I myself figure it's easy to take pot-shots at a "laboratory" that seems always under construction if you forget that its intention, right from the start, was to be always under construction.
That intention seems to have slipped out from under the radar partly because the "it's always under construction" piece hasn't been clearly, much less irrevocably incorporated into its banner head. Nor into its own self-image, an omission provoking the confusion of thinking it can be "completed" according to some single, well-conceived, cleverly CAD-drawn plan.
It may be Fair Enough to think it's possible to build an "urban laboratory" that way; but I think it's not going far out on a limb to see that it can, must and will be done otherwise. That's simply because the notion of "incomplete" doesn't fit any standard conceptions or preconceptions about what architecture is, how architecture proceeds.
That not-examined ambiguity about 'completion' has led to some unfortunate misunderstandings of Arcosanti. I'll explain what I mean:
Our Japanese neighbors in the Village of New Denver told us, "The house is not finished until you're dead" (variations include: "When the house is finished, you're dead"). Something similar may be said of urban schemata.
Because when you think about: 'When and how is a city "done"? How or when does a city stop evolving and changing?' your answer has to be: 'They don't.' Cities are life in transition. Cities are always in transition.
In our post-modern age, "the city that never sleeps" (as admen used to say of New York) remains appropriate. It's still heady, a potent description of city life; because it's understood as being true of cities in general. The ever-bubbling vitality of urban life is what makes cities different from "not-cities" in the broad spectrum of human habitats.
Moreover, the world in/of cyberspace, 24/7/365, seems to impel urban-mindedness in what were once considered remote places on the globe. In fact,"remote" itself is a word that enunciates a notion of vast distance from urban centers.
If may take effort to appreciate how Arcosanti cannot be less than a work-in-progress. But that effort pays off nicely even if it is a departure from the 'normal' way people seem to think about Arcosanti-as-architecture.
To examine the project intensively, from as many vantage points as can be found, review and mull over our own experience of it, one must include, in one's deconstructionist examination of it as a form of material culture, its prehistory, going back" to the era before the actual physical construction of it was begun. My own feeling is that deconstruction of its culture is needed, but that evolved out of my contemplation of it, by my recalling Paolo's moving from his ideas for Mesa City into sketching drawings of self-contained 'urban forms' - the arcology drawings which became the stuff of the 'Big Book' City In The Image Of Man and a number of models to accompany the drawings in that book; all of which were the stuff of the Corcoran Gallery show in 1970.
All those drawings were sketches of his fascination with development of architectural vocabularies of form, architectural forms that were, to his way of seeing, capable of and waiting for elaboration in a grand variety of sites: the ocean; outer space; across canyons and rivers; out on the desert, including the desert on the Agua Fria, the 800 acres which is now the site of Arcosanti.
Arcosanti's existing structures - what Paolo liked to call the "Old Town' - gave us one version of his exquisite interpretation of the 'marginal landscape' he chose for Arcosanti. Although an unschooled eye might find that landscape monotonous or even featureless, his having made himself at home in it, his practical appreciation of it, was to our great benefit That effort of his has left us with a grand vision for a compact built environment in which individual pursuits as well as cooperative lifestyles all can flourish.
That said, during his lifetime, general assumptions about "how things get done" in the world of architectural construction were generally met by head-on resistance on Paolo's part. He was not quick to adopt or even adapt the recommendations of others when it came to developing Arcosanti. The historical record, my own experience included, tells us this. Construction slowed down, practically ground to a halt, after several morally and economically devastating events (the "carbecue,' the death of Colly Soleri, the death of Ivan Pintar, three accidents on site resulting in grave personal injury to those who sustained them), and his resistance gelled, his preoccupation with spiritual speculation intensified.
I'm reminded of a comment made by Frank Lloyd Wright - Bob Rudner put me onto it - that "Soleri would be a very good architect if he weren't so preoccupied with religion." But who can fault a man for pondering the meaning of his personal universe, particularly when it implodes or comes crashing down on him?
Thinking about the nuances of anthropological, philosophic, eco-psychology dilemmas I find snared in a conceptual arcology (aka architectural ecology, which, it must be repeated, is not "ecological architecture"), I got to thinking about a seminar that I was party to, as an undergrad architecture student at UBC, with a group of students whose task it was to work with the Burrard tribe - actually Tsleil-Waututh Nation, a Coast Salish people most easily identified by its Chief, Dan George. The reserve is on Vancouver's North Shore, just east of North Vancouver's 'downtown' and I got to join the architecture seminar after the term had already started, a few weeks into it, at least.
The group I was joining had produced some fine drawings for waterfront development plans, including a hotel. The drawings all looked quite spiffy - really very grand. But I had no idea and no-one could explain how the group had come to decide that the tribe wanted the elaborate modification of terrain the seminar group had come up with, since they had never met with the tribe. Meetings had been set up at the school but no-one from the tribe had come to the school to talk with the seminar group.
I spent the night in the architecture school's studio, constructing a not especially beautiful but relatively accurate topographic model of the reserve. Styrofoam green base, twigs for trees, a bunch of little cardboard things for houses: everything on the model movable. Morning came, students were straggling in for the day. Bleary but determined, I headed off campus, glancing at nothing that might distract. No detours. I pointed the nose of my Volvo towards the Lion's Gate Bridge, drove it, me, and the model, plus whatever waiting-for-a-ride recyclage (baby and kids clothes, as it happened) in a bag on the back seat, where it had been waiting for its next lifetime to appear.
Found the reserve's road, entered heading eastward, asked someone where was the Chief's house, please? Aimee, Chief Dan George's wife, who was Band Secretary, met me cordially at the door. I introduced myself, explained I was one of the students at the UBC architecture school who'd responded to the Band's request.
She was gentleness personified. I excused myself to go out to the Volvo, brought back the model to show it to her. I lifted up one of the little cardboard things to explain how all the stuff on the model was movable, anything could go anywhere. I asked here could she please tell me, What they were hoping to see happen?
To which she responded immediately, her voice a bit alarmed, Oh no, she said, gesturing. We just want to close the lower road so our kids can play safely when people are driving to the shipyard (located past the most eastern side of the Reserve) to go to work!
Oh, I see! I said. You want us to help you deal with City Hall, right? Yes, she agreed, that is what they had hoped. Great, I said.
Let me report back to the school, see if there is anything we can do. After which, we talked on about kids, about stuff, and I went back out to the Volvo, fetched up the bag of kid and baby clothes that Sonja Arntzen had given me, handed all those garments over, happily and hopefully, into their next life. I hope they were of benefit, because the denouement was less than sensational.
I left architecture school. I worked for an architect in Seattle for a while, but the adventure itself was a useful lesson in "Do not take what might look obvious for granted."
Which leads back to where this written exercise started: the assumption that Arcosanti as a "laboratory" is to be 'completed' as a project according to a single neat set of once-upon-a-time designed plans.
I'm having trouble with that because I do not see that as how cities evolve. Nor do I see that as how an innovative "urban laboratory" gets to perform.
It seems to me that when any structure is completely built, the next evolutionary step is towards its death. A thing subject to organic growth and decay must cycle and recycle.
That is the nature of all creation, including human creations. What, in human experience, is not subject to change, to growth and decay, to regrowth, blossoming, and then death?
Without decay, how can growth take place? Isn't that what "organic" is all about?