For four decades, Mary Hoadley has pursued the daunting ideal that is Arcosanti.
Photo: Ellen Barnes
By Anne Stephenson
Every morning the café at Arcosanti quietly welcomes the sun. Light pours in through huge, circular windows that stretch from the floor nearly halfway up to the vaulted ceiling two stories above. It warms the homemade wooden tables, the medieval-looking bronze bells that hang overhead and the scattering of people who sit drinking their coffee as the day begins.
The café, along with a bakery and a visitors' center, occupies a building that is, to borrow Frank Lloyd Wright's phrase, "qualified by light." But at this moment Mary Hoadley is looking elsewhere. She leans toward a window, points beyond the glass and says, "Isn't it beautiful?"
Yes, it is. Arcosanti sits in Arizona's high desert between Phoenix and Flagstaff, surrounded by a rugged landscape of cacti, boulders, desert shrubs and, in the right season, wildflowers. To the west, there are cars on a distant interstate. Otherwise, the natural view is undisturbed. Stars clutter the sky each night.
Hoadley, '67, came here by accident. In 1969, after she'd earned a degree in history and traveled in Europe, she and a friend drove through Arizona on her way back to California for graduate school. Her friend was a young architect, so they stopped at Cosanti, the Scottsdale headquarters of Italian architect Paolo Soleri.
Soleri was beginning work on an unorthodox prototype community he would create 65 miles north of Phoenix. It would be an experiment in "arcology," Soleri's term for architectural innovation guided by ecological responsibility. He would "build up, not out," rejecting suburban sprawl and reducing the need for automobiles. Residents in his self-contained community would have all they needed without gobbling up land, polluting the air or taxing the environment. The excitement, and the need for volunteers to build Soleri's design, was palpable. Hoadley's friend decided to stay. Hoadley went on to graduate school, but wasn't happy. Soon she was back for what she thought would be a short visit.
She's stayed for 40 years, longer than anyone but Soleri himself. She says this makes her "either committed or committable," but she sounds quite sane when she describes her feelings at the start. "I craved something back then. With the angst of a 25-year-old, I set out to find myself. It was so appealing that this little Italian man was going into the desert to try to make something of all the ideas shared by those of us who grew up in the 1960s."
At first there was nothing at the site. "We lived in tents, if that." She took on any task that presented itself, including driving a truck, hauling supplies or helping to make the bronze Soleri windbells that became an important fund-raising source. She was working "for an idea that had relevance to my concerns. Arcosanti triggered my optimism and hope. Everyone should want to change the world somehow."
In 1983 she married fellow resident Roger Tomalty and they raised their daughter at Arcosanti until she left for school in Phoenix when she was 12. (Kat Tomalty, '06, MA '06, is now a veterinary medicine student at UC-Davis.) Over the years, Hoadley has traveled to China, Tibet, Italy, Brazil and elsewhere, representing the Cosanti Foundation, the nonprofit organization that supports Arcosanti and Soleri's philosophies. She is Arcosanti's site coordinator, which involves her in every aspect of life there, and she drives Soleri, who is 91 and lives at Cosanti, to meetings and events. She has served on the Cosanti Foundation board of directors for years. "I also haul the paper recycling down to the dumpster," she says. "It's a good way of remembering that all work is equal."
Whether inherently or by circumstance, Arcosanti has always been rough around the edges. Climb to the top of a small mesa nearby, and you'll see the view that photographers like best: From a distance, Arcosanti looks like a cross between a moon colony and a construction site. As writer Alastair Gordon put it, Arcosanti's "semifinished, semiruined spaces . . . resemble a sketch from Soleri's notebooks, complete with erasures."
From the beginning—when called it "the most important experiment (in urban architecture) undertaken in our lifetime"—Arcosanti has been underfunded. Its handful of buildings include office and living spaces, the facilities for making windbells, an amphitheater, greenhouses, guest rooms and the visitors' center, but they amount to only 3 percent of Soleri's plan. The minor construction that continues is helped along by workshop participants (often architecture or engineering students), who pay to experience life at Arcosanti for a few weeks.
The community's population fluctuates between 50 and 120, nowhere near the 5,000 Soleri envisioned. And as Phoenix and smaller cities grow nearby, Arcosanti is in the path of the very thing it was meant to defy: sprawl.
Yet it persists. Some 50,000 tourists visit annually. They find, if not the fruition of Soleri's ambitious idea, then the idea itself, refusing to die. As the world searches for solutions to its environmental crisis, Arcosanti still sits in the Arizona sun, a suggestion made 40 years before its time.
"There are skeptics," says Hoadley, "but I think it resonates with most people. The beauty of the place. Small personal spaces, larger collective spaces and, ideally, the absence of automobiles. The idea is worth pursuing. It's too bad that there isn't more to it here now. But isn't it great that there's something here at all?"
ANNE STEPHENSON is a writer in Phoenix.
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