When Max Weber wrote about “charisma and institution building,” he nailed Arcosanti. Weber described a type of organization that goes back millennia. It’s one that couples a charismatic leader with an unclear chain of command and impoverished bureaucratic structure, a formula that hearkens back to the early days of the Church [Loyola and the Jesuits, for example] but there are other, usually religious, organizations that are similarly constructed. If the leadership mode is authoritarian, if the party line swallows all the orders, the organization may take on a despotic strain. (With this latter type, there's usually a bureaucratic chain of command that is already in place.) At Arcosanti, however, bureaucracy seems to be still in the emergence stage.
Jeff Cook, Professor of Architecture at ASU and a good friend of Soleri until Cook’s death, noted in an essay that Cosanti was, pre-Arcosanti, a 'Mom and Pop' organization. With the death of 'Mom' [Soleri’s wife, Corolyn - "Colly" to all - a gifted, patient, remarkable but unassuming leader in her own right], 'Pop' was left to carry on alone. To his eternal credit, he persevered.
'Mom's' mantle is a long cloak that somehow fell onto the shoulders of Mary Hoadley, who became Director of Operations of Arcosanti (ergo, an employee of Cosanti Foundation) and, for a number of years now, Treasurer of its Board of Trustees, a dual responsibility that has a tendency to aggregate (and sometimes confound) power along with desire to control.
In 1962, Arcosanti was a dream: It would be a special sort of place, a kind of time-shared 'hive' of people willing to build it. 'Sweat equity' would allow you to stake your claim to a cell. That concept is alive and well in the international 'Habitat for Humanity' program. What happened to it at Arcosanti?
Jeff Cook's relevant critique: If Arcosanti is an 'urban laboratory,' as Ada Louise Huxtable, architectural critic for the NY Times, dubbed it, what and how are the hypotheses being tested? Who, exactly, is testing them? What tests are being used, what controls are there on those tests?
That there are environmentally-related experiments being performed is fairly evident, even if there is powerful little accurately monitored data being collected and minimal accounting of what is being tested. But what of the larger social experiment that is, willy-nilly, certainly also being conducted? How is that test described or defined, how is it being tested, who is monitoring, and to whom are the results being reported?
Arcosanti most obviously attracts people who care about the planet in a very special way, people who feel that they can make a difference. There was a dream, once, of Arcosanti as a special sort of 'hub.' People would return to it regularly, return to the geocenter of Arizona from the great urban centers of the globe [Paris, London, NY, Tokyo, Amsterdam, Beijing, Sao Paolo, et al]. But did the dream take into account North-American style of hawkishness about control of personal space?
I have observed that most people come to Arcosanti expecting a co-operative workplace. The leadership model/style they expect to find is one which evinces consensus, or at least a lot of decision-making delegation, both lateral and vertical. Group meetings, open communications, networking to promote growth and development, encouragement of leadership; creation of opportunities for the attraction of investment capital by permitting the launching of independent businesses on-site that can contribute to Arcosanti's market visibility; integrating hi-tech accountability with lo-tech responsibilities. All those fit my personal understanding of the model Arcosanti set out to demonstrate, despite the fact that Soleri did not begin with a vision of a coherent social strategy – nor ever even claim he had the skills to implement one.
In fact, the contrary is true. Soleri said from the outset that he had no idea what the social organization of his “arcological Cosanti” would be, or what it would be like.
It has been my experience, however, that people try, mostly, to build for themselves. People want to build a place where they (and those they care for) can live, learn, can grow, and prosper.
Arcosanti is either such a place, or it is not. For my part, I would that it were, for I am in accord with the original Cosanti vision of the future. I believe that its vision, Soleri's philosophic view of the dire (and immediate) necessity for what he has come to call a 'lean alternative' to compulsive over-consumption, is on the mark. This planet, which is the only one we have the privilege of calling "home," is choking to death. Either we learn to “arcologize” and build an Arcosanti, or something like an Arcosanti – or our own greed, ignorance and aggression allow it to perish.
If that happens, if "arcology" fails, doesn't all the planet die too soon?