Arcologies from the Bottom Up

April 8, 2007

The environmental discourse is dominated by specifics. Inundated with the urgent details of policy – tax or trade? biodiesel or ethanol? – it’s easy to forget that sustainability is ultimately about reenvisioning the way society functions on this planet. For fifty years, though, the Italian-born architect Paolo Soleri has been doing just that. Based in the open expanses of the Arizona desert, he’s developed the concept of the “arcology:” a city-sized megastructure that takes advantage of both high-tech materials and natural processes to be self-sufficient in food and energy. To Soleri, arcologies are the solution to supporting a massive human population without leaving a massive ecological footprint, and over the years many urban theorists, futurists and environmentalists have agreed.

Soleri’s arcologies, designed for environments as diverse as the ocean and outer space, have an extremely high population density and massive enclosed agricultural areas. Their forms emulate natural morphology, and they’re oriented to take full advantage of the sun’s position. But what I think is the most fascinating element of Soleri’s work isn’t their physical features but the elaborate cosmology behind them, a marriage of 20th-century science and mystical faith. Borrowing from the process theology of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Soleri’s theories maintain that from the big bang on, physical and living systems have followed eternal patterns of increasing complexity and miniaturization, of which homo sapiens and our technology are only another phase. Arcologies represent the highest point yet in this ongoing process, uniting technology and biology to create “a city in the image of man.”

The concept of creating a city that functions like a living organism is a powerful one. But as forward-thinking as Soleri’s cities are, they’re firmly a product of the 20th century. Soleri, now 87, is one of the last remaining geniuses from an era when paradise was supposed to be around the corner, and his designs and philosophy reflect the Modernist faith in technology and human ingenuity. But things have changed. In the world we’ve inherited, what we’re used to calling “progress” is threatening the stability of our entire planet. Far from arriving at the pinnacle of civilization, we’re entering a time when we’re going to have to work harder than ever before merely to avoid catastrophe.

In a sense, though, Soleri’s Big Idea was dead-on. We will someday end up in arcologies – they just won’t be the solid, hulking structures of his drawings. The arcologies of tomorrow are the cities of today, and we will make them efficient and self-sufficient because we’ll have to, and they’re what we’ve got to work with. Through microgeneration, vertical farming, and walkable communities, our habitat will borrow much from the “hyperstructures” of yesterday’s future. But rather than emulating a single organism, sustainable cities will function more like a forest: diverse, ever-changing, and containing the collective ingenuity of millions.

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