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Arts and Arcology Pave the Way for Desert Experiment Arcosanti

Architect Jeff Stein, artist Doug Aitken, and musician and co-founder Zach Tetreault gather for FORM Arcosanti, an intimate desert music festival in its third year.

by Charlie Schmidlin
May 19 2016, 5:30pm

Jeff Stein and Doug Aitken speak during FORM Arcosanti. Credit: Jasmine Safaeian

There is no sense of visiting a utopian graveyard when visiting Arcosanti. Unlike the remnants of Le Corbusier’s Ville Radieuse, or Fordlandia in the Amazon, the Arizona micro city designed by Italian architect Paolo Soleri brims with an unruffled energy, tucked away 70 miles north of Phoenix as an active, evolving experiment—an “urban laboratory,” as its creator dubbed it.

An apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, who tried the utopian path himself with Broadacre City, Soleri pursued with Arcosanti his idea of “arcology”: architecture and ecology combined to create a viable, self-contained society. Hatched in 1970, the plan drew some 7,000 likeminded individuals out to the Arizona desert to help build Arcosanti and live in its results.

Today, only some five percent of the city has been built. Giant concrete buildings curve and settle into the canyon, while around 80 year-round citizens suffuse it with plant life and personality. They also help push renovations forward and contribute to the city’s main export item, Arcosanti bells cast in silt. It’s a far cry from an ideal futuristic utopia, but seeing as Soleri avoided using the word “future” (even though he was constantly labeled a “futurist”), Arcosanti remains a stirring possibility.


Photo courtesy of the author One of our first stops on-site was the former Arcosanti home of Soleri, which is now the residence of Jeff Stein, President of the Cosanti Foundation. Since Soleri’s passing in 2013, Stein—an architect, educator, and former intern for Soleri in the 70s—has helped guide the next steps of the site, many of them centered around the performing arts.

One peak example has been allowing FORM Arcosanti, a music and arts festival, to utilize the grounds for a single weekend in May. Scouted and founded by Hundred Waters percussionist Zach Tetreault and former bandmate Paul Giese, and curated by the band, the festival has grown from 350 attendees into a 1,200-person happening in its third year, boasting a lineup that includes Skrillex, Thundercat, Four Tet, Saul Williams, and many more.

The festival has also invited a number of visual artists to come speak about their work, including artist and Station to Station filmmaker Doug Aitken. A visitor to Arcosanti in the late-70s when he was ten, an experience he calls amazing and “disorienting,” Aitken recalled the city when filming Black Mirror, a cross-country installation piece starring Chloë Sevigny. With instant access to Arcosanti for filming, Aitken also scored an interview with Soleri himself, the results of which ended up in a short documentary shown at the festival.

On the first day of FORM Arcosanti, The Creators Project sat down with Stein, Tetreault, and Aitken to discuss Soleri’s vision for Arcosanti, FORM, and much more, starting with Aitken’s memories of returning to the micro city.

Photo courtesy of the author

Doug Aitken (DA): For me, filming in Arcosanti was really interesting and personal, because I had these images burned into my memory. We filmed here for a few days, and the symmetry and geography of the architecture really helped enhance the psychological situation of the story we were telling.

Then we started to ask, "Is Paolo around? Can we track him down?" His health was quite frail at the time, but he ended up saying he’d meet us in Cosanti. We were incredibly fortunate. I remember [Jeff] said Paolo had two to three hours of energy a day, but he said, “Keep it to an hour and he'll talk about his practice.” So we have on film a record of someone who created this city, and was so instrumental in his use of language describing his beliefs and disbeliefs.

Jeff Stein (JS): [to Doug] I think the great thing you said earlier was how disorienting this was to you as a ten-year-old. It's what has made me so pleased to have a conversation with you, because your work is exactly that, too. It's disorienting. It's leaving the old reality behind. What's happening this weekend with FORM is really what this place is made for, which is movement. It's meant to be a town not for people to live their whole lives in, but for people to move through, experience the space, and connect with people who are here.

Photo Credit: Jasmine Safaeian

DA: When you talk about architecture, urban planning, utopian cities, you see renderings, collages. If you take it back to the 60s you see Superstudio or Archigram with their beautiful work. But they're not tactile. No one's living in those cities, no one's taking a shit over there or getting in a fight. What's so important about Arcosanti is this is reality. People built this space collectively.

The Creators Project: How did you land on Arcosanti, Zach?

Zach Tetreault (ZT): It’s interesting that Doug almost felt like a touring artist when he came here, because that’s exactly where I was coming from when I first discovered Arcosanti. [Hundred Waters] were touring for two years straight, not having a home, flat out living on the road in North America and Europe and beyond. We were coming to the tail end of that, and had this burning need to do something for the sake of art, and to revive the sense of excitement for why we perform for people. So we set out from Florida to Los Angeles when moving there to find that place.

