The old, dirt South Cross L Ranch Road through the high desert brings me to a cliff edge towering over a rough arroyo gulch. The view past the arroyo spills down onto a field of flat bottom land and the distant brushy banks of the Agua Fria River. Perched atop this cliff is an otherworldly cluster of buildings looking quite like an alien space colony.
Tall concrete buildings are cut by cantilevered porches, porticoes, and expansive round windows. Soaring arches and landscape-sized half-shell apses are decorated with bold architectural designs. Is this a dreamscape?
Yes. It was Paolo Soleri’s architecturally designed dream of a city built on the human scale, where cars are left behind, buildings work with natural forces instead of against them, spaces are designed for comfort, entertainment and services, and it all blends into the natural landscape with minimal environmental impact. The visionary Italian architect started Arcosanti in 1970 as a prototype city of the future, where residents could live good lives surrounded by work, play, community and nature. Over 50 years later his message, blending architecture and ecology — arcology — is more powerful than ever.
Arcosanti is more than a model. It’s home to over a hundred working residents. It’s an event center (get married at Arocosanti!), a performance hall, a research facility, an educational lab, an architecture school, a very unusual AirBnB, an artisan bell factory with a store, and a café. Visitors and guests come to explore, to learn, or to stay. Some visit the café for lunch and an excellent brew while taking a break from the high-speed freeway lanes between Prescott and Phoenix.
In the café I sit down with Nikki Check, Director of Guest Experience and Operations, and Kate Bermesderfer, Senior Director of Communications and Development. Like the outside, the interior space is out of this world. It’s open and airy, with private nooks, soaring views and the intermittent reverberating sounds of gigantic Arcosanti bells.
Nikki and Kate fill me in on what’s happening. Arcosanti is emerging from pandemic isolation by reviving art shows, performances and educational events to spread the word that Arcosanti remains a viable prototype for the good life in harmony with the planet.
Nikki treats me to the special of the day: High Desert Salad (tepary beans, nopal, tomato and avocado) dressed with hot sauce, cotija cheese and toasted pepitas (pumpkin seeds) on a bed of Arco greens and a cup of exceptional locally roasted, fair-trade coffee. The café specializes in simple, seasonal, healthy, garden-to-table and flavorful food, with gluten-free and vegan options. It has been completely renovated with new kitchen equipment, flooring, countertops and lighting, and a redesign of the space. And it’s newly reopened with a seasoned, innovative chef and a fresh focus on Arcosanti-grown and local products.
New orchards are being planted, adding to the existing olive, fig and apple trees. Several Arcosanti greenhouses grow greens and salads, tomatoes and cucumbers for the café in season. The twelve-acre bottomland field will be planted in beans, corn and other edibles for use in the café. Local wild plants like prickly pear and mesquite will be sustainably foraged for specials.
After lunch I catch the Arcosanti tour (three or four daily, $18 per person, children free) and enjoy the guided exploration. The striking half-shell apses are outdoor factories for bronze and ceramic bells. You can watch the artisans at work pouring liquid bronze or clay into forms and finishing each with a unique Arcosanti design. The silt-casting techniques used to make the bells are the same ones used to form the apses and arches! More huge silt-cast arches span the central meeting and performance spaces.
We visit the library, archives room, a classroom and the swimming pool, with stellar view, set on the cliff edge. It’s the cliff edge I like the most, with sweeping views, vertical Italian junipers, verdant fig and olive trees, fragrant rosemary bushes, and a parklike atmosphere. Trails lead across the desert highlands and down toward the Agua Fria.
The tour begins and ends at the bell store, offering hundreds of bronze and ceramic bells, each one different, hanging singly or mounted in arrangements, small ones, large ones, tinkly tones and deep reverberations. It’s a fantastical end to a fantastical visit, and I’m taking a bell home. Every house needs a bell. (You can order bells online at cosanti.com)
Next time you’re screaming down the highway, take that exit at Cordes Junction and follow the Arcosanti signs into human time. Take that exit to discover how we can live lightly and better on the earth, and relax with a good cup of coffee.
Arcosanti is open to the public seven days a week 9am-5pm. Visitors may shop, relax, and gather in the Visitors Center free of charge. The café is open Thursday through Monday, 8:30am-3:30pm. Make reservations for specialty tours, classes or workshops, or find jobs, rooms, performances and festivals on the website (arcosanti.org) or call 928-632-7135. Register for the free online speaker series Food in the Desert: arcosanti.org/lecture-series.
Chef Molly Beverly is Prescott's leading creative food activist and teacher. Photos by Gary Beverly.