A critique of the arcology model

Eric Hunting reacts to our earlier article by Doctress Neutopia, who called for a network of urban arcologies.

Eric Hunting:

“Generally, I’m in agreement with the ideals Doctress Neutopia presents in this article. Where I disagree with her is in her assumption of a society apparently far more rational, reasonable, and coherent than that which actually exists today. As a result, she proposes a solution to the world’s imminent social and environmental crisis that is very much like the iconic arcology itself; beautiful, gigantic, elaborate, but not well thought-out/worked-out in detail.

I have long been a fan of the arcology and find the Soleri model of the future logical and compelling. But I’ve also long understood that there was a fundamental problem with the approach to development of these megastructures. Soleri’s arcologies are over-elaborate -baroque- and suffer from a stoicism of design. They are ‘set pieces’ intended to be developed all-at-once much as any skyscraper project but where, due to scale, they incur extreme up-front expense and extremely protracted build times during which they are non-functional as a habitat. Soleri’s scheme for their development even calls for their whole obsolescence and replacement on a routine schedule as a way of avoiding the problem of eventual decrepitude one commenter to this article pointed out but demanding the mass compulsory relocation of hundreds of thousands to millions of people. In general, the Soleri vision of the future is a very idealistic model of a sustainable civilization where all mankind is apparently as rational and intelligent as Star trek’s Vulcans, has the basic education of scientists, has no problem arriving at mass social consensus and mustering the collective resources of nations at will, and is perfectly willing to confine themselves to a compact habitat whose footprint conforms to the limitations of a predominately renewably-sourced electric-powered infrastructure simply because they all immediately see the logic of that. There’s no question the world could be a much better place if the physical architecture of our habitat was so rationally structured. Unfortunately, we don’t have the kind of society Soleri imagines. We have a western society that builds Creationism museums, routinely elects functional illiterates to public office, and has spent a good 40 years bickering over the existence of Global Warming. And he has never really been very interested in the trifling details of how one gets from A to B in spite of that. This is why a common response to the arcology concept is that its impossible without a totalitarian regime to implement it. As with many classic Modernists and mid-century futurists, Soleri is satisfied with presenting us with beautiful models, believing that the sheer elegance of suggested result of an idea will compel the rest of us to figure out how to make it work. It’s much the same assumption we see in the work of other mid-century futurists like Jacque Fresco, who likewise tries to sell us a vision of a rational future based on beautiful hand-crafted models and then assumes that, as a ‘visionary’, the question of implementation is someone else’s problem. If people ‘get it’, they’ll figure it out. It never seems to occur to many such visionaries that the inability to figure this implementation out on their own is largely why people never ‘get it’. If the originators of these visions can’t, how could anyone else?

Now, the arcology concept has been made more tangible thanks to Arcosanti; the so-called prototype arcology built in the deserts of Arizona. Problem is, it’s not actually a prototype of anything and may never be. It functions primarily as a showcase of Soleri’s particular design style and as his version of Wright’s Taliesin West -which Soleri once attended and where these two powerful egos were purportedly (and appropriately…) frequently at odds. I’ve often wanted to live in Arcosanti myself, only you can’t. After 40 years of slow construction, primarily by students, this supposed prototype of the city of the future still has no more than a couple permanent residences. It’s a nice place to visit, but they won’t let you live there… Not exactly a good example for how to grow a city -but then that, right there, is the root of the problem with the arcology. Soleri -and everyone else- still treats them as ‘buildings’ when, in fact, they are the equivalent of the municipal grid turned volumetric. He has some notion of how they might be built but the reality is that real cities aren’t built, they’re ‘cultivated’. The reason they have been ad hoc in nature to date is that the premise of their existence is ad hoc. The city is the product of a socio-economic attractor created by the convergence of self-interests upon a geographical location of some logistical/strategic advantage -which is why they so often tend to emerge at locations of transfer between major modes of transportation like road-to-rail, rail-to-ship, etc. The only planned cities are dead cities -because they aren’t their architecture. Let me repeat that. Cities are not their architecture. City is a verb. It’s something societies _do_ that happens to get cloaked in a certain amount of persistent structure. An asteroid strike could wipe out New York City and every structure in it and, if the logistical and cultural factors which perpetuated it still exist, it would be rebuilt in the same place as fast as the survivors could manage.

