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Inside FORM Arcosanti: The Festival of the Future

A close-knit desert festival spreads its wings.

by Shelby Bryant
May 31 2015, 7:52pm


Photos by Shelby Bryant, Tron Lennon & Dave Plakon

I first heard about FORM Arcosanti last year when my old room mate, Sarah Mia, came back from the desert, holding a bronze bell and bursting with idealism and optimism. She had just been to the first iteration of the festival eight musical acts, no more than about 350 people, all in the high desert of Arizona. She spoke of the experimental town that it was held in and her time spent with Hundred Waters and friends.

Curated and organized by Gainesville-bred, Los Angeles-based Hundred Waters and by Los Angeles-based management company Family, FORM is the music festival of the future. Guest list only and free of charge, FORM is less of a typical music festival and more of an experimental take on a creative gathering and showcase. One of the sponsors, Moog, set up a massive sound lab in the greenhouse, where artists and attendees can play with different instruments, including the ever-bizarre Theremin. Festival amenities boast a vast amphitheater covered by a portion of a parachute that ethereally dances in the wind, a small DJ set-up in the "vaults" (the town-center at Arcosanti), a large pool on a cliff with yet another DJ booth, a merch table, a profit-defying yet high-quality bar (think Bulleit and ginger for $2.50), three food trucks that are only available during pre-determined slots of time, daily yoga, guided tours of Arcosanti, and both ceramics and bronze bell casting demonstrations.

With hardly any separation between musician and festival-goer, many of the attendees are friends or have at least a loose connection to someone involved in the festival. The people who had no ties to anyone at the festival gained an invitation by filling out the online-submission form which serves as the admission process for FORM Arcosanti. Questions beg for longform written answers about values, creative process, and contributions to the festival. It's a smart but by-definition-exclusive way for Hundred Waters and Family to curate the attendees of the festival. It is a mix of musicians, artists, film crews, creative types, and full-time residents of Arcosanti, including both toddlers and octogenarians. Almost everyone you walk by gives some type of smile or says hello. When I point this out in wonderment to Sarah Mia, she tells me I've been living in New York for too long and that this is how humans should interact. That statement is a perfect example for what Arcosanti is at its core: a hub for idealism and an active attempt at living in harmony with both each other and with the environment.

Arcosanti is the brainchild of Italian architect, Paolo Soleri, a student of Frank Lloyd Wright who was inspired by Wright's creative philosophy of marrying nature into his designs to create a more holistic environment. After studying under Wright at his School of Architecture, Taliesin, Soleri was encouraged by the style of communal living and creation that happened there. An avid hater of the need for cars in the too-spread-out suburbia, Soleri came up with the idea of "Arcology," blending architecture and ecology to form walkable urban landscapes with minimal negative impact on Earth. Soleri also practiced Earth casting, the process of digging into desert silt and creating molds to pour slip clay inside to then cast into bells. As he began Earth casting bells on a larger scale, he realized that he could invert this process to form structural buildings. Thus, the birth of Arcosanti.

When you walk through Arcosanti, famous for being George Lucas's inspiration for the Star Wars planet Tatooine, you're surrounded by large vaults and apses, all blending into the desert landscape. These apses were built in a large-scale form of Earth casting. Soleri and his team would build up massive circular mounds of silt on stilt platforms, carve designs into the silt, and cast concrete over it, creating massive, intricate apses. The two main apses at Arcosanti house the ceramics studio and the foundry, where bronze bells are cast. During Soleri's lifetime, he treated Arcosanti similar to Taliesin, and set up a work-study program where students pay a tuition for a five week course of on-hands building experience and contribute to building Soleri's vision. While Soleri's plans for the urban landscape were to ultimately house 5000, roughly only 75 people live at Arcosanti today. The living situations range from dorm-style housing for the architecture apprentices, who stay for only a few weeks, to three-bedroom family-style homes. Several of the residents have lived at Arcosanti for decades and the housing is decided by seniority. Soleri's plans are far from complete, and with his passing in 2013, it is questionable whether they'll ever be finished.

We enter around midnight on the Thursday before the festival to meet Sarah Mia, who'd arrived the day before with the Hundred Waters caravan from Los Angeles. Pulling onto the long, winding dirt road that leads to Arcosanti, we see only stars above us and not much else, the Milky Way streaking across the sky as a reminder of our place in the universe. Finally we see a small figure in the center of the road, jumping up and down and waving frantically. It's Sarah Mia, who leads us to our campsite directly outside of the Arcosanti walls. We walk through towering cypress trees and squat olive trees to a small patch of cleared land to pitch our tents. In the distance it sounds as if people are partying and we can see a dim glow coming from inside Arcosanti. We can't see much at all and because of this, the whole place seems like a giant mystery at this time. Sleep comes quickly in the cool desert air.