Photo courtesy of the author

I had studied Paolo Soleri, and my good friend Paul [Giese], who was an architecture student, turned me on to Cosanti. Initially we were interested in that but then we found Arcosanti. We came here four years ago and found everything that you’re talking about, just the architecture elevating your consciousness and your presence while you're here. Both Paul and I felt every facet to living was more appreciated. Everybody's contributing. We were fascinated with the place, and serendipity led us to meeting Jeff, Kate [Bemesderfer], and other folks who were here at the time. We thought about this festival, this concept of bringing people together in a format that didn't involve traditional revenue-driven models, but rather created a community that can have this elevated appreciation of what it takes to coexist and appreciate art.

JS: I wanted to show you this. [Stein takes out a small red notebook of Soleri’s] This place has a past—everything has something that comes before it. And this particular little house, it's the Villa Malaparte on the isle of Capri off Italy [built by Adalberto Libera]. In the 30s, this was understood to be the most beautiful house in the world, and Paolo Soleri liked it a lot himself. When we were designing this, he said, “Let's make it a little bit like that, let's make this a precedent.” The idea for Arcosanti wasn't a lightbulb going off. It was based on somebody's childhood in Italy, and other people’s childhoods in England and the US who came to help build the place. 

Photo courtesy of the author

DA: Zach, you said community, and I thought about having a community of ideas, and not just people. There's a lot of music events, film festivals, art biennales, and a lot of them are very transitory. You show up, walk through, and you're leaving looking at your phone, wondering what the next place is. I don’t think that that's the goal. The goal is have something that stays with you, something that’s burned into you and changes your perception.

JS: What happens this weekend alters the perception of the people who live here year-round, too. There are about 80 of us on this site. The place is too big for us, really. You can't find the urban effect among a village of 80 people, although a lot of interesting interactions happen. But when an extra several hundred of them show up, then this place is designed for that number of people.

Photo courtesy of the author

The American architect Louis Kahn famously said in the 1950s, "The street is the urban living room, down which a young person can walk and find out what he or she wants to do for the rest of their lives." It was sweet of him to say—that probably hasn't happened since the Renaissance—and certainly it doesn't happen in American cities filled with cars and carbon monoxide. But here it does, and the way architecture can connect people, turns out, is just to not build a fourth wall of a building. Then you're connected.

When you were organizing FORM Arcosanti, did you see the additional ingredient that the festival could bring to the surroundings?

ZT: When I'm working on a project I don’t really see the finish line. There's always something to learn along the way. 

PS: Soleri was always about the question, and in fact we have a whole series of books in our gallery here entitled, What If? And that's what this is about: “What if this happened? What would the repercussions be?”

DA: [to Zach] For you, is your attraction to Arcosanti to the landscape, or is it the attraction of the architecture?

ZT: It's both, and it's also the attraction of the diversity of art that happens over the weekend. Staying all three days, you see that. A trend of the last two years has been the first night being a party. All of the heavy hitting electronic dance music happens, because everyone arrives from travelling, and it's just an opportunity to dance together almost as a release. And then [the second day] begins this sort of calming energy of musicianship and discovery, and meditation. It really does go down and then come back up. I spent a ton of time with my band staring at all these artists that go from folk country to hip hop, and dance to ambient music, figuring out the best sequence.

Four Tet performs at FORM Arcosanti. Photo credit: Jacqueline Verdugo

JS: And all of it works in this space. 

ZT: It does, and that's something that honestly from a pure festival perspective, is one of the biggest differences of this event. It's not using the formula of who sells the most tickets or who has the most followers. It's what we as a collective in FORM and with my band add to this environment here at Arcosanti and take people through during the three days.

DA: When we were doing the Station to Station project, we were going from place to place and it was super aggressive. Every time the train stopped we would stage a happening. When we went to Chicago, Thurston Moore was with us in Union Station, which is just enormous. As a musician you'd say, “This is horrifying.” But Thurston came in and simply clapped. It echoed, and took like five minutes for the sound to come back. I asked, “What are you doing?” He said, “I'm listening to the space.”

He didn’t want to just play his music, he want to create sound that's harmonizing with the architecture. That's something that I noticed out here. I see Dan Deacon walking around, thinking, "Where am I going to be, and what are the qualities?" That's really exciting. That empowers musicians to have a different palate of experimentation.


Photo credit: Jacqueline Verdugo ZT: We've specifically programmed one of the sets this year that way. It's a concert pianist, Bing & Ruth, who last year impromptu staged his set right by the canyon, and anyone who experienced it loved it. This year we intentionally put it on the schedule as "Cliffside." We mic'ed the piano, got a practice PA, and faced it out into the canyon. We're just going to tell people to go through the visitor's trail and listen.

DA: One of the things that I can't help but feel when I look out at this mesa is, we're in a remote place right now, but this is about a collective energy. It's not about oneness, it's about mass and discussion and crossover. No one's going to walk over to the Hilton or go to a club tonight. You have this community of people who are curious. And in some ways that goes back to the original vision of this space—it's really bringing that to fruition. More information on FORM Arcosanti can be found here.

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