Arcosanti is a group of people in the desert north of Pheonix led by a 92-year-old architect named Paolo Soleri. He’s developed a set of theories he calls Arcology, whereby people would live in very dense, self-supporting communities that minimize their impact on the earth in large part by eradicating the need for the car. They’ve been building Arcosanti for the last forty years as a test case, what they call an “urban laboratory”.

They have a 5 week workshop that I’ve wanted to do for years, but this trip of course I only have time for the 1 hour quickie tour. The place feels a bit surreal: concrete arcs, circles and squares sprinkled with slender Italian cedars, an interesting retro-seventies future style. Windchimes are everywhere (the community sells them to fund the project), and the place has a creative, lively feel, although we saw hardly any people.

High density living seems to be theme today… strange that it should be so in Arizona, land of urban sprawl and vast empty desert. In the morning I saw the ruins of a complex of the Holovi people, a masonry apartment block three stories high that housed a thousand people, cultivating corn in the desert and making painted coal-fired pottery that still litters the ground. The Hopi people who live 60 miles to the north are descended from the old inhabitants; their oral traditions say that they left because the area’s mosquitoes became unbearable. Further south, I visit what is still referred to erroneously as “Montezuma’s Castle”, a stunning fortress built in caves tucked high in a cliff face. Around 35 people lived here together for a few hundred years; it isn’t known why they left.

I think Paolo is right, our future depends on learning how to function better as tight communities. People keep talking about ‘green’ building as if it only meant energy savings or materials, but it’s the very form of the single family dwelling that’s so wasteful of space and resources. Yes we all need space and privacy, but perhaps through thoughtful design we can have those needs met while also enjoying the ecological and social benefits of closer proximity. One day I’ll come back to Arco; I want to be part of the experiment.