It’s this failure to recognize this essential organic element at the core of the very existence of the city that leads to so much ridiculously incompetent contemporary urban planning, so much dysfunction in the contemporary urban habitat, and to the apparent untenability of the arcology concept. Soleri and his students persist on designing arcologies -an oxymoron because you can’t actually design cities. Rather, you can devise urban socio-cultural systems which ‘manifest’ arcologies as a consequence of how they work. In other words, you have to take the position of the genetic engineer. He has no control over the actual process. What he does is manipulate a genome and the factors that cause it to express certain forms. If we are to realize a sustainable civilization with the characteristics of Soleri’s vision of the future -an otherwise ideal model to aspire towards- we must do it in the manner of genetic engineering. It cannot be accomplished by force. We must manipulate the genomes underlying the active continuous process that is our civilization in order to get it to express the forms we consider optimal. But to do this means relinquishing the ego in terms of full control/design of the outcome and instead exploring a spectrum of possible outcomes and the factors which results in their _expression_ This means thinking about how cities and civilizations work on a very different level than has been common in the past. It does not appear that Soleri, or any in his circle of friends, advocates, and students have ever considered things on this level.

Consider the Linear City. This is actually the single-most important and practical arcology form in the concept. This is the ‘business end’ of arcology. And yet you never hear arcology advocates talk about it and it has never gotten as much attention from Soleri and his students as its role demands. In the arcology model, the civilization’s architecture is reduced to a network of nodal arcologies -many in the locations of and replacing pre-existing urban centers- linked by a select series of communications/transportation links in the form of Linear Cities that replace outright all older roads, rails lines, and highways. This results in a less dispersed human habitat pulled-back to a lower density (in the 2D context) urban web that nature can breath through. The basic form of the Linear City can be imagined as something like Disneyworld’s Contemporary Hotel on a very large scale and with a constantly changing profile according to the landscape it passes through/over, sometimes lofted on inhabited pylons, spanning canyons, or merging with the landscape in various ways and stretching along its transit route with roads, rail, aqueducts, telecom and power conduits all passing around, under, or through it. These are the most practical of arcology forms because their lesser profile scale doesn’t tax the limits of known construction technology, their space is generic -every part of them can assume just about any function as necessary-, they are developed incrementally, are incrementally demolishable, and they’re functional/habitable as they grow and evolve and so have no GNP-challenging economy of scale. They are also, surprisingly enough, the largest of all the arcology forms because, though they are modest in cross-section scale, they potentially stretch for thousands of miles. Consequently, they house most of the population of Soleri’s envisioned future civilization and represent the most important factor in achieving its goal of reducing the urban footprint by obsolescing old dispersed habitat. They’ve been described as the arcology version of the suburbs, offering a quieter lifestyle than the nodal arcologies with all the benefits and efficiencies of arcology-style urban infrastructure but without the big cultural features; large libraries, museums, huge theaters, universities, shopping malls, sports arenas.

It’s a misconception that the arcology is intended to be some sort of self-contained spaceship on Earth. They have always been intended to exist interdependent with a larger network, most of which would be comprised of the collective Linear City. The whole idea of arcology depends on this form, and yet, for reasons unknown, it’s never gotten much attention by Soleri himself, with ignorance of it leading to a lot of misconceptions of the the arcology concept. Only three out of the thirty designs in his original book on arcology are linear cities. Why this omission is unclear. It may be simply that these structures are too functionally generic in nature and thus not suited to monumental architectural designs. And yet that functionally generic aspect is what makes them the most important of the arcology forms. They host most housing, farming, industry, renewable energy systems, and, of course, key transportation and communication, all with a structural system adapted to function rather than specialized to it. Without them, arcology doesn’t work and, in fact, the nodal arcologies are largely redundant to them because they are premised on notions about the roles of urban space that aren’t necessarily so relevant in the Information Age. (especially when coupled to the automation of door-to-door transportation) One could argue that, if arcologies were actually developed today, the nodal arcologies would probably only exist to denote the crossing points of the linear cities, places of historic or tourist interest, places of unusual natural resource concentration, and places where monumental architecture and geographical location otherwise still have some cultural relevance -ie. national museums and sporting arena. They may never actually have a reason to be as gigantic as the Soleri arcologies because they only represent a small percentage of the population relative to that hosted in the collective Linear City. (one must bear in mind that the Soleri arcology grew out of the 60s megastructure movement, which was premised on the expectation of a Leisure Crisis resulting from Total Automation. Then, megastructures and the notion of new urban habitats were viewed as cultural equivalents of nuclear reactors -a role now largely assumed by the Internet. Today location doesn’t matter that much. There is no longer any particular practical reason for Wall Street, Cambridge, or Las Vegas to be in any particular place -which is why Wall Street gets away with conning the City of New York out of tax breaks by threatening to move to New Jersey… The core attractors underlying cities are shifting toward the socio-cultural and aesthetic rather than the logistical and economic. The importance of cities is no longer about their location)

