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Natural Awakenings Metro Phoenix & Northern Arizona

Arcosanti, Soleri’s City of the Sun: This otherworldly venue designed by Paolo Soleri has green lessons for all of us, writes Natalia Trulsson.

Feb 27, 2015 12:52PM ● By Natalia Trulsson

Arcosanti is an otherworldly venue about 70 miles north of Phoenix on I-17. An urban laboratory designed by the late Italian architect Paolo Soleri and built by volunteers in 1970, it was created with the intention of illustrating how humans can lessen their impact on the environment by choosing the right type of physical environment to inhabit.

Soleri came to the U.S. in 1947 to study under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, in Scottsdale, and Taliesin East, in Wisconsin. In 1964, Soleri established the nonprofit Cosanti Foundation. Combining architecture and ecology, arcology is a theory created by Soleri to form a community where natural resources are used at a minimum, less land is used to build, human and environmental interaction is increased and pollution is reduced.

In an interview with the Arizona Republic, Soleri said, “We must build up, not out. The problem is the present design of cities only a few stories high, stretching outward in unwieldy sprawl for miles. As a result of their sprawl, they literally transform the Earth, turning farms into parking lots, and waste enormous amounts of time and energy transporting people, goods and services over their expanses.”

Arcosanti is built densely in order not to project outward onto the natural environment. There is a trail surrounding the site for hiking, allowing escape from the urban environment within five minutes. It is a pedestrian- and bike-friendly place, with no need for cars. Trying to attain a fully self-sustaining environment, Arcosanti included an agricultural area where residents grow their own food in order to avoid outside dependence. Growing our own food drastically lowers our carbon footprint, and practicing organic farming avoids the introduction of pesticides into the environment. 

Visitors can take a guided tour or visit the gallery, where there are handmade bells for sale, along with the original drawings of Arcosanti by the architect. The tour highlights Soleri’s repeated use of spheres because of their ubiquitous presence in nature. The influence of nature never leaves his design process. “If it was square sun and square sky, squares makes more sense,” said Soleri. Tourists also get to see how the famous wind bells are made by residents in a silt-casting process. The domelike structure where the bells are made also doubles as living quarters and a stage for performances. These structures retain heat in the winter and stay cool in the summer, using little to no electricity.

Form with function is repeatedly used throughout the site, perhaps something Soleri picked up from Taliesin. Wright once said, “Form follows function—that has been misunderstood. Form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union.” Another example is a giant red fabric tube hanging from the ceiling in the cafe that could be mistaken for a decoration, when it is actually used as a heating alternative, carrying warm air down into the building in the winter. These ideas are what makes Soleri and Arcosanti so progressive and unique when it comes to design and sustainability.

Walkability, alternative heating and cooling techniques, urban density and on-site agriculture all contribute to the idea and theme behind the community. There are many sustainable ideas to glean from a tour or residence at Arcosanti. Integrating Soleri’s ideas of urbanism into cities like Phoenix could be beneficial to certain socioeconomic and environmental aspects of the urban landscape.

Arcosanti is a work in progress. For more information, call 928-632-6233.

Natalia Trulsson is a graduate of Arizona State University School of Sustainability. Contact her at

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