June 12, 2018

Photo Essay: How Bellfounding Helped Build an Unfinished Utopia

I knew about the bells, but only tangentially. I'd never encountered them in person, never heard their din or ding or clatter or cacophony.

I didn't know how musical they'd be.

I've kind of got a thing for bells—church bells and liberty bells and sleigh bells, not to mention bell towers, carillons, and chime towers.

So, while I was in Phoenix for a wedding, I wanted to see how Paolo Soleri's bells were made at his Cosanti studio in Paradise Valley.

Normally, you can take a tour and see a foundry demonstration, but as it was Memorial Day, the studio was open to visitors but had suspended any other programming.

So, I looked around, took some photos, and rang some bells.

Bell design and fabrication wasn't Soleri's first love...

...but his output became so popular that the endeavor funded his true passion, architecture.

Well, not exactly architecture in the traditional sense, but a kind of earth-conscious, experimental bent on building that he called "arcology."

And while the structures at Cosanti Originals give a glimpse into that ecologically utopian built environment that Soleri dreamed of, the only way to truly experience it is to visit his "city"-in-the-making, Arcosanti.

Never one to be satisfied with just a passing encounter, I booked a tour and a room to spend the night.

Located in the Sonoran Desert about an hour north of Phoenix, Arcosanti is a world away.

Born and accredited in Italy, Soleri apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen West in Scottsdale and Talisen in Wisconsin. But then, upon his return to Arizona, he took Wright's concept of organic architecture and, with it, made a sharp left turn.

And in 1970, he began his experiments in urban planning and living—with, in true FLW style, the help of a number of apprentices and interns who were there to learn from the master.

Originally intended to house 5000 people, it hasn't gotten anywhere close to that—and the extant structures are so old (some nearly 50 years) that most of the incoming funds have to be allocated to maintenance, upkeep, and repairs.

The buildings that have cropped up on the compound are weird and wondrous, to say the least.

It makes you wonder whether they're conversation-starters for the students who've been continuing Soleri's legacy since his passing in 2013—a way to break the ice and inspire them way beyond what they'd ever learn in architecture school.

The structures look somewhat Brutalist (or even Communist), but the philosophy behind them is far kindler and gentler.

It's about maximizing city living while minimizing the impact on the environment—not necessarily to escape urbanity, per se, but do embrace it without sucking the life out of the land it's built upon or its denizens.

The first structure to be built at Arcosanti was the South Vault, at the top of the hill...

...featuring precast panels made of silt and colored in the mixture rather than being painted later.

It's now the centerpiece of a prototype of how a dense population could live together in a smallish space, walking everywhere they need to go and abandoning their driving habits.

Sunlight abounds, especially with the quarter-sphere semi-domes built for ceramics and bronze-casting.

Natural methods are used to heat and cool the residences, including harnessing the greenhouse effect and taking advantage of the late-day breezes and microclimates that occur on the property.

As daylight waned after taking the last tour of the day, it was time to retire to "Camp"—a motel-style row of a dozen rooms with concrete floors and huge picture windows looking out at the mesa.

When you spend the night at Arcosanti, you can roam about the property as you please without a guide and observe how the light and shadows change the arches and crescents and circles and spheres. In the summer, it's quiet—it could accommodate as many as 500 people, but it doesn't.

Not yet, anyway.

But the people who do share the space are convivial, sharing cafeteria-style meals in the dining hall and leaving their doors and windows open for the breeze, the view, the socializing, and of course the windbells.

I hoped to encounter one of the critters the staff had warned me about, though I shut my door tightly when I went to bed, as instructed. I heard neither scratching nor roars, only the pitiful cry of a peacock, looking for a partner, long as the night wore on.

To me, this was the opposite of futurism—a way of stepping back in time when earthen materials (mud, adobe) were all you had to choose from, and you couldn't go very far for any other supplies.

Will we ever return to those days? Sometimes it seems like we've passed the point of no return.

And we seem to have given up on any inkling of utopia, too. It's just became... passé.

Maybe we've just gotten too used to being miserable, we've given up on ourselves and the planet, and we've got to just make peace with what we've got.

Related Posts:
Photo Essay: The Design of Living at A-Z West
Photo Essay: Under a Desert Dome
Photo Essay: Llano Del Rio Company Colony, Abandoned

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