Sunday, March 12, 2017

Arcosanti for Today

Just about an hour north of Phoenix, Arizona, is a little aspirational community known as Arcosanti.  The self-proclaimed urban experiment is, among people who do know of it, generally a bucket list item, something to do at some point in time.  Having lived in the Phoenix area for over 14 years, and knowing I'd be moving to the east coast in June, my visit to the place was long overdue.  Jaiman and I stayed overnight in the modest accommodations, where frugality is not only the name of the game, it's a point of pride.  The community, made up of about 100 residents and seminar students at any given point in time, survives on the sale of their products, namely the Soleil Bells, as well as tours, experiences and donations.  Having broken ground in 1970 in the hopes of building a community of 5000, their own film admitted that the experiment had barely scratched the surface of its original intent.  A proof of concept it is not, but that doesn't mean we can't learn from it. 

To give you an idea of how the community works, I'd like to share our experience.  I booked our stay via phone; I was hoping for the Sky Suite but that had already been booked for the date I wanted, so I settled for a small room with a shared bathroom.  The turn off the freeway was clearly marked, and soon we were on a dirt road headed to Arcosanti.  Being the Pokemon Go players we are, our phones were grabbing for signal and showing us what Pokemon sites awaited us - a gym at the fork in the dirt road, and a one Pokestop.  We checked in at about 4:30, just before the Visitor's Center closed at 5.  Since we missed the tours for the day, we didn't know much about the place, but the resident welcoming us at the Visitor's Center was warm and welcoming, and told us everything we needed to know for our stay.  Our room was a whopping $40, and she took my payment via credit card.  We were directed to drive further down the dirt road to the guest rooms, a road that my low-clearance Chevy Volt did not love, but ultimately handled sufficiently.  Our key was clearly marked with "E" for our room, and once we parked, we faced a

large auditorium-style structure cascading down from the rooms, each level having different things like plants, water features, etc.  An easier staircase was on the side, but we initially walked straight up the structure to our room.  Before even opening the door, Jaiman noticed a wasp on the inside of the window.  We managed to shoo the first one, but there were actually three more.  While trying to figure out what to do, I took stock of the room.  A small bed took up the majority of the space, with a small desk, a small wardrobe, and a small sink taking up most of the rest.  The door to the bathroom was open, so I initially didn't think it was a shared bathroom as I had thought, but then noticed another door going into the bathroom.  The bathroom was tiny as well, with just a curtain separating the shower from the toilet, and just soap in the shower.  There were towels on the bed for us.  I looked for a fly swatter, or a decent analog, but nothing suitable was to be found.  I decided that there wasn't much for us to do about the wasps, so we got ready to go to dinner.  As I was locking up, a resident/staff member came by and asked if everything was okay.  I pointed out our unwanted visitors, and he jumped into action, grabbing toilet paper from the bathroom and snatching the little buggers like nothing.  We learned that he was the head chef, which was a great example of how people at Arcosanti take on multiple tasks. 

Feeling relieved of our wasp problem, we headed towards dinner, and wandered around a bit since we got to the cafe early.  Dinner was an "honor code" $10 per person, so I placed a $20 in the honor box as we took our place in line at the
buffet.  Dinner was potroast tacos with rice, beans and lettuce.  It wasn't terrible, but I've definitely had better $10 meals.  There wasn't much in the way of drinks, but the water was fine and hydration is a good thing, especially since we had spent some time earlier in the day in the scorching sun.  There was wifi in the whole community, but it was definitely strongest in the cafe.  I noticed several people on laptops and phones, differentiating Arcosanti from the Amish-style perspective I had in at least this one way.  

One of the girls on a longer-term stay with a large group was celebrating a birthday, so the staff brought out "lemon lemony brownies" and we sang Happy Birthday to her.  As we cleared our plates, there was relatively clear directions to put napkins and food in the compost bucket, and then separate dishes and silverware into their own buckets for expeditious collecting and cleaning.  Very little actual "garbage" was generated, because the napkins are compostable.  Pretty cool!  But, while we were clearing our plates, Jaiman was questioned about paying, and he said that we had already paid.  So much for the honor system; there were definitely times when I felt like this place is just asking for money because it's clearly not getting enough to sustain itself. 

