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Wednesday, July 1, 2015


ZIGGURAT: proposed Dubai carbon-neutral pyramid to house one-million
A SimCity 2000 Arcology
Unless you're one who is highly interested in architecture, or rather "green" in an ecological sense, you've probably never heard of an arcology. You can join ranks with my spellchecker which just flagged the word. When architecture and ecology come together they from the word which is actually almost a hundred years old. Frank Lloyd Wright may have coined it with reference to his Taliesin in Wisconsin and later Taliesin West near Scottsdale, Arizona. Basically it is ecological architecture--building on various scales to be ecologically "friendly" and self-sustaining to varying degrees. And, inasmuch as each geographic environment has its own ecology, then obviously designs vary a great deal as to appearance, construction, size, and sustainability. Also, more often than not, one sees and reads about them as being "proposed," such as the Dubai project (above) rather than existing. Technically, I suppose some of the frontier settlements west of the Allegheny Mountains during the early history of the United States might be considered arcologies, in that they were pretty much self-sustained and left very little in the way of a carbon footprint (aside from some wood smoke in the winter time). They weren't very architecturally evolved however.

A very large scale conceptual drawing by the early arcology architect, 
Paolo Soleri, of a desert arcology juxtaposed to the Empire State Building.
Paolo Soleri
Even though I've been something of a student of architecture for most of my life, my own first encounter with the word, and the concept of an arcology, came about fifteen years ago when I began playing Will Wright's SimCity 2000, which featured four different types of arcologies (above, right) designed to house great numbers of his "Sims" in a relatively small area. It's rather fantastical in appearance, though no more so than many other conceptual drawings that are more art than architecture with just a passing reference to ecological purity. The architectural kingpin of arcology design was not Frank Lloyd Wright so much as one of his Taliesin Fellowship students, the Italian architect, Paolo Soleri, whose early conceptual drawing (above) lays out the basic ground rules involving arcologies. Going beyond that, Soleri, born in 1919, taking Wright as his model, went on to establish his own teaching fellowship and began working with like-minded students and volunteers to build an actual arcology just north of Phoenix, Arizona, called Arcosanti (below).

Arcosanti Panorama
The earliest completed portion of Arcosanti
where the bells were made and sold.
Although much reduced in scale from Soleri's original, rather grandiose ambitions (bottom), until recently, it was the largest and virtually the only truly functional arcology in the world. Soleri died in 2013 at the age of ninety-three. Today, Arcosanti (above)is something of a tourist attraction specializing in the manufacture and sale of Soleri's trademark ceramic bells. As a result of Arcosanti, Soleri has been by far the most influential thinker, designer, and doer in the whole realm of Arcology. The Eden Project geodesic domes of Cornwall, England, (below) owe much to Soleri's concepts.

The Eden Project geodesic domes, Cornwall, England           
Several major cities such as New Orleans, Moscow, Los Angeles, and Hong Kong have toyed with the idea of building arcologies, though in most cases, economic constraints have stood in the way of much more than preliminary designs and futuristic drawings. However, in 2006, some eleven miles (17 km.) east-south-east of the city of Abu Dhabi, beside the Abu Dhabi International Airport, a whole new arcology called Masdar City began to arise from the dessert floor designed to hold 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses. The first phase is expected to be finished this year (2015) with final completion sometime between 2020 and 2025. Here again, however, economic considerations (the slide in oil prices) will have a significant impact on the construction timetable. The total cost is expected to be in the area of $18-billion and $20-billion. Covering 2.3 square miles, the solar powered city already has its first occupants and will become a hub for the design and manufacturing of environmentally clean products.

Masdar City when completed (who knows when).
The Sea Orbiter
Quite apart from Soleri and a whole nation of far-sighted, oil-rich Arabs, Arcologies are very much the symbol of cities of the future, thus a rich vein to be mined by science fiction writers and those illustrating their works. That's where art enters into the picture, whether in illustrating the workings and feasibility of such structures (left), or simply as setting for the sci-fi action, it would appear that as the demand for ecologically friendly architecture grows, then the term, arcology, will not just grow in usage, but may, in fact, come to be synonymous with city planning and architecture itself.

New Orleans' proposed NOAH arcology

Paolo Soleri's original working model of Arcosanti (now much reduced is scale and scope).


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