/ Cory Doctorow / 4 am Thu, Apr 16 2015
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  • Arcology: cutaways of the future city-hives that never were

    Arcology: cutaways of the future city-hives that never were

    Paolo Soleri's Arcology: The City in the Image of Man is a techo-hippie dream of deep mid-century modern futurism.

    Soleri taught architecture at ASU, but his real classroom was Arcosanti: "an experimental town and molten bronze bell casting community" a few hours from Phoenix, which was supposed to have 5,000 residents by now, demonstrating "lean" city living in high-density complexes that combined super-efficient usage of space with stylized, naturalistic exteriors that made each building part of the landscape.

    Soleri was a crank, a visionary, a mystic and a doomsayer. His arcologies -- "architecture" plus "ecology" -- were meant to head off the coming population bomb, which, combined with urban sprawl, would destroy the planet. Soleri conceived of a city as dense as Tokyo or New York, but with a pastoral sensibility that kept each of his titanic towers in synch with nature.

    If this sounds familiar, it's because Soleri's ideas were far more successful with futurists than they were with the actual future. Arcologies appeared as staples of science fiction cover-art, and their descendants can be contemporary sf, including the great, interplanetary hollow asteroid craft plying the spacelanes in Kim Stanley Robinson's brilliant 2312. I think there was an arcology in ever single issue of OMNI. Judge Dredd's Mega City One was dense with towering arcologies. The victory condition in Sim City 2000? Your highrises turn into arcologies.

    I visited Arcosanti last week. As arcologies go, it's pretty modest -- only about 150 people living there at any one time. I missed the tour, too (bad timing), so I only got to see the edges -- and the gift-shop.

    That's where I found Arcology: The City in the Image of Man: the 1969 classic origin node of the arcology meme. It's a huge, stark, black and white book filled with dense (and often rambling -- think Doctor Bronner's Soap meets Epcot Center) Solerian philosophy, crowded around the edges of the most magnificent drawings you've ever seen.

    Soleri's arcologies are all in cutaway form, like a full-page Fantastic Four clubhouse diagram by Jack Kirby, ferociously detailed and aching with unfulfilled desire. Soleri wants these things to exist, and he uses his pen to show us how fucking cool it would be to live in the cities of his mind. Every one of these diagrams should be a poster.

    You can get the book for $40 in the Arcosanti gift shop (you can get some bells while you're there!) -- it's worth the visit, and you should probably take the tour. The $67.50 retail edition costs a little more, but is still cheaper than a trip to Arcosanti from pretty much anywhere (though again, go to Arcosanti if you get the chance).

    I took a bunch of photos of the cutaways while I was in the store.

    Arcology: The City in the Image of Man [Paolo Soleri/Cosanti]

    -Cory Doctorow

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