After dinner, we caught a few rare Pokemon and then went back to our room for a little down time.  No wasps this time around, but there was a spider and a few small gnats, as well as rolly pollies in the bathroom.  Ah well, "better than

camping" I always say, even if just marginally so.  While laying on the bed, I could better examine the custom roof pattern produced by painting the sand prior to laying the concrete, or something like that.  We walked around a bit more, and attempted some stargazing, although the moon was actually too bright to get a good view of stars.  I was struck by something I couldn't quite put my finger on, but my tour guide the next day described aptly: "You get a sense of both ancient ruins and space-age architecture."  Indeed, while the giant circular and spherical structures are so unique and modern-esque, there is something very sexy and inspiring about them, parts of Arcosanti seem to be crumbling and decaying. 

As we walked around, we encountered an animal noise that wasn't immediately familiar, and soon found the source: small frogs were singing noisily to one another.  I think that was Jaiman's favorite part.  We caught a few more Pokemon, then went back to our spider- and bug-infested room, where Jaiman, uncomfortable, never really settled in. 

A rough night of sleep past, and we got up to go to breakfast.  Though it was just a short hike up the hill to the cafe, I was a bit winded, which I blame on the high altitude combined with my allergies.  The food was minimal: toast, cereal, bagels, and OJ.  Jaiman noted that there was a fee and asked if we needed to pay or show our room key.  I figure, unless someone questions us, I'm not going to offer, because breakfast was included with our stay and I shouldn't have to justify getting breakfast.  Luckily, nobody questioned us this time.  We went back to our room, and opted out of showering in that awful little bathroom, but instead got ready and packed up.  Jaiman drove us back up the long, nasty dirt road to the Visitor's Center.  Handing my key to the gentleman at the front desk, I checked us out and inquired about the tour.  Now, again, I was pretty sure that the tour was included with a stay, but he emphasized that there's a "suggested donation" of $10 per person for the tour, which pretty much seemed like a requirement. 
The tour started with a 13-minute video about the architect, the theologies and the construction of Arcosanti.  Then we met our tour guide, Coleen, who works in ceramics and has lived there for 9 years, raising her 6 year-old-son and home schooling him here at Arcosanti.  Throughout the tour, it was clear that she was passionate about the philosophy and lifestyle embedded in Arcosanti, and was excited that "things are happening" - improvements are being made and new life is being breathed into the place.  There wasn't a lot on the tour that I didn't already know, but I did find some funny contradictions.  Having just raved about the great way the architecture cools itself during the summer and warms itself during the winter, she pointed out that the archived room did have an air conditioner because it was necessary to keep it at a temperature that could not be achieved with the Arcosanti ways.  She showed us the multi-use areas, where there would be store-fronts on the base floor, residential on the second floor, all around the ampitheater, but pointed out that the store-fronts were not completed.  The iconic apse, a quarter-sphere hollowed out to create a self-regulating climate, was actually much less effective than the vaults, so much so that temporary shade was added to the iron apse because it must just get too hot in that workspace otherwise.  I loved her passion, but she kept emphasizing frugality, and it just made me think that they were living like they were poor for the sake of being novel in their minimalism, rather than proving a practical, successful lifestyle. 

I was surprised to learn that employees / residents are required to work 40 hours towards Arcosanti, and then can spend their spare time on their own creative projects.  I realize that, with the lack of a commute, these people do, in theory, have more time, but the work here is generally much harder work, and it is a small hike to and from your residence, workplace and the cafe, so I would think it would be a pretty exhausting lifestyle.  I guess I was thinking that this place should be more efficient and have a higher quality of life, so work would be less than a typical daily grind in the city, but alas, it seems pretty brutal.  I've been moderately obsessed with the idea of using technology efficiencies to reduce the workweek, both in number of hours per day and in workdays. 

After the tour completed, we were pretty much over this place, and headed to our next destination: Rock Springs Cafe for amazing pie! 

