Arcosanti is what you might call an urban laboratory, an experimental city based on the philosophy of merging architecture with the environment, all wrapped up in a sort of dated, space-age package. The New York Times probably summarized it best as "a lab for future cities, part commune, part Flash Gordon."
It lies on more than 4,000 acres of undisturbed land northwest of Cordes Junction, about 60 miles up Interstate 17 from Phoenix. You reach it by driving a long dirt road out to its multistory visitor's center, where you can take a tour of the complex and learn about how its innovative design just might save the world from urban sprawl.
In essence, that's the motivation behind its construction, to develop architectural systems that coexist with Mother Earth rather than take advantage of her, a model termed "arcology" by the city's originator, Paolo Soleri. (The expression is an amalgam of the words "architecture" and "ecology.") His vision, intended to house 5,000 people when complete, incorporates techniques like passive solar construction and integrated water collection that are intended one day to be the model for future metropolitan growth.
Alas, the city of tomorrow wasn't built yesterday. Arcosanti has been under construction for nearly 40 years now and isn't anywhere near completion. The current population varies between only 70 and 120, made up of the interns and workshop attendees who are helping build the place. And what's standing has already begun to show its age. The concrete is weathered and rust stains run from the windowsills. Critics say, at its current rate, it could take hundreds of years to complete, and that the so-called "green" building practices currently making it into mainstream structural planning have already advanced beyond what Arcosanti can teach us.
Not that it's a bad idea. It just comes off as more of a quixotic commune than anything else, where the inhabitants have been forced to produce merchandise to sell to the community's 50,000 visitors each year just to sustain their society. Handmade, bronze "Soleri Windbells" in particular are a big thing here, which Arcosanti seems to have become a factory for. They're on display by the hundreds in the visitor's center, where you can also pick up packets of dried herbs, certain variations of which we suspect to be one of the greater influences behind this place.
But who knows? Perhaps when the rest of us are wiped out in WWIII, Arcosanti will still be going strong, its hopeful tenants repopulating the Earth in a new Logan's Run utopia.