/ 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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    Notable Replies

    1. I found a copy in s used bookstore and bought it even knowing I'd have haul it back to Asia on a plane. So worth it. Cranks can be so inspirational.

    2. Yeah, even in the 1980s it was a rundown and depressing cult of bell-makers rather than a futuristic experiment in living.

      But I disagree that the premise is wrong. It isn't about overpopulation as such but rather carbon footprint -- which is very much a problem in today's society. People living in arcologies wouldn't need any form of vehicle to get around -- even in one housing hundreds of thousands of people, things could be close enough for walking to be a feasible way of getting around, And food likewise could be grown nearby the arcology reducing the carbon footprint for that.

    3. Speaking of SimCity; That it forces you to build automobile oriented, American grid based cities of the 20th century, no matter how fancy and varied the sprite- its an old gripe. I would love to make a city realistically based on horse and buggy logistics, or burningman bicycle traffic, or Venice with their boat traffic, or even ancient Tenochtitlan! Quite apart from the square grid aesthetics, the physics engine could actually show us something about the way we move stuff around and how that matters to an evolving city.

      Then there's the requirement that all the traffic happen at ground level. Forget Coruscant or the New York of The Fifth Element, what about simply being able to model winter foot traffic in Minneapolis, with all those sky bridges? Imagine those same sky bridges way up high at the elevator break-points in today's hi-rise! Sim Tower sort-of emulated that, but it was still only in two dimensions.

      Minecraft has demonstrated how much fun voxels can be, wouldn't you love to play SimCity in three dimensions?

      Finally, if such a game existed, we could easily demonstrate the actual weaknesses of Solari's designs, and maybe evolve these ideas beyond the echo chamber of a cult. We might also notice certain cult-like aspects of the fossil fuel economy.

    4. I hate what arcologies have become in SF: A giant vertical security-suburb to keep the ethnic / underclass filth out (Oath of Fealty) or a giant vertical slum/ghetto (Judge Dredd) to keep the underclass filth in.

      It would be interesting to see if a working arcology that is actually rooted in landscape and nature could be made to work . . . but after reading Brand's How Buldings Learn and his follow-up essays on how cities learn, I think we're far better off with discrete structures that can be torn down or repurposed along with changes in population, lifestyles, and technology.

    5. That's the obvious problem with arcologies: they're inflexible. It's the problem with utopian thinking in general.

      On the other hand, at least Soleri's arcologies were an effort to imagine a future that's qualitatively better than the present.

    Continue the discussion bbs.boingboing.net

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