I had several observations while staying and on the tour.  Our tourguide emphasized frugality in their lifestyles, but I don't think of urban life as a frugal
life.  In fact, urban life in my mind is quite the opposite: it's eating out at fancy places, going to the theater, taking taxis, and living in expensive properties.  At Arcosanti, they focused on recycling, composting, farming, using gray water, collecting rain water, and using solar techniques to warm and cool living spaces, in addition to using solar panels for electricity.  While most of those things aren't mutually exclusive from typical urban living, I don't think they exemplify the goal of the urban experiment.  Alternatively, I would propose that you use these things to subsidize a luxury life to make luxury living affordable to more people.  For example, if our city buildings could heat and cool themselves using techniques similar to those deployed at Arcosanti, with zero or minimal use of electricity, gas and firewood, then your high-end downtown apartment becomes that much more affordable.  Growing a few things at home could help subsidize groceries or meals out on the town.  You don't have to have goats, chickens and large agricultural fields to survive in an urban environment.  In fact, I'm motivated to grow herbs, lettuce and peppers at home mainly because when I buy those things at the grocery store, most of it goes bad before I use it.  That doesn't mean I'm going to settle for 40-year-old sofas and chairs that have been sliced up. 

One of the great benefits of this little community is that, because travel by car is discouraged by the infrastructure, we ended up walking a lot, up and down inclines and stair cases.  This is a great way to essentially force ourselves to increase our activity level without the need for FitBit competitions.  Indeed, I got more steps before breakfast than during a typical work day if I'm not intentionally getting up to walk.  By creating an environment that is accessible by foot, we naturally walked more, which is generally a very good thing. 
Another aspect that I liked about Arcosanti was the mixed-use buildings.  I think the best example was the ceramics apse, where obviously ceramics is the primary use, but the pit could be covered up and it could instantly transform into an ampitheater for performances.  The rooms immediately surrounding the ceramics studio were related to the ceramic making process, but the next level up was living quarters.  I would love to live where I could look down unto a theater and/or workshop of some sort, not to mention the great landscape beyond the immediate foreground. 

As life has it, there was a moment the day of our Arcosanti stay that was unrelated to Arcosanti - we were leaving the Aloha Festival at Tempe Town Lake, where my sunblocked skin was burning under the piercing sun (and it's only March!!).  As we were leaving, a lady behind us was commenting positively on the festival, with the caveat of that, "I'm convinced that the whole state of Arizona needs to invest in a giant sunshade over the state."  Obviously, it's an impractical recommendation, but the idea behind it is fair.  Here I was, having slathered on sunblock not two hours ago, and feeling my skin burning so bad that I needed aloe later that night.  The setting of the Aloha Festival just had too little shade, making it incredibly uncomfortable for thousands of people who
would have probably otherwise stayed longer, spent more money, enjoyed themselves more fully, etc.  What was probably the most novel aspect of Arcosanti were the vaults, which shaded the open-air, concrete-floored area in the summer and allowed sun light to penetrate the concrete and warm the space in the winter.  In fact, the lines on the ground showed where the sun reaches during the winter, summer, spring and fall solstices.  The advantage was immediately clear - we could get out of the sun when we need to, and soak up its warmth when we'd be chilly otherwise.  Tempe Town Lake could definitely use a structure like this, or at least, a massive shade to emulate it's effects.
Given that Arcosanti funds its construction primarily through its sales, and this obviously is not a prosperous means of funding given the lack of progress that has been made since 1970, it's easy to think of the experiment as a failed one.  But many of the ideas, primarily the fight against urban sprawl, are picking up steam in other places.  Fittingly, I had just watched this TedTalk about how to make our cities more walkable the day before our visit to Arcosanti.  This doesn't show signs of the frugality and hippie-esque culture of Arcosanti, but it does make for a better, more livable, safer and happier type of urban living. 

All of these ideas are giving me great inspiration for our move to Connecticut, where I am considering a car-less commute and day-to-day lifestyle, either taking the train to work or biking/walking (Jaiman will keep his car for his commute and/or road trips).  In this way, I plan to make my own, far less extreme, Arcosanti for Today, my own little utopia approximation.