Sunday, July 19, 2009

Arcosanti Revisited

A very interesting article popped up in my Google Alerts this morning about the good, the bad and the ugly of Paolo Solari's arcology concept in general and Arcosanti in particular. This won't be a particularly well-organized response to that article; more of my usual disjointed thought, made worse by the effect of the current heat on my brain.

First, to pick a minor nit:
I’ve often wanted to live in Arcosanti myself, only you can’t. After 40 years of slow construction, primarily by students, this supposed prototype of the city of the future still has no more than a couple permanent residences. It’s a nice place to visit, but they won’t let you live there…

There is housing for more than just "a couple permanent residences," but still not enough (a few dozen or so) to consider the current built environment to be anything you could call a city or even a village without doing violence to the English language. And you can live there, but only if you give up your "outside" job, attend a workshop, and submit your housing needs to the local dictator... er.... site manager.

Which brings us to another point in the article:
This is why a common response to the arcology concept is that its impossible without a totalitarian regime to implement it.

This is exactly correct. Whether we are talking about Paolo's Arcosanti or Niven/Pournelle's Todos Santos, the concept cannot work without a more-heavy-handed administration (whether governmental or corporate) than the average person from a modern democracy is likely to submit to. Of course I would have never believed the country I was raised in would tolerate the last several administrations, so I guess anything is possible.
...the question of implementation is someone else’s problem. If people ‘get it’, they’ll figure it out. It never seems to occur to many such visionaries that the inability to figure this implementation out on their own is largely why people never ‘get it’. If the originators of these visions can’t, how could anyone else?

Paolo hates being called a visionary for this very reason. Arcosanti was supposed to get his ideas out of the books and into reality. Unfortunately, it is a poor implementation of his arcology concepts in nearly every detail, leaving the question of just how this is supposed to work unanswered.
Soleri and his students persist on designing arcologies -an oxymoron because you can’t actually design cities.

Well, you can, but unless you can compel people by force to do business there (for example, Washington DC), you are building a ghost town.
Consider the Linear City. This is actually the single-most important and practical arcology form in the concept.

Which is why the Linear City concept is attractive to me: it is something that could actually be built in the real world in a step-wise fashion. Sure, it isn't as pretty when drawn on paper, but it is realistic. Think of it in terms of automobiles; when I worked at Volkswagen, I would get free passes to the Detroit Auto Show. The place was jammed with prototype vehicles that would never see a dealership showroom for such practical considerations as a normal person couldn't fit in it, it couldn't be mass-produced, it couldn't pass crash-testing, etc. The cars in the showroom would eventually incorporate some less-radical hint of certain aspects seen in the concept cars, but they could never be described as anything other than pedestrian and utilitarian in comparison. It is the same when the Linear City is compared with Paolo's other concepts; it isn't nearly as awe-inspiring, but for that very reason, is far more likely to see actual construction. One of the students at Arcosanti while we were there, redesigned the site to use Linear City in place of the current Arcosanti 5000 model. As far as I know, it was quickly buried in the archives somewhere.
A similarly curious omission in Soleri’s presentation of the arcology concept concerns perceptions of scale and the seeming aversion of Soleri and his students to illustrating arcologies from a truly human point of view. His arcology renderings are exquisite but they are also like looking at pictures of classic 1970s space colonies -seemingly sprung fully formed from the void with interiors only seen in bird’s-eye-view as vast arching landscapes. You simply have no perception of the scale and no impression what it’s like to actually be in them.

This is an example of where Arcosanti falls horribly sort. What has been built is disjointed and small with cramped living quarters, some of which are too small to be legal. There is no sense in the current construction what standing in front of, say, the vaults would be like with Arcosanti complete.

Well, I could go on for pages, but just go read the article. It's pretty self-explanatory without my commentary.

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