Cosanti's Pumpkin Apse and Barrel Vaults, constructed using concrete-lined mounds of earth. (photo courtesy of Cosanti Foundation)
  • Cosanti's Pumpkin Apse and Barrel Vaults, constructed using concrete-lined mounds of earth. (photo courtesy of Cosanti Foundation)
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In Paradise Valley, overlooking the 70,900-acre Agua Fria National Monument, is the Cosanti gallery, studio and home to 93-year-old anti-materialist architect and urban planner Paolo Soleri.

It isn’t surprising that this author of six books, key participant in the 1976 U.N. forum on human settlements, and recipient of three honorary doctorates and numerous architectural awards was invited to appear in DiCaprio’s 2007 eco-documentary The 11th Hour. Similar to San Diego artist/architect James Hubbel (see this October 4 Reader Travel story), Soleri aims to blend archeology with nature – or more aptly, with the principles of ecology. He formed Cosanti in 1955 as a five-acre urban laboratory to demonstrate what he calls “arcology.”

North Apse, Cosanti (photo by Graziella Pazzanese, courtesy of Cosanti Foundation)

Fifty-seven years later, Cosanti is a designated state historic site consisting of 12 earth-bermed vaulted concrete buildings and a pool. Onsite studios produce the world-famous bronze and ceramic Soleri windbells and sculptures, the sale of which finances theoretical construction workshops at sister site Arcosanti 50 miles up the road.

Arcosanti is an 860-acre planned community that, once complete, is meant to house up to 7,000 inhabitants. Designed by the Italian-born Frank Lloyd Wright Taliesin fellow, Arcosanti is a hyperdense city that’s been under development since 1970.

Soleri’s philosophical approach to community planning – and thus to architecture itself – diverged from Wright’s prior to the completion of his fellowship. Wright designed single-use sprawling horizontal structures that reflected the pastoral expanses and freedom of America. Soleri, born in Europe where living spaces and communities are more compact, designs multi- (mixed) use three-dimensional structures. Created to maximize resource conservation while minimizing environmental footprint, Arcosanti is a prototype of desert arcology.

Ongoing seminars provide students hands-on participation in building the city from the ground up – literally. Just shy of 10,000 students from around the world have participated in Soleri’s workshops, and more than a dozen structures have been built, including a bakery, gallery, housing, artisan studios, the Cafe at Arcosanti offering $9 buffet meals that includes gourmet vegetarian and vegan options, and the popular Colly Soleri Music Center, an outdoor amphitheater where concerts and dance performances are held. (Check out arcosanti.org for a schedule of events including October's Different Skies Space Music Festival.)

Music reverberates throughout Soleri's communities. The acoustical qualities of the vaults and amphitheaters, the wind blowing across the mesa, the bells that hang from trees as well as the birds nesting in the branches beside them.

windbell art at Cosanti

Annual bell sale fundraisers make this one-of-a-kind art work more affordable. Cosanti’s autumn sale was recently held in October. Dates are not yet set for Arcosanti’s sales, which usually occur nearer to Christmas, then again in the spring.

Self and guided tours of both sites are offered daily except for major holidays. Cosanti is located 13 miles northeast of Phoenix in Scottsdale. Arcosanti, another 52 miles north, conducts tours and offers modest accommodations (no air conditioning) decorated with Soleri’s siltcast ceiling designs for $30-$65/night. The Sky Suite goes for $100/night. Breakfast is included.

Coincidentally, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Taliesin West, set into the sandstone foothills of northeast Scottsdale, offers tours ranging from $18 to $35.

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