Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Arcology This, Arcology That

We're reading J.G. Ballard's High Rise this week, as well as some architectural manifestos, and we were hoping we would be able to include some of Paolo Soleri's arcological theories as well. Unfortunately, the sinister Duke library conspired against us, managing to lose every single one of his books—and so we turn, hats in hand, to the internets.

Proposed as an alternative to wasteful Western living and especially suburban sprawl, the arcology—an unimaginably immense structure with a huge population density that allows for "total living," an entire city in a single building—is clearly the premier Utopian architecture of our time. I want to draw particular attention to the intriguing dialectic centrally bound up with the imagination of the arcology: a vast supercity that is built in largely or totally undeveloped wilderness.

The arcology concept proposes a highly integrated and compact three-dimensional urban form that is the opposite of urban sprawl with its inherently wasteful consumption of land, energy and time, tending to isolate people from each other and the community. The complexification and miniaturization of the city enables radical conservation of land, energy and resources.

An arcology would need about two percent as much land as a typical city of similar population. Today’s typical city devotes more than sixty percent of its land to roads and automobile services. Arcology eliminates the automobile from within the city. The multi-use nature of arcology design would put living, working and public spaces within easy reach of each other and walking would be the main form of transportation within the city.

An arcology’s direct proximity to uninhabited wilderness would provide the city dweller with constant immediate and low-impact access to rural space as well as allowing agriculture to be situated near the city, maximizing the logistical efficiency of food distribution systems. Arcology would use passive solar architectural techniques such as the apse effect, greenhouse architecture and garment architecture to reduce the energy usage of the city, especially in terms of heating, lighting and cooling. Overall, arcology seeks to embody a “Lean Alternative” to hyper consumption and wastefulness through more frugal, efficient and intelligent city design.

Arcology theory holds that this leanness is obtainable only via the miniaturization intrinsic to the Urban Effect, the complex interaction between diverse entities and organisms which mark healthy systems both in the natural world and in every successful and culturally significant city in history.

In combining ecological sustainability with an idealized, hyper-efficient supercity, in crafting a massive superstructure which one would never need to leave (and which therefore there is essentially nothing "outside") the arcology makes two Utopian moves: first, it relocates the imagination of ecotopia from the pastoral to a highly modern, highly technological space, and second it shrinks the national imaginary into a single city while at the same time shrinking the map of the city into a single building.

The world's best hope for a functioning arcology is Arcosanti, Arizona, which has been under construction for almost forty years: In 1970, the Cosanti Foundation began building Arcosanti, an experimental town in the high desert of Arizona, 70 miles north of metropolitan Phoenix. When complete, Arcosanti will house 5000 people, demonstrating ways to improve urban conditions and lessen our destructive impact on the earth. Its large, compact structures and large-scale solar greenhouses will occupy only 25 acres of a 4060 acre land preserve, keeping the natural countryside in close proximity to urban dwellers. Arcosanti is an open project—after just a short workshop, you can become a resident. (Ryan was actually there a few weeks ago, snooping around and taking pictures. I'll let him say more if he likes.)

Another candidate for world's first arcology could be the XSEED 4000, proposed to be the world's tallest structure at 13,000 feet, though it's stalled in the planning and financing stages. (This MetaFilter thread on XSEED from last year is actually where I first heard about arcology.)

So that's the Utopian dream, a dream of ecology and sustainability on the one hand and the usual classless egalitarianism on the other. In a day or so we'll start talking about this in connection with High Rise, in which this dream predictably and perhaps inevitably becomes a hell at precisely the moment when the delicate calibration of services and sustainability begins to breaks down...