When we wake up we're overhwhelmed by the view. Our tents are cozied up to the edge of the mesa, a massive slightly-angled drop-off leading down to a desert plane. We can hear and see cows in the distance. The relaxed atmosphere of the night before is replaced by a buzz of the festivities to come. We wander the grounds, taking in the space in awe and head to the cafeteria, which has enormous circular windows and is three stories high with a colossal skylight with a fan at the ceiling. In the winter the residents put a long tubular piece of fabric down from the fan and pump the hot air from the skylight down into the dining room. Arcosanti is filled with clever environmental hacks like this: an air vent that captures the high heat of the casting process in the foundry, grand glass double doors that act as a solarium in the wintertime and are opened for ventilation in the summertime, a strategically-placed reflection pool that provides natural light to an interior chamber of apartments.

On the first day of the festival, members of Hundred Waters and Family are flitting about, working with a large production crew to film as much content as possible during FORM. A palpable air of networking, productivity, and collaboration permeates the atmosphere. While some people are relaxing or exploring, others are working full-time, taking advantage of the brief window of opportunity that exists at Arcosanti. The crews seem to film everything: music, narrative shorts with the artists, doc-style footage with festival attendees, "secret" performances.

Day one is the electronic day of music which culminates with a performance by "A Very Special Guest" aka Skrillex. They didn't include his name on the list, mostly, I think, because they didn't want attendees turned off by his presence on the lineup, but also to keep the spirit of speculation alive. Even though Hundred Waters is on Skrillex's label OWSLA, and a lot of the OWSLA family is at FORM, he doesn't seem to fit into this mix. You'd think he'd play a mellowed-out set too, but no. Even though the day featured many artists that I like to listen to in headphones—Kodak to Graph, Jacques Greene, The Range, TokimonstaI find it difficult to get excited about watching someone stand over a board and bob their head. Machinedrum is my favorite act of the day. At least here, someone is physically playing a drum set.

Day two seems like the spiritual day of the festival. Honestly the weather is so perfect this day, the breeze so strong, that I spend most of the day in my tent staring out at the desert and listening to the birds. The night culminates in the most-anticipated show of the weekend, Hundred Waters. Before the performance, Jeff Stein, Arcosanti's Executive Director of Program Development and Funding, gives a speech introducing the band. He speaks of the goals of Arcosanti, of connecting with the universe and each other through considered architectural design. Comparing Hundred Waters' lofty goals with FORM to that of Soleri's lofty goals with Arcosanti, Stein refers to Hundred Waters' music as "liquid architecture". As he finishes, members of the audience hug, full of visceral optimism. Hundred Waters puts on an incredible show with some technical difficulties. You can see the annoyance on the faces of their friends, who glare up at the sound guys each time anything goes awry. The band takes it in stride, and instead of playing an encore, they bring up everyone who helped plan the festival, honoring the true spirit of celebration and collaboration alive at FORM.

Day three rounded out the festival in an odd mix of horrendous, angelic, and poppy. We start the day off at the pool and walk in to seeing Chris Taylor from Grizzly Bear splashing around in the water. It's not cler what Chris is doing at FORM exactly, but it's oddly fitting to see him chilling in the desert. As we walk back across the town to the bar we see a group of people huddled along the edge of the mesa. Across the desert plane on an edge of a mesa several hundred feet away from us, we catch the end of an art performance of a group of people holding up large shapes facing Arcosanti. There is a drone hovering over the group filming the whole experience. The first act I see on day three is Pharmakon. It's so noisy and stressful, I have to leave the amphitheater.

Luckily as I walk past the star-gazing steps on the back of "the amp", I hear subtle piano music. Bing & Ruth is playing a grand piano at the edge of the mesa behind the back stage area. People are scattered across the grass and the concrete, listening in awe while a camera man films the whole experience. I spy Jacques Greene sitting, watching in silence. Mutual Benefit fills the amp with gentle looped harmonies, and Jordan Lee is always so endearing and quiet on stage. For me, Julianna Barwick is the best performance of the whole weekend. Under the silk cover of the parachute her angelic looped vocals live in that amphitheater is magic. I lie down and stare up at the parachute moving in the wind, and the combination of her voice and the parachute induces a near-psychedelic state; I feel as though I've taken LSD or mushrooms. This is the musical highlight of FORM.

On a guided tour around Arcosanti, the guide, a three year resident of Arcosanti, says the festival will continue to grow and that the only reason it's capped so low now is because of restrictions that Arcosanti has put on number of attendees. In 1978 it held an over 10,000-attendee festival and almost 200 cars went up in flames in a desert grass fire. Since then Arcosanti has been more cautious about the number of people allowed on the grounds at once.

I'm not sure how FORM will progress, but as it grows each year, the magic only stands to get diluted. Part of what makes FORM so unique is its size and the corresponding intimacy enjoyed at such a small festival, both socially and geographically. You can walk from the far side of Arcosanti to your tent in under ten minutes and make friends with other attendees quickly and easily, as most are friends of friends or share some other connection. The amp is casual, not crowded, allowing everyone in attendance to move around freely to claim a good view. As FORM grows and campsites get pushed further and further, as lines for the bar, food, and bathrooms get longer, Hundred Waters will find a formidable challenge in maintaining the signature closeness of this experience.

Shelby Bryant is coolin in a mesa.