A similarly curious omission in Soleri’s presentation of the arcology concept concerns perceptions of scale and the seeming aversion of Soleri and his students to illustrating arcologies from a truly human point of view. His arcology renderings are exquisite but they are also like looking at pictures of classic 1970s space colonies -seemingly sprung fully formed from the void with interiors only seen in bird’s-eye-view as vast arching landscapes. You simply have no perception of the scale and no impression what it’s like to actually be in them. Again, the reasons for this obvious omission remain a mystery -unless it’s simply that they don’t think people can appreciate the grandeur of the design from that point of view. There’s an effect, once observed by Buckminster Fuller about the large geodesic dome, that, once inside such vast structures, people stop seeing the overall form and only perceive it like a kind of sky or distant landscape. So the larger overall design of the arcology starts to become irrelevant at the human scale. It’s like suggesting one should move _inside_ Mt. Fuji because it has such an elegant profile. How often would you see it? And yet we need to see arcologies from this human scale point of view to be able to grasp the practical aspects of the lifestyle in these environments. This has lead to common misconceptions about the nature of their environments because that is all left up to people’s imaginations and, with our current common cultural biases against urban living, we tend to fill in that gap with all the things about urban life we’ve come to dislike. Hence the common characterization of the arcology as a ‘human hive’ concentrating/amplifying all the common ills of urban life. Because Soleri never reinforces the point in illustration, it’s all too easy to miss the fact that arcologies are supposed to offer an unprecedented amount of personal space compared to even the contemporary suburban environment, the ‘cell’ spaces people commonly imagine like a prison cell or Japanese rabbit-hutch apartment in fact being as big as small office buildings and free for the use of any facade and form of interior customization imaginable. Soleri never shows us that! (not even in Arcosanti, which doesn’t actually employ the same kinds of structural systems employed by his proposed full-scale arcologies -as can be seen when comparing the existing Arcosanti to its original conception in the original arcology book) Only in certain views of smaller scale designs -like the Arkibbuz and Arcbeam designs- do we just barely begin to see the outline of individual dwelling spaces framed by the superstructure and thus begin to get a sense of their scale.

Much of the problem with understanding the arcology concept stems from the over-focus on particular designs -on the proposition of structure as an almost mechanical solution to problems far bigger than even an arcology itself. Arcology is really about the architecture of the overall civilization. These individual designs are no more than stray nuts and bolts in a larger system that’s never adequately explained or illustrated. (though, I must admit, that because of cost I’ve never been able to avail myself of the complete Soleri works) The arcology concept would be much easier to grasp if people understood that its primary premise is simply to say; we need to give space back to nature for it to function. It’s just like a watershed. Build too much on your watershed and the water becomes contaminated or goes away. Do this on a larger scale, the environment collapses and we’re dead. Kapish? So, because our civilization functions as a network, we are going to -as rationally as possible- select a series of primary communication routes and linking nodes for our habitat that accommodate our needs while conforming to the logistical constrains of renewable energy and, in order to systematically give space back to nature, we should seek ways to disincentive development beyond -let’s say- a quarter mile from them and incentive development within that quarter mile. And in exchange for doing this, here are the standard of living, personal convenience, economic, aesthetic, as well as environmental benefits and here’s some visual examples of the kinds of more efficient urban habitat we expect this pattern of redevelopment to produce.

