Thursday, May 21, 2009

Dark Roasted Weirdsville (flashback)

If you like your cities big - REALLY big - then head over to Dark Roasted Blend to read about the acrologies of Paolo Soleri:

Whatever happened to the future? It's still around, of course, mostly in Europe and Japan, but over the years the Fantastic World of Tomorrow's gotten ... cheaper, simpler, and -- most tragically of all -- the future's gotten too damned small.

Luckily there are a few visionaries left who aren't frightened of a future that doesn't fit in your pocket, a tomorrow with a vast scope, a monstrously dramatic scale, a time of awe-inspiring dimensions: they've dared to look over the horizon and visualize a truly big tomorrow.

One of those more special of special minds, someone who's imagined a future world that’s big on almost a geologic scale, is Paolo Soleri.

Born in Italy in 1919, Soleri studied with Frank Lloyd Wright (you might have heard of him) before setting up his own architecture studio in Arizona. It was in Scottsdale that Soleri began to dream big. Very, very, very big.

Soleri created the concept of an "arcology," a combo of architecture and ecology. The idea is pretty uncomplicated, though what Soleri did with his concept is wonderfully elaborate: cities have traditionally been urban slime mold, grinding away at the planet as they’ve crawled across the landscape. So why not create cities with as many people as possible in a small as possible footprint? And not only that but why not also make these super cities magnificently, tremendously, elegantly … beautiful?

One of my treasured belongings as a kid was a copy of Soleri’s Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. I would spend hours carefully turning page after page, mesmerized by Soleri’s majestic future, imagining myself strolling under immense vaults, along astounding spans, gazing up at soaring rises, down into artificial canyons of homes, stores, schools, businesses, living in a city the size of … well, big.

Really, really friggin’ big.

Just look at his design for Babel (IID, if you want to be specific): an immense flared cylinder of apartments sitting in a saucer-shaped base of commercial and civil spaces, with some parks, of course. Total population? 550,000. That’s Seattle. That’s Portland. All in one structure -- a structure that’s 1,900 meters high and 3,000 meters at its widest.

Okay, okay, you ignorant Americans: that’s more than a mile high and almost two miles wide. Want even more perspective? If you look at one of Soleri’s fantastic plans you’ll often see a strange little symbol to one side, an icon to give you an idea of the scale of his designs: an icon that represents the Empire State Building.

Then there’s Hexadredon, an incredible geometric mountain rising on three immense supports. Home to more than 170,000, it would rise half a mile into the sky and stretch about that same distance across the landscape. Like all of Soleri’s designs, it looks more like a cathedral carved from a mountain than what you might envision for a single vast building; as much art as architecture, as much sculpture as a structure for living.

Soleri’s designs are not limited to the dull flatness of the plains. Some of them, like the poetic Stonebow that bridges a canyon with its 200,000 population, the dam city of Arcodiga, or Arcbeam whose mere 65,000 inhabitants live on the side of a cliff, show his amazing ability to visualize a future not only of incredible size but also to work with any location.

Even the ocean: Novanoah’s 400,000 people live, work, and play in a city floating at sea. Even space: Asteromo’s 70,000 people live, work, and play in near-earth orbit.

But what’s even more amazing than Soleri’s designs and grander-than-grand visions is that out in the cactus and scorpion wilds of Arizona he and his students are building one: Arcosanti.

Originally planned to house a grander number, the new target for this test-bed arcology is about 5,000 residents, mostly students and artists. Right now it’s home to only about 120 -- with roughly 50,000 tourists stopping by every year to see how things are going.

Sure arcosanti might be a tad on the small side, and, yes, it’s not exactly been blossoming into reality at a rapid pace, but it’s there nonetheless: a beautifully arched and vaulted beginning to what could be a staggeringly beautiful, and breathtakingly immense, future.

Say what you want about the realism of Soleri’s visions but you have to always give him and his student this: in a world where the future is small and cheap they are looking toward tomorrow with big dreams: big, hopeful, dreams.


Anonymous said...

I was an intern at Arcosanti in the early 1980s. It was more hippie-ville then but the structures were simple but amazing. Paolo himself could often be seen hiking the surrounding bluffs. I have many a tale from Arcosanti. -- Eric Reyes

M.Christian said...

ENVY! I would have loved to have been there around that time -- tell your stories!