Arcology: Life in the Big City

by Bob Rudner
Chicago Arcology Network

Megacities are metropolitan regions of over 10 million, like Tokyo and Mexico City. In comparison, Chicagoland is over 7.5 million, and heading up. Sprawl defines the lay of the land of most big cities, with suburban borders clashing and farmland, forests and wetlands gobbled up by roads, malls, townhouses and corporate entities. With 10 billion people predicted for the year 2050 -- double Earth's current occupancy -- the doubling of the amount of cities and maximizing the use of the land is a critical priority for any sane person pondering the situation.

Of all the subjects raised at the first United Nations-sponsored Habitat conference in Vancouver, Canada, sprawl has received the least attention. Roads, highways, single-family residences, parking lots, commercial and recreational centers have spread people apart. The automobile shapes architecture more than life and people. Our un-recyclable time is dispensed by vehicles which segregate inter-relationships.

Grids made for pre-computer age land designs occupy imaginations over the great potentials humans can create by utilizing telecommunications and computers. Participatory architecture awaits the application of current technology.

Since it is generally accepted that people want a sustainable future, that we desire living things around us and that natural diversity should be conserved, the means to these ends should become a major point of discussion. The highest expression thus far in the visual dialogue of city planning has come from Paolo Soleri, who coined the term "arcology" (shorthand for "architecture for ecology"). In 1970, he published a rich tapestry of his arcologic designs and philosophy called Arcology: City in the Image of Man.

That same year, Soleri founded a school and urban laboratory called Arcosanti, in central Arizona. His writing and dreams attracted thousands of volunteers who by 1976 had built most of the structures now comprising Arcosanti.

Soleri, who studied under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesen West, was among the lecturers at Habitat I, which included Buckminster Fuller (inventor of the geodesic dome), 24 years his senior. The two were paired up for their structural genius and were admired by Canadian architect Moishe Safdie of Montreal Expo fame.

A lineage can be seen in the ideals of Wright, Fuller, Soleri and Safdie. Each has exhibited designs which stand in contrast to standard operating procedure. Yet all have suffered being pushed to the fringe. All have been marginalized by professionals whose success was defined by their acquiescence to the norm of modern city design where living spaces are segregated by automobile thoroughfares. Soleri, especially, has fought the status quo of auto-centric architecture.big city of the future will revolve around citizens' familiarity with arcology.

The time to start studying this phenomenon is now. Activists taking on each issue in separate terms are like self-basting turkeys stewing in their own juices. From the looks of things, ecologists have suffered so much burn-out that the thermometer is about to pop out. Bucky Fuller used the term "comprehensivism." If people are to comprehend the urban whole, arcology is the way.

Meliorism -- a naive belief that things will get better on their own -- will only make things worse, as pointed out by Richard Levine, founder of the Center for Sustainable Cities (CSC) at the University of Kentucky College of Architecture. Rather than starting off with compromise, Levine asserts his ideas of "sustainable city implantations" by proposing workable designs for proof. In the mile and a half airspace over the Westbanhof Station yard in Vienna, Austria, the CSC, together with the famed Oikodrome, will be experimenting with its parallel concepts of arcology, what Soleri might call a "retrofit arcology."

The implantation operates with three dimensional public space (as opposed to mere ground level access), and will be up to twelve stories high. The concept is also called "city-as-a-hill," in that it functions as a multi-directional megastructure with life flourishing on its surface for aesthetics and urban agriculture.

Like Soleri, Levine raises landscaping to a higher level by covering his structures with life. Within the implantation is a mix of uses working in a geography of pedestrian mobility while outskirting the automobile. Of course, solar gain is anticipated by the site's particular seasonal access to sunlight.

CSC has challenged both academic architecture and the so-called "real estate" industry's perpetual suburban townhouse/mall sprawl. Rather than caving into car commercialism's grid dominance over the shape of the land, CSC uses the sun and nature to nurture its designs. And their CAD methods open up democracy by allowing for participatory architecture centered around the computer's malleable anvil.

The politics of arcology will become easier when CAD games replace violent video games. Construction is the opposite of destruction. Creativity in play and work will be augmented when people are vantaged by Internet. Global design charrettes, working with shared models, can allow people anywhere on the network to examine the potentials of architecture and city planning for sustainability.

It must be the grassroots environmentalists and community activists who provide the yeast for such an adventure. As Frederick Douglass put it, "No power is ceded without demand." With a mass base, arcology will achieve its rightful academic status and its place on the estate will become real. All other architecture is merely like rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic.

Big city realities are overwhelmingly violent and depressing. It is unreal to plan on more townhouses, cars, shopping malls, waste dumps and highways, etc. Industry needs to be neighborhood-friendly. Independence is evolving into inter-dependence. The aging population needs accessibility, as demonstrated by the disability rights movement. A convergence is at hand, with growing population and technology, shrinking wildlife refuges and wetlands, the dwindling and contaminating of resources and the widespread realization of these problems.

The beauty of the challenge is that we are not far from the solutions. Indeed, they are at hand if only people would reach for them.