This is really all arcology boils down to. The megastructures have long been a distraction to this as people keep confusing them with the proposed solution. They’re really just a fanciful depiction of the possible architecture manifested by that alternative cultural approach to managing how our civilization grows. In fact, because the Linear City is the real functional part of arcology, virtually the same thing could be achieved with earth-bermed exclusively electric highway/railway tunnels covered by a narrow ribbon of garden terraces and conventional (albeit still stupid…) suburban houses on top! This is really just a more overblown classic Modernist’s Big Machine Age approach to doing that! The important thing here is how -by what process- we restrict our development/redevelopment pattern to something close to this -and what that really boils down to is how we, as a society, treat property and the rights associated with it. The root of this whole thing is the notion that land can be owned and that property rights are inalienable -that there even is such a thing as inalienable rights independent of the consensus of the society. THIS is what has allowed the inherent fossil fuel logistics -which pack so much energy into such a conveniently transportable form- to facilitate the ad hoc dispersion of our civilization’s infrastructure and thus the physical footprint of the habitat. THIS is the tough part because it’s where people get up in arms, start thumping bibles, and shouting the word ‘socialism’ like it’s a swear-word because their personal freedoms (and compulsion for wealth) conflict with the Big Picture and the larger sense of social and environmental responsibility that most western people lack. Perhaps this is why Soleri would rather make pretty pictures than get down into planning for realization. This stuff is something of a tar-baby. It’s far easier to set examples and hope people follow -but then how do you do that with mile high architecture?

I’ve often suggested that the first full-scale arcologies are likely to be demonstrated at sea because that’s where you have to go to get away from bureaucrats, politicians, and other compulsively obstructionist powers-that-be and that’s where the efficient organization of the arcology has the most immediate practicality. At sea you can’t build suburbia. The environment won’t let you. You must have a more self-contained urban organization just to cope with the environment there and the cost of building marine structure. And with the obstructionists out of the way, you are free to employ alternative models of property. ownership. and economics that allow for an evolutionary habitat and which allow you to demonstrate that it all works without totalitarianism -that it doesn’t take Mussolini to build an arcology. Unfortunately, getting away from land and its busybodies also means getting away from public money and so the marine arcology faces far greater resource, technical, and logistical challenges than on land. It’s compelled toward a more incremental development approach, which Soleri has never explored. It’s interesting that Soleri’s original arcology book actually introduces us to these vast structures with a depiction of a rather fanciful marine arcology combining both the elements of the nodal and linear arcologies in one structure. But it’s the only model for one he ever explores.

My feeling is that, as we move toward a Post-Industrial culture, we are also likely to move toward the realization of an arcology sensibility in habitat organization driven by the logistics of renewable energy, demassified industrial production, the re-discovery of the innumerable virtues of community, and an increasingly resource-based economics. We may see arcologies, but not likely in the rather anachronistic monumental forms Soleri has shown us to date. What I envision is the emergence of what I call a ‘BioZome’; an integrated urban web which complimentarily merges with the natural landscape in ways similar to the architecture devised by such designers as Emilio Ambazz and which is focused on the Linear City -the transit route as concentrator of habitat. This is habitat that doesn’t take the GNP of superpowers to demonstrate. We can do this modestly -with what I refer to as ‘protoarcologies’ and ‘microcities’- that represent an evolution of the contemporary ‘eco-village’ based the realization that ‘green’ doesn’t mean making hermetically self-sufficient biodomes out of straw bale but rather rational infrastructure networks and that to practically coerce mass change in our culture means offering a benefit in standard of living in exchange.

Today people tend to be frightened of scale and the Brave New World aspect of many futurist schemes. But, with this actually rather simple strategy and organization applied to a scale people can perceive, we may find that we actually need no more density and height than Amsterdam to accomplish the goal of a sustainable habitat footprint -and what’s so scary about Amsterdam? They’ve got one of the highest standards of living in the world! Now just imagine an Amsterdam where everyone has virtually free highest-possible-speed telecommunications, automated high speed door-to-door transportation to anywhere in the world, virtually free mail and shipping, no pollution, cheap renewable energy, 5-minute-away access to parks and wilderness, homes with the square footage of a McMansion free to use however we wish, neighborhoods you’re safe and comfortable to walk in, and a million dollar view from the back terrace, AND we save the Earth in the bargain! Sign me up!”

