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I Went to a Futuristic Hippie Commune in the Desert

An hour or so outside of Phoenix, Arizona, lies the town of Arcosanti. According to the sign on the way in, Arcosanti is an "urban laboratory," which sounds like a church-run program to trick inner-city kids into becoming Christians, so I'm not sure...
February 27, 2013, 4:50pm

An hour or so outside of Phoenix, Arizona, lies the town of Arcosanti. According to the sign on the way in, Arcosanti is an "urban laboratory," which sounds like a church-run program to trick inner-city kids into becoming Christians, so I'm not sure why they called it that. It's actually more a partially completed, retro-futuristic, hippie(ish) commune. I recently went on a tour of the complex.

It's hard to get enough of the commune on a quick day trip, so the Laboratory conveniently has rooms for rent. And since the most expensive one was a whopping $100, I decided to treat myself. I wasn't expecting much, but when I got there, it looked like THIS. Which was pretty great.


It was kind of late when I arrived, but the receptionist told me it was "Piemas," so I should head down to the communal area before going to bed.

Piemas turned out to be an annual holiday they invented at Arcosanti to celebrate nothing in particular. Everyone spends the day together making pies, then they all sit around in the evening and eat them. Which, ugh, sounds like something Zooey Deschanel would invent to cheer up a depressed roommate in a shitty movie where she plays a girl who has to cheer up her depressed roommate. But, whatever, I got free pie. So I don't care.

I didn't get to meet the residents properly, as Piemas ended pretty much as soon as I arrived, and everyone ran off to bed. Although at first glance the crowd seemed to be made up of mostly young, recently graduated hippie types, one girl I spoke to told me, "Things start early and finish early here at Arcosanti."

So I decided to head to bed and get rested for my tour of the complex the next morning.

As I was heading up to my room, I noticed this hole on my roof deck, which looked into the room underneath mine.

Which was EXCEPTIONALLY creepy. I feel this photo doesn't really do its creepiness justice, but I assure you, it was majorly Fritzl-y.

I noticed there was something written on the mirror but couldn't figure out what it said, so I zoomed in and took this pic.

"I'm waiting for the lizards to reveal themselves, and tell us they created hell… 'it's not here and now but it will be, unless you bow down to ME!'"


Holy. Fuck.

Now, this might not seem that scary to you. But this was way out in the desert, in the middle of the night, with nothing for miles, and I had just watched Wicker Man (the old one, not the crazy one with the bees) like, three days ago. AND THEN, when I got all freaked out and ran inside to lock myself in my room, I realized the doors HAD NO FUCKING LOCKS. Which is how I came to spend the night sleeping in the living room, on a mattress next to the front door, waking up every two seconds and whisper screaming, "WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT?!!?"

Also, earlier, when I was parking the car, I saw this sculpture, which looks exactly like the one that attacks the yuppies in Beetlejuice. At one point during the night I had a nightmare that this thing was after me and woke up shaking. Which might be the most pathetic thing I have ever been scared of. Or that anyone has ever been scared of.

Annnnnnnyway, turns out the residents of Arcosanti weren't some weird cult luring people into a Hostel-y type scenario. Nor was I murdered in my sleep by a schizophrenic who thought they were a lizard, and the place looked about a billion times less scary in the daylight. Like a pretragedy flashback in a Final Fantasy game. Phew!

And then I toured the place. Which was pretty interesting. Here's what I learned:

In the late 50s, some guy named Paolo Soleri moved from his native Italy to Arizona. He bought a patch of land out in the desert and set out to build a town based around a philosophy he invented called "Arcology."


"Arcology," in case that portmanteau is a little too complex for you to break down, is a combination of "ecology" and "architecture."

Which, if you're stupid, means building a town that is nice to look at, but also has very little impact on the environment.

Construction started in 1970 with this arch you see here, which was built as a public meeting space at the heart of the town.

The place has expanded outwards since, and there are currently 13 major structures on the site, including two bell foundries, offices, apartments, and a bakery.

My tour guide didn't explain why, but apparently they haven't completed a building since 1989.

At the minute, there are about 55 people living there. But apparently that number goes up in the summer. This is the communal meeting area, which is where meals are eaten and, presumably, acoustic guitar is played.

The "arcology" part is evident in a lot of ways. For instance, a lot of the town is made up of these concrete half domes. Because the sun is high in the summer and low in the winter, it remains very warm in the winter, and cold in the summer.

The greenhouse you can see on the left of this picture has fans to let the heat out into the office buildings that are joined to it. Apparently their office complex uses one-sixth the amount of energy of a similarly sized, non–hippie-bullshit office building.

The living part of the town was designed to increase "social interactions and bonds," which I guess is why the apartment I stayed in (which you can see in the top left of this picture) had giant floor-to-ceiling windows and no curtains. Awk.


This is a ramp leading up to a cat flap on the second floor so their cat can get outside. Which doesn't have anything to do with anything, really. But aww.

And that was pretty much it.

This is a model of what they hope Arcosanti will eventually look like. The small, darker gray part at the bottom is what has already been constructed, so that should give you some idea of the scale of their finished vision. Which, obviously, would cost tens, if not hundreds, of millions of dollars to finish.

Despite the fact that no buildings have been completed at Arcosanti since the 80s, everyone I spoke to seemed very confident that this would get built one day.

Which is a really good attitude to have, I guess. Unfortunately, it might not be terribly realistic. When I asked them where their funding was coming from, they said that in addition to donations and grants, their money comes from selling bells they make at Arcosanti.

Specifically those bells up there, which were last seen brightening up your art teacher's back porch in 1991. They cost, like, 100 bucks a piece. How many of these things can they possible sell in a day? I can't imagine there's too much of a market for really expensive handmade bells out in the middle of the desert. I'd guess they sell maybe like 0.3 bells per day? According to some math I just made up, they're gonna need to start selling AT LEAST 400,000 times that amount if they wanna make that model a reality.


So, er, probs not gonna work out for them. Bummer.

More trips to fun places:

Couchsurfing with Settlers in the Holy Land

A Bike Ride to the Top of Rio's Oldest Favella

The Walkabout Is Cambodia's Sleaziest Bar