Urban realist:
Some now are open to Soleri’s vision of anti-sprawl life

When 88-year-old Paolo Soleri speaks in Albuquerque on Friday night at the KiMo Theater, many members of the audience will have a different view of the world than those Soleri first encountered as a revolutionary urban realist 37 years ago.

It was then, in l970, when Soleri started applying his principles of "arcology" to designing and building a compact, densely urban, anti-car, anti-sprawl, anti-waste and syncronistic community structure, called Arcosanti, 70 miles from Phoenix.

The thinking world is starting slowly to catch up to Soleri's view of ecological design and responsibility, even if the mainstream world of money and housing development lags far behind.

In fact, Soleri, ever the pragmatic inventor and far-seeing idealist, is now in the company of whole subculture of like-minded people in the world of architecture, community planning, environmental conservation and energy technology, and in the creation of local economies and sustainable urban spaces.

As the world's resources become used up, as climate change floods and broils us, Soleri's view of creating vast but extremely dense, extroverted human habitats will have increasing impact.

Soleri belongs to a community of thinkers that include the Jesuit evolutionary philosopher Teilhard de Chardin and the practical idealists at the Rocky Mountain Institute - Amory and Hunter Lovins - and even agrarian thinkers like Wendell Berry.

Berry indirectly addresses one of Soleri's key points about the urban world when he writes, "We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us."

Soleri has been influenced, as have many ecological thinkers, by the notion of the complexification of human evolution - creating ever-more complex, flexible creatures and cultures, whose mental powers, which comprised what Teilhard called the "noosphere," allow them to be supremely adaptable.

The noosphere - the atmosphere of thought, art and science - gives humans an edge in survivability, because it allows us to change ourselves to fit existing circumstances.

Despite Soleri and many others, our capacity today for adaptation seems to be failing us. The powers that be are feverishly shoring up the suicidal energy-and-resource-depleting status quo.

"Arcology" is a hybrid of ecology and architecture. It's aim is to provide a realistic, self-sustaining and efficient alternative to urbanization, based on the automobile, fossil fuels, an economy of waste and the sprawl it causes.

Soleri saw the future long ago, and now the future is catching up to us all. It's not that Soleri's solutions are to be sheepishly followed. But they are there to remind us that we have the imaginative power in the noosphere to adapt ourselves to changing circumstances. And that if we don't, we won't survive them.

V.B. Price is an Albuquerque free-lance writer, author, editor and commentator.
August 31, 2007