6 Comments A critique of the arcology model

  1. AvatarRic Frost

    My wife and I lived at Arcosanti for a bit over a year. I find little other than a nit or two to disagree with you on, especially the necessity for totalitarianism under the Soleri model.

    Great piece.

  2. Pingback: Posts about scale free networks, organic networks, as of July 21, 2009 | thoughtstream

  3. Hazel HendersonHazel Henderson

    Hi Michel :
    Very perceprive piece. I have visited Arcosanti and know Paolo Solari well. He is a wondeful visionary , as is the inventor of the Venus Project here in florida, who came to visit me in the 1980s.

    I like The Integral City ,by Marilyn Hamilton and Eco Cities by Richard Register , as more human and organic. I’m catching up with all the good stuff on P2P !

  4. AvatarJohn L.

    Very interesting article. I know that it was published six years ago, so I don’t know whether to expect a reply.

    I have been following Soleri for many years. You have introduced me to two new futurists, Jacque Fresco and Emilio Ambasz (whose name I think you may have misspelled). It is good to compare multiple perspectives.

    Where I live, in Silicon Valley, medium-density development is burgeoning along the light-rail transit lines. Solar power is popping up in many places — though it is notably (and maddeningly) absent on those new buildings near the light rail. Bits and pieces of the arcological vision can be seen. I don’t know whether it will reach full flower, but I am seeing some progress.

  5. AvatarJoseph A. Rivera-Ramos

    Mr. Bauwens,

    Thank you for this perfectly outlined essay on the prospects of such a noble project. My name is Joseph A. Rivera-Ramos, I lived at Arcosanti for about two years as their Guest and Community Service Coordinator in 2010, after participating as an intern and workshop student. I led tours and helped organize and prepare events, hosting many people from all around the world who held great interest in our efforts there. In so many ways I felt so comfortable with the scale of the current project, however wished for more people, services, and activities. I also dreamed of the day we would be more connected to other “arcologies” or at least have better connectivity to local urban centers.

    I want to let you know that in-fact, since you wrote your essay, Soleri did focus more energy and interest in the lean-linear arterial urban networks, and just before he passed away a number of publications were produced describing them more and highlighting their potential, which I am sure you are now aware of. I also understand and agree emphatically with you, that our core conceptions and understanding of property as a species are too primitive to develop this way currently. Thankfully, there are many smaller scale efforts currently being managed, and the potential for growth is very likely over this century. In order to build a movement toward the greater development of a network such as the Lean-Linear City System we must continue to engage the public and powers that be, both in politics and economics. I love your mention and rationalization of the need to think as a genetic engineer in the understanding of cities. It takes a highly evolved consciousness to arrive at that understanding of our habitats, and I am glad that I am not the only one that feels this way. This thought process, believe it or not, was also shared by Soleri, and he often compared the arcology and linear-city to a highly evolved organism needing to develop as all organisms in nature do. I agree with you, that it could not just be smacked down as an empty structure in the middle of no where, to be filled by some unknown in-descript population. The hope is, that such environs could find a balance in their predisposed order, and allow for the unplanned to establish its overall form overtime perhaps. The opportunities to offer people a higher standard of living for less is a goal many may entertain, however, they need to know what steps need to be taken to get there. I believe we all want to avoid arriving at the solutions after some sort of collapse or catastrophe, which we should collectively avoid at all costs. I struggle daily thinking about how we will get there; I am glad to know many people are now.

    I look forward to knowing you more. Thank you for your time Sir.


  6. AvatarMichael

    Looking at some of Soleri’s early designs, what struck me was how small they were. They were less “cities in a skyscraper” than villages or towns squeezed into an apartment building.

    I don’t know how much work he put into designing their interior layouts, but it’s seemed to me that they would be much easier to get built than his more grandiose ideas.

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