The city in the image of man


Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, by Paolo Soleri, Cambridge: MIT Press, 1970, 122 pp., $25.00

The architectural genius of the first half of the 20th century was unquestionably Frank Lloyd Wright. Like fictional innovator Howard Roark, Wright smashed the conventions of a profession then mired in the past and created an entirely new school of "organic" architecture. To Wright, architecture was not a matter of decorating boxes called buildings; rather, it was a question of determining the functions required of the structure and shaping the spaces accordingly. This functional approach revolutionized architecture and formed the basis for much of modern systems analysis.

Today, problems of buildings are routinely solved; the challenge lies not in the structure of buildings but in the larger structure of our cities themselves. While our major cities decay and stagnate, new suburbs (in many cases instant slums) sprawl at an accelerating pace across the landscape. Open space disappears, traffic jams proliferate, and a whole generation grows up with no concept of community. Critics disagree on the causes and solutions, but most agree that the structure of our urban areas is somehow not meeting people's needs. Were Wright—or Roark—to begin his career today, very likely it would be this problem to which he would direct his creative energies. It is not too surprising, then, to learn that the most daring solutions to the urban design problem are coming today from one of Wright's former students.


Paolo Soleri's name is not yet a household word, like Frank Lloyd Wright or Buckminster Fuller, whose intellectual heir he is. But Soleri's bold vision of a new kind of city is at last beginning to receive the publicity it deserves. The publication two years ago of his book ARCOLOGY: THE CITY IN THE IMAGE OF MAN, brought to life in stunning graphic form his design concepts and his rationale for the giant city-structures he calls arcologies. The book itself is an artistic tour de force: its 14? x 25? size (14? x 50? when opened) does justice to the enormity of Soleri's vision. The impact is heightened by the MIT Press's clean, modern graphic design.

The book's frontispiece carries the apparently ironic line, "This book is about miniaturization"—but it is no joke. Just as Bucky Fuller has stressed how technology has advanced by doing more with less, Soleri is calling for miniaturization of our sprawling urban landscapes. Thought of as buildings, his arcologies are indeed huge (e.g., one cubic kilometer in size), but in comparison to our existing urban areas they are miniaturized. Soleri's cities are designed to use only 10% of the land area now used to provide for the same number of people by using three dimensions and technology for much greater efficiency in design. The structures vary in size from Arcvillage II (30,000 people on 40 acres) to Babelnoah (6 million people, 1700 meters high). They are located variously on land, just offshore, floating on the ocean surface, on or within cliff walls, spanning canyons, and integral with giant dams.


Arcology is a coined word, meaning ecological architecture. Soleri's vision is ecological in a multi-faceted way: first, his structures represent a total, "organic" environment for man—an "unmistakable expression of man the maker and man the creator," yet far more than merely a monument. The whole idea is to produce a truly functional environment for man, to provide convenient access to all the goods and services man requires within a single close-at-hand environment. At the same time, its purpose is also to preserve the surrounding environment in its near-natural state, for the enjoyment of all the residents. It does this by the totality and efficiency of its design. Finally, it also exists to provide an aesthetic environment for man—by design. "Lovableness is the key to a living city. A lovely city is not an accident, as a lovely person is not an accident." Soleri sums up his case for a new urban architecture as follows:

The liveliness of man's world is hindered by the physical extension of his shelter and the spatial dilution of his institutions. Life is in the thick of things…richer is the life where greater is the complexity.…The city must then be predicated on compactness. Lack of compactness is lack of efficiency. The compact city is a three-dimensional city…[it] is respectful of the earth's sensitized skin. It does not spread an inorganic crust over the vital green carpet of earth. In the three-dimensional city, man defines a human ecology. In it he is a country-dweller and metropolitan man in one. By it the inner and the outer are at "skin" distance. He has made the city in his own image. (p. 9)

An obvious objection to the idea of massive, densely-populated city—structures is the analogy with anthills, beehives, and other mindless collective groupings. Soleri anticipates such objections. "The fundamental distinction," he writes, between these and an arcology is that the latter contains "not just brains by the score, but also minds by the score." Indeed, full opportunity for contact and interaction with other minds is one of the things an arcology seeks to maximize. Soleri suggests that anthill critics "might want to glance at nightmarish suburbia with its six billion individuals; but it is their privilege not to reason about mankind and the staggering logistics it is faced with." (p. 12)


It is logistics, more than any other factor, that makes the case against suburbia (or, more precisely, megalopolis) so compelling. Currently, these problems are solved by a curious and chaotic mixture of local governments, monopoly utilities and the free market. But can this interplay of real estate speculators, subdividers, zoning boards, water districts, highway departments, etc. actually produce a good environment for living? In some ways, of course, this "system" is remarkably responsive to changing demands and economic factors, but only at the price of gross inefficiency from a system design standpoint. Consider the typical urban area controversies: where (or whether) to run sewer lines, who is to pay for undergrounding of utility wires, how to widen a freeway to meet the demand without destroying homes, how to let kids walk safely to school despite high-density traffic, where and how to dispose of garbage and trash, etc., etc. Each of these problems must be solved, as it occurs, on an ad-hoc basis, because the megalopolis has "just grown" and there is no "system," no design there to begin with. No one would think of moving into an office building whose wiring, plumbing, and elevator systems were managed in this fashion.

