MESA CITY is a dense, walkable metropolis built of local materials that uses passive solar energy, natural light, and urban vibrancy to create a sustainable place to live, work, and play. It sounds like any number of the hip, transit-oriented developments that excite urban planners today, but it was actually the invention of the visionary architect Paolo Soleri, who sketched it on hundreds of elaborate scrolls in the Arizona desert more than 50 years ago.
Soleri was a charismatic dreamer best known for Arcosanti, the utopian community he oversaw 70 miles north of Phoenix (unlike Mesa City, which never got off the drawing board). Fifteen years before the first Earth Day, he was developing a new theory of human habitation he called “arcology’’ — the merger of architecture and ecology. He preached a radical reorganization of suburban sprawl, planning dense hives of human activity surrounded by large tracts of nature for recreation and spiritual renewal. The 12 buildings at Arcosanti are the only physical prototype, but Soleri produced dozens of books and thousands of drawings to offer contemporary visionaries new ways to think about the way we live on earth.
A year after his death at age 93, Soleri’s philosophy has never been more relevant — or its execution more difficult. “It’s such a big idea, but it flies in the face of the very basis of the American economy,” says Jeff Stein, president of the Cosanti foundation, which runs Arcosanti and its educational programs. For starters, arcology rejects the exploitation of natural resources, promotes frugality, and has little use for cars.
Stein was in Boston earlier this week for the screening of a new documentary, “The Vision of Paolo Soleri: Prophet in the Desert.” The title comes from the New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable, who reviewed an exhibition of Soleri’s Mesa City drawings in 1970. “His philosophical and environmental perceptions offer a sudden, stunning pertinence for today,” she wrote back then. “He has been the prophet in the desert and we have not been listening.”
Born in Turin, Italy, Soleri sailed to America in 1946 to apprentice with Frank Lloyd Wright in his famous Taliesin West workshop. Within two years he had broken with Wright and started his own workshop — some would call it a commune — nearby. Although he lived most of his adult life in the Arizona desert, surrounded by saguaro cactus and sand, he saw cities as the ultimate expression of complexity and compactness that he believed all of nature was moving toward. “The city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind,” he wrote in 1977.
The documentary is one of four recent Soleri biopics, which Stein hopes will provide a new opening to Soleri’s ideas. “The purpose of a film like this,” he said, “is to spark a conversation about what we want from our cities, what we need from them, and what the living planet itself needs from them.”
Some of Soleri’s imagined domiciles are so fantastic that they make Buckminster Fuller’s geodesic dome look like an ordinary ranch house. They take the complex forms of honeycombs, artichokes, or hexahedrons; some are designed for millions of people in self-contained pods heated and cooled with an elaborate system of “air snorkels.” These mega-projects could never be brought to scale, and today Arcosanti — initially planned as a community of 5,000 — has only about 60 residents. Until now the project has survived mostly on donations, volunteer labor, and the sale of Soleri’s famous hand-cast bronze and ceramic bells.
But it would be wrong to dismiss Soleri’s vision as quixotic. In the film, the creator of the futuristic video game SimCity says Soleri’s theories had a profound influence on his work. Google relies on Soleri’s ideas when it designs offices that combine living, learning, working, and leisure. Innovations in sustainable urban planning — from green roofs to city farms to shared workspaces — all borrow from Soleri’s methods, though they are just a down payment on what we really need to save the planet. The problem with Soleri’s vision is not that it is too far out, but that we are not moving fast enough to reach it.
Correction: An earlier version of this column incorrectly described the material used in Paolo Soleri’s hand-cast bells.