Coined by Paolo Soleri, arcology is mostly a hypothetical perspective of developing city typologies in one structure. The philosophy is to design habitats by creating a balance between ecology and architecture. To provide commercial, agricultural, residential and social facilities while also minimising environmental impact.
Born in Italy in 1919, architect Paolo Soleri an Italian American architect dedicated his life to experimentation in urban planning. He was a recipient of the Smithsonian’s 2006 Cooper-Hewitt National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement.
In his literary magnum opus, Paolo Soleri published Arcology: The city in the image of man. The book puts forward the concept of arcology in a detailed manner. A new philosophy of urban living, a single vast organism designed to work in harmony with nature.
The book is divided into two sections, one which speaks about current urban living and its socio-economic necessity to transition into a new model. It explains the universal cycle of development and evolution, how we have grown apart from our roots and have lost ourselves in this urban infrastructure.
Arcology: The city in the image of man illustrates how cities have evolved in consideration of our growth rather than the overall growth of all the earth. We forget that we too come from the earth and are a part of its ecosystem. That all are actions in all ways connected to the overall growth of all species and theirs to ours. The whole of the earth(society) works as an organism. The book emphasises the concept of miniaturization of design and resources to build sustainable communities.
Arcologies are architectural organism – Paolo Soleri
In the second section of the book, Soleri illustrates thirty different arcologies through incredibly detailed drawings and explains how each of them is designed to sustain social and economic balance in harmony with our planet.
The most unique is Asteromo, a space arcology set on an asteroid for a population of 70,000 people. The structural membrane is a double-layered cylinder, which maintains its inflation by pressurization and rotation on its main axis. The black sky is visible through filtering devices on the membrane that shields the inside from the direct sun rays.
Asteromo’s inside walking floor is lined with vegetation for food and each person will have about 10-20 sqm of garden space to maintain the oxygen-carbon-dioxide cycle. According to Soleri, a human will be able to fly because the weight of a person will vary from zero at the axis to a fraction of his earthly weight on the ground. The main heart of the arcology will happen in between the space consisting of a network of cybernetics programmed for survival and operations.
Arcologies remained hypothetical concepts of cities. Real arcologies either failed due to structural complexities or financial shortcomings. Although it didn’t stop with the book, many sci-fi novelists and filmmakers in coming centuries One of the early examples of this is William Hope Hodgson’s novel The Night Land, where the plot surrounds itself the last remnants of humanity trying to survive in self-contained metal pyramids.
Other novels include Oath of Fealty by Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle, which explores the social dynamics outside and inside an arcology based in Los Angeles. Such plot devices explored another dimension of the typology, provided a situational analysis of how an arcology would function.
Moreover, it is said that George Lucas was inspired by “in-progress, Arcosanti for the civilization in Star Wars. Located in Arizona, Arcosanti is still functionally to date. It remains the only arcology that was half-built and consists of generations of architects and craftsmen. It is a glimpse of what environmental-friendly towns would look like. It not only functions as a sustainable place but also provides maximum social interaction.
The stages of construction varied over years. There are currently thirteen major structures; Amphitheatre, visitor’s centre and bell foundry. The bell foundry is set to fund other construction on income through bronze and ceramic bells. However, it is rather a very slow process and in earlier years the focus remains more on tourism.
Inspired by the concept of arcology, Architect Frank Lloyd Wright proposed an Arcology called the Broadacre City, the dissimilarity was that the city relied on a road network and was two-dimensional in comparison to the original concept.
The solution though failed as the design didn’t take into consideration the population growth of the United States. Buckminster Fuller too proposed a sustainable domed city with a population of 1,25,000 over midtown Manhattan. The project remained unfulfilled due to constructional complexities. The development of arcology spread in many regions of pop culture and urban theories.
The terminology is lost between the utopian urbanscapes for video games and futuristic city designs. After decades of development in technology, we are still not equipped to bring a functional arcology alive, but that hasn’t stopped architects from experimenting. Projects like the Crystal Island in Moscow, designed by Norman Foster stand as an Arcology on their terms. The island plans to have 2.5 million floor space and a height of 450 meters.
The characteristics of this arcology are that it is covered by breathable skin, which can be sealed in the winter season to prevent biting cold and can be opened up in the summer for ventilation. The skin prevents the sun rays of the interior and is planned to be powered by exterior solar panels. The island is a complex of office spaces, retail stores, schools, theatres, and apartments. Although the construction is postponed due to the economic crisis. Similar projects like Masdar City and Las Vegas Strip have been inspired by arcology.
Although the projects fail to capture the human and environment relationship Soleri envisioned. The reason probably being that cities today concentrate more on consumerism and capitalism than the futuristic dreams of sustainability of living in healthy urban environments. These cities or projects focus more on the external aesthetics of general futuristic vision than the actual function of doing so. The concept of Arcology was based on the survival of humans in harmony with nature and the typology was planned to grow as it expands, but methodically, almost like how a tree grows.
“They take a very shallow understanding of it,” he says. In Soleri’s view, we need to reformulate, rather than simply reform, our strategy for civilisation. His outlook is not hopeful.
“Materialism is, by definition, the antithesis of green”. – Soleri on admirers of his philosophy.
This brings us to the question that did Soleri plan to evolve Arcosanti in stages? Stages that would eventually occupy and comprise the ever-growing population of America? Was it a failed realisation that the American dream of most didn’t support basic dignity, let alone the evolution of civilization? Or are we moving in a direction of different arcologies altogether?