Architect Jeff Stein oversees Arcosanti,
When Jeff Stein was a kid in his 20s, he bought a book by Paolo Soleri. He read it, became inspired and sought out the world-renowned architect, who was creating something called Arcosanti. Four decades later, Stein is the man in charge of Soleri's "urban laboratory" — the student picking up where the master left off.
the Paolo Soleri-designed "urban
laboratory" located 70 miles north
© John Wagner
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By Kathy Ritchie
In 1970, it looked as if the world were coming to an end. America was fighting a polarizing war in Vietnam. The Ohio National Guard shot and killed four students at Kent State University. And Apollo 13 barely averted disaster. Dreams were at a premium, and even the American Dream seemed to be dissolving into the ether. But high atop a high-desert mesa 70 miles north of Phoenix, something was happening. An idea was taking shape, and it would eventually become a beacon for a disillusioned generation.
The place was Arcosanti, an "urban laboratory" designed by the internationally renowned architect Paolo Soleri. His brainchild would ultimately serve as a school, a home, a commune, a church and a family for the nearly 7,000 individuals who would cross its threshold. It was Soleri's life work, but in 2011, some 40 years after breaking ground on Arcosanti, he decided to retire at the age of 92. His departure marked both the end of an era and the beginning of another.
Jeff Stein never wanted to be boss. In fact, the former dean of the Boston Architectural College, who appears more at ease in chinos and a pressed, button-up shirt, hardly looks the part in a place where Birkenstocks are clearly de rigeur. But when Soleri decided to step away from the day-to-day business of running Arcosanti — effective immediately — the Cosanti Foundation's board of trustees, of which Stein was a member, had to make a choice. And fast.
"The board members looked at me and said, 'You could do this,' " Stein says. "I said, 'Maybe I could.' " He left his post and never looked back.
Jeff Stein was a kid in his early 20s when he came across Paolo Soleri's book Arcology: City in the Image of Man. "It was 50 percent off," Stein says with a smile. In the book, Soleri had intricately illustrated entire super cities based on his "Arcology" philosophy. The idea behind Arcology, which merges the words archaeology and ecology, is that a densely packed population can live in harmony with its surrounding environment.
Or, as Soleri put it: "I am advocating a Lean Hypothesis about reality and a Lean Alternative to our materialistic culture. With the lean urban development, I put tangibility to my conjecturing. Years ago, I declared that Leanness is frugality fraught with sophistication. The gazelle is lean, i.e. frugality wrapped in grace."
For Stein, everything about Arcology and Soleri's vision of what the world could be was mind-altering.
"It was fascinating stuff," Stein says. "In his drawings, you can see a jazz club on the 50th floor. Or sometimes there was a note by Paolo that read, 'Leonard Bernstein's apartment.' He was beginning to humanize this stuff."
Intoxicated by Soleri and the glimmer of possibility, Stein quit his job at a small architecture firm in the Midwest and moved to Soleri's desert utopia in 1975. There, he joined others like him, pouring concrete to help bring the vision to life.
"I was building some of the most interesting buildings I'd ever seen with people from all over the world," Stein says. "I got a sense of what architecture could be."
For the past 30 years, Stein has supported Soleri and the Cosanti Foundation, editing and illustrating books, working on museum exhibits, and translating Soleri's ideas into graphics.
"I was learning every day," Stein says. "And yet, there were times when I would argue with Paolo — he takes his work very seriously, and he's open to other ideas. Of course, every now and then, he would tell me [I was] fired. Obviously, that wasn't exactly the case."
Situated on 15 acres of land, Arcosanti is composed of several grayish-brown concrete structures that, together, look more like a derelict spaceship than a gleaming city on the hill.
Although Arcosanti is not off the grid, it has significantly minimized its environmental footprint simply by facing south. In the winter months, Arcosanti fills with light, while in the summer months, it's covered in shade.
Besides dishing up meals for residents and visitors, the café serves as a de facto homeroom. Living quarters were designed to face public spaces in an effort to increase community interaction. And work zones, called the Foundry Apse and Ceramics Apse, where some residents craft Soleri's famous windbells, are located nearby, so Arcosanti, and other Arcologies like it, can remain car free.
Inside Soleri's former residence, Stein proudly shows off his new home. The apartment is small, but spacious enough. The walls are spartan — no photographs of Stein's wife or son, no artworks by Soleri. Fortunately, a massive circular window occupies the east wall, providing endless views of the high desert and a turquoise pool that glimmers beneath the wall. Despite being shaded, the apartment feels warm, but that's part of the Arcosanti experience.
"We're willing to take off a few clothes in the summertime," Stein confesses.
The kitchen features a square stainless-steel sink, and an old copper coil above it serves as a dish rack. A tea kettle sits on one of two antiquated cooktop burners. With the exception of Stein's flat-screen television, his Bose sound dock and his Macbook, the place looks a lot like Soleri left it. And that's just fine with Stein.
"I'm not confined to my apartment," he says. "The entire village of Arcosanti is my home. Sometimes, I'm up at 3 a.m., and it's so terrific that I can open my door and take a walk outside underneath the stars. I can go anywhere, and I know my neighbors. It's safe, it's wonderful."
Although Arcosanti might look like it's crumbling from the inside out, it is, in fact, alive and well and open for business, thanks to Stein's own vision, enthusiasm and mentorship of a new generation of seekers who crave something other than the status quo.
"I want to instill in them a worldview about who they might be and what they might do with these ideas now that they've come into contact with them," he says. "How can they go out and become citizens of the world? You know, Arcosanti is a multicultural place, which is a particularly American idea. Arcosanti is a great American success story."
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