Or consider the kinds of items included on city managers' wish lists of technological breakthroughs—such items as:

  • an efficient device to disintegrate pavement quietly;
  • a more effective method for finding underground utility lines;
  • a portable device to measure the volume of waste flowing in a sewer;
  • a soil stabilizer to use on unpaved roads and alleys;
  • a low-cost material to remove or prevent the formation of ice on pavement.

All of these "solutions" deal only with the symptoms of the lack of systems engineering in megalopolis. The electrical, water, sewage, transportation, and communications "systems" of megalopolis are a nightmare tangle of inefficiency. One of the most impressive features of the proposed arcologies is their superb plumbing networks—preplanned, integrated, automated systems for all the utilities and for transportation, both vertically and horizontally.

Attempting to add such systems onto an existing urban area is incredibly costly, not only in dollars, but in social and political infighting. Soleri's solution is far simpler and more efficient (since all the distances involved are an order of magnitude smaller than their urban counterparts). The city officials and urban lobbyists who are pushing the above-listed "solutions" to urban ills are calling for a massive federal R&D program to develop these devices. Sinking the taxpayers' money into such costly, inefficient short-run items would be an incredible waste. And, of course, the tax money used for such a program would be drawn from the available financial resources—private or otherwise—which might be used to construct real solutions, such as arcologies.


Besides its gross inefficiency in terms of transportation, communications, and utility systems, megalopolis has two additional major disadvantages—the loss of community and the destruction of the natural environment. Whole generations of human beings are today growing up in the rootless, sterile sameness of one crackerbox subdivision after another, missing any semblance of culture and broad human interaction. Equally as serious is the voracious appetite of megalopolis for land. More and more, open space anywhere within reach of people's homes is falling to the bulldozers, to the point where some citizens are pressing city governments to buy up what little remains as a "public trust." Once again, a very real human want is being frustrated by the present system's unconcern with providing any sort of quality environment.

Both of these concerns—community and environment—are central to the arcology concept.

To be exposed early in life to the complex workings of the individual and of society, to have a substantial reach for all those things and institutions that make metropolitan life rewarding, to be able at the same time to seek and be in the midst of nature, to enjoy the limitless and meaningful variety the life of society may produce for itself and the individual, are all built-in characteristics of arcology. (p. 31)


The compactness of arcology gives back to farming and to land conservation 90 per cent or more of the land that megalopolis and suburbia are engulfing in their sprawl. To be a city dweller and a country man at one and the same time, to be able to partake fully of both city and country life, will make the arcology a place in which man will want to live. (p. 31)

What then are the prospects for arcologies actually to come into being? In a limited way the precursors of arcology already exist. As Soleri points out, ocean liners present a crude, small-scale version of the planned, self-contained city, albeit a temporary, single-purpose "community." Then, too, some of the largest skyscrapers are beginning to take on the characteristics of small cities. Chicago's new 100-story John Hancock Building combines commercial offices, homes, and service facilities (grocery, laundramats, and a jeweler). Thus far only 15 of the apartment tenants also work in the building, but the potential exists for the "community" to be virtually self-contained. In the horizontal dimension, major new shopping centers are being built fully enclosed, with their own powerplants, total climate control, office space, apartments, churches, auditoriums, etc. Thus, the initial functional and behavioral trends toward arcology seem to be being established. The technology for life support, utility and transportation systems, and recycling will be given impetus by upcoming NASA orbiting space station development.


Soleri himself has a development plan in mind: no huge federal program, no "national commitments" or other statist rhetoric for him. "It is most reasonable to begin somewhere with an island of functional sanity and let the pattern spread according to its own merits, neither coerced nor coercing." Accordingly, he is attempting to raise capital for a prototype arcology, called Arcosanti, to be built 60 miles north of his current encampment in Scottsdale, Arizona. Arcosanti, which would house 1,500 people, would serve as a prototype and testing ground for the structural, environmental, and social concepts basic to arcologies. All that is now required is the funding and the systems engineering skills actually to organize the planning and construction of Arcosanti. Prudential Insurance has shown some initial interest, sponsoring an exhibition of Soleri's drawings and models, backed up by national advertising. But more than just publicity is needed now.

Where are the businessmen with the courage and vision to support such an experiment? Our future urban health could depend on whether (and how soon) they come forward.

Dick Pierce is a physical scientist with a California research firm. His article "Futurology—the Coming Thing" appeared in the June 1971 issue of REASON.