Darryl Chen, 19 12 08

With anxiety one of the themes of the early twenty-first century, it is worth revisiting Paolo Soleri and his Arcology projects of the tumultuous late-60s.

From Hexahedron, Mesa City and Babelnoah, these late-Modern and ecologically driven projects are much more than a foretelling of a clean-energy and resource-conscious future, than paint a paranoid vision of a future we perhaps now inhabit.



Arcology is prophetic – transferring the issues of energy consumption to the level of urban form. Self-sustainable, car-free non-fossil fuel burning utopia. Each resident in a one million city would be only fifteen minutes from any other point in the city. His Arcologies are the compact cities to end all compact cities.


It lifts two dimensional urban planning radically into the third dimension, picking up on his megastructural contemporaries, and also continuing the grand and perverse tradition of architectural utopias. Formally they are a product of the hopeful yet megalomaniacal trends of the era. It goes beyond Rudolph, Kikutake, even Tange. Forget about Archigram, these are the megastructures to end all megastructures.


They assume the forms of science-fiction space ships – probably a combination of pure geometry and the often gravity-defying superstructure. So familiar are we nowadays of this iconography that, paradoxically, the terrestrial architecture looks like it ought to take off. Interior environments are hauntingly spectacular. Vast atriums and artificial interior environments give distant views of the external world. Habitat on earth will be turned inside-out.

They are predominantly technological solutions written in the art historical language of the late-Moderns. Soleri notably foregoes deep issues of social and political organization in the service of describing slick three-dimensional organizational systems. Banham laments a planning regime mired in the even then out of date Athens Charter. It is a nominee for the pinnacle of Modernistic achievement – what one author calls a yet more efficient machine to live in.

The real paradox of these solar-, wind- and water-powered self-sustainable compact communities is the huge kind of resource effort that would be required to construct and realistically service them. Less the modularized and incremental proposals of the metabolists, these spectacularly large structures seem only to be inhabitable upon completion, confining them (at least for the near future) to the realm of the allegorical – which is nevertheless of no less interest to us than realizable work. So then…

It would be easy to venerate Soleri as an eco-architect before his time. A guy with ideas so big, they transfer him into the realm of societal prophet, an urbanist of the highest order. A moral authority with a mouth to speak and a pen to draw. This portrait however is greenwash – Soleri reduced to the service of mainstream environmentalism.

Arcology is a kind of anti-environmental parable. An allegory of what would be necessary to survive on a post-apocalyptic earth. It wonderfully posits man’s self-determination against an increasingly hostile world. No symbiotic co-existence with nature here. It is a starkly humanist vision.

In the clinic, there is a point at which the paranoid patient draws all into his mindscape through sheer insistence of his self-belief. At that point, we – consumers of Soleri’s vision become willing participants in a gloriously combative world of the future… yesterday’s thoughts today.

Banham, R., Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past, Thames and Hudson, 1976.
Borek, W. and D. Wall, Visionary Cities: The Arcology of Paolo Soleri, Praeger, 1970.
Soleri,P. Arcology, The City in the Image of Man, MIT, 1969.


Add your own

  • 1. Paul Downton  |  December 24th, 2008 at 3:11 pm

    I agree and I disagree. Soleri DID produce key ideas about compact cities and the deadly nature of sprawl before almost anyone else, and he DID link architecture and ecology, even if he didn’t understand the ecology bit, but he’s a late modern megastructuralist (his newer work is worse) and has never got to grips with the real dirty, grainy work of dealing with communities – both human and otherwise. See my new book for more! Ecopolis – Architecture and Cities for a Changing Climate, publ. Springer Press: http://www.springer.com/978-1-4020-8495-9

  • 2. Darryl Chen  |  January 4th, 2009 at 7:03 am

    Paul, thanks for your comments.
    I’m interested that Soleri’s architectures seem to have an unconscious undercurrent of fear. His is a kind of “clean-up or else we might have to do this” way of linking architecture and ecology. (It’s interesting that today there is the same discourse of fear in some circles of environmentalists.) The worse and more fantastic he makes his arcologies, the better he communicates his message. It means that his fantasies walk a fine line between utopia and dystopia – and we dig that as a critical practice more than a precursor to an ‘ecological urbanism’.
    Btw, your website has some great thought experiments!

  • 3. Rodrigo Lamounier  |  October 1st, 2009 at 3:00 pm

    Moebius must love Soleri. Studied for shure.

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