Since the early days of American history, so-called utopian communities have been a defining feature of our cultural landscape. Photographer Joel Sternfeld has captured 60 of them in his new book, "Sweet Earth". A common theme in these societies is harmony with nature, and many also boast noteworthy eco-friendly features. In this series of stories, we'll visit North Carolina, New Mexico, Massachusetts, Illinois, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Tennessee, and learn about their founders’ visions.

Paolo Soleri at Arcosanti, Cordes Junction, Arizona, August 2000

Throughout the twentieth century, architects have been particularly ready to offer their visions of an idealized urban future. For Le Corbusier, a “Radiant City” would be appropriate to the machine age, providing a highly efficient and organized grid to facilitate modern life. For Frank Lloyd Wright, it was critical that everyone have their own patch of earth on which to realize their individuality: thus his “Broadacre City” not only necessitated personal land to live on, but a car to get there. The Italian-born architect Paolo Soleri is far less well-known to the public than Le Corbusier or Wright, but in the Arizona desert he is quietly building what is perhaps the world’s only true prototype of a futurist city.

Arcosanti is an “Arcology,” a word used by Soleri to describe the harmonious marriage of architecture and ecology. Unlike Wright, with whom he studied, Soleri believes that it is the physical dispersal in the landscape permitted by the automobile that has led to moral and spiritual dispersal in society. By contrast, Arcosanti, planned for five thousand inhabitants, will occupy only two percent of the land normally taken up by a suburban development. Residents work no more than a ten-minute walk from their homes, eliminating the need for cars within the city—consistent with Soleri’s prophecy of the eventual extinction of the automobile. Reminiscent of the historic center of Italian cities, every aspect of Arcosanti’s design, including numerous balconies, terraces and piazzas, encourages a maximum of social interaction.

Soleri is also critical of excessive consumption of resources. To avoid wasting materials, gardens, solar heating and natural cooling move the community toward self-sufficiency.

Arcosanti has been under construction for thirty-five years, self-funded by the sale of distinctive wind chimes and bells that are forged on site. It is being built by students and volunteers—progress is at once achingly slow and surprisingly fast. Visitors will find a substantial and unusual small community of about fifty permanent residents, and significant glimpses of a city that feels ancient and futuristic as it rises.

This story originally appeared in "Plenty" in February 2007.

Copyright Environ Press 2007

Also in this series

Slices of heaven: Arizona
Joel Sternfeld's photographs of American utopias.