Arcosanti is a little mystifying, sitting just off Interstate 17 an hour north of Phoenix. Rumor has it this unusual futuristic community in the desert inspired George Lucas to create the planet Tatooine in Star Wars. What began as a sustainable urban experiment created by architect Paolo Soleri in 1970 remains a living piece of work, where urban architects and artists still reside. Take a guided tour, book a minimalist room, or eat during the season at the café with the in-resident community.
About Paolo Soleri
Paolo Soleri was an architectural genius — although quirky and definitely a flawed human being. I found it interesting to explore his life and the controversy and complications surrounding it.
Soleri came to Arizona in 1947 as a student of architect Frank Lloyd Wright, but the two equally brilliant architects clashed. Soleri became known for his urban design work and eventually made his home in Scottsdale with his wife and two daughters. He lectured at the College of Architecture at Arizona State University was a National Design Award recipient in 2006. But he is most known for Arcosanti and his beautiful windbells.
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Paolo Soleri’s Arcosanti
Soleri started his dream in 1970 and began construction on Arcosanti. It was to be the living representation of what he termed arcology (architecture + ecology). Soleri envisioned it as the opposite of urban sprawl — people living together in harmony with the land, efficiently utilizing its resources, working in much closer proximity to one another.
Soleri planned for 5,000 residents to someday move into Arcosanti. Even though he passed away in 2013, his work continues under the Cosanti Foundation. There are only about 100 residents now living there, but many volunteer their time to support Soleri’s dream.
Students often exchange learning about arcology in exchange for helping out around the facility — participating in everything from design, construction, and landscaping to metalworking, hospitality, and communications. Artists also help produce the wind bells.
You can experience Soleri’s urban experiment, Arcosanti — and demystify the buildings that sit just a mile off the interstate. Guides lead one-hour tours daily to explore Soleri’s former workspaces, discover the concepts behind the unique buildings, walk through the ceramic studio and the bronze foundry, and learn about community life. More advanced tours focusing on architecture and planning are available by appointment.
Tours take place daily at 10 am, 11 am, noon, and 1 pm throughout the summer months. During the cooler season, there are tours on the hour between 10 am and 4 pm, with no noon tour. Check the website for current times and any private events. Reservations are required, so go online to schedule your tour. Tours are $20 for adults; $12 for students; and free to those 12 and younger.
Stay at Arcosanti
Visitors can also book one of the guest rooms available for overnight stays. These are similar to a dorm room—simple, no-frills, some with private baths, each with a Paolo Soleri siltcast design on the ceiling—but the simplicity is defied by magnificent Arizona views. The rooms have full glass fronts that look out over the Agua Fria National Monument with some of the best sunrise vistas anywhere.
This isn’t a luxury stay. It’s about exploring the history of Arcosanti, sitting around the shared tables of the café, and chatting with residents Note that the café is open seasonally from mid-September to late spring. If you choose to eat at the café, it is available to guests Thursdays through Sundays. It offers coffee and tea service from 9 to 11 am and made-to-order lunch from 11 am to 2 pm. Everything at the café is grown within a 250-mile radius of Arcosanti.
A stay at Arcosanti gives you a chance to speak with the archivist about Soleri’s passion, watching artists pour molten bronze for the bells, and taking time to disconnect from the online world for a few hours.
Soleri Windbells in Phoenix
You’ll also encounter the wind bells as you travel through the Phoenix Valley of the Sun. Soleri used his artistic talent to create beautiful hand-poured ceramic and bronze wind bells. For the remainder of his life, those wind bells became the foundation that would finance his Arcosanti dream to create ecologically sustainable urban environments.
Exploring Cosanti in Paradise Valley
You can visit Soleri’s Cosanti gallery and studio in Paradise Valley. A visit to Cosanti with its terraced landscaping and rounded concrete structures gives you a sense of Soleri’s experimental style.
You can sign up for a volunteer-led tour and peruse the gift shop where you’ll find the famous hand-made bronze and ceramic windbells.
Exploring Cosanti in Scottsdale
On a tour of Scottsdale public art, I encountered a massive windbell at Scottsdale’s Soleri Bridge and Plaza, a colorful pedestrian passage anchored by the Soleri bells. Soleri originally made these for the Goldwater department store, owned by the family of AZ Senator Barry Goldwater.
But the big secret was that the bridge is also a solar calendar. As I enjoyed looking up and photographing the bells, our guide told us how the solar calendar works.
Searching for Soleri Bells Around Phoenix
As you explore Phoenix, I suggest that you keep an eye out for the signature bells. They often show up in buildings around the Valley. For example, you can see a massive set of Soleri's windbells at the main entrance to Neiman Marcus in Scottsdale Fashion Square.
The second floor of the Burton Barr Central Library in Phoenix has a Soleri bell collection. There is a gorgeous display inside Terminal 4 at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport. If you go to the main lobby of the Mayo Clinic on North Shea Blvd, you can glimpse the impressive bells.
As I stood on the grounds at Arcosanti, feeling the silence of the desert, punctuated by the sound of bells as a wind tickled its way through on a warm October evening, I couldn't help wondering if perhaps Soleri was onto something with his great urban experiment in the desert. Be sure to check out more on Wander about what to do and see when you visit Arizona.