Writer Katherine Braden
Photographer Bryan Black

It started with bells. Bells and a vision. In 1965, Paolo Soleri, along with his wife, Colly, built a small studio in Paradise Valley. From the Italian word “cosa,” which means thing, and “anti,” which means against or before, Soleri named his studio Cosanti. There, he hoped he would build, create and challenge architectural exploration.

Soleri began by making and selling ceramic wind-bells. The income he gained from these allowed him to pursue architectural philosophy and start building things for himself, exploring an intellectual realm beyond his architectural peers’ interest.

Troubled by the massive consumerism of the modern world and aware that urbanization of the planet was rapidly increasing, Soleri set out to provide a solution and seek the correct balance between architecture and ecology.

In 1970, he had his answer. He would build Arcosanti: an ideal urban environment, a sustainable city and an alternative to urban sprawl.

I travel an hour north of Phoenix, up Interstate 17, to see the city and meet with the executive assistant of the Cosanti Foundation, Sean-Paul von Ancken.

Arcosanti is a rural dream world set softly against a vast, remote desert. A set from Star Wars, a Dr. Seuss book, an ancient Aztec community — these are all things that come to mind when describing the whimsical cement buildings that twist and turn, the subterranean homes built into the side of a rock cliff, the apses where the bell-making studios are housed.

“Culture out your front door, nature out your back,” Sean-Paul tells me.

In the last 40 years, more than 7,000 volunteers have helped build the city. Now, 80 people live there, many of them artisans who continue to follow in Soleri’s footsteps. They spend their days making his world-famous bells.

Those living in Arcosanti exist on a lifestyle of leanness and elegant frugality. Example: no air conditioning, just fans.

“You adapt yourself to the environment,” says Sean-Paul, “not the environment to yourself.”

The goal? To discover some type of sustainable future and prove a city like Arcosanti, which balances nature and urbanization, is a viable alternative.

Sean-Paul gives me statistics: “We would need four earths if the developing world lived like Americans do.” Our resources are rapidly diminishing, he says, “but what if we were to change our paradigms and reorient our norms? Dissolve older norms, and let new ones flourish?”

Following Soleri’s idea of working with nature instead of around it, all of the bell-making is done outdoors. There are two studios: Cosanti, the original studio in Paradise Valley, and Arcosanti, the studio housed in the rural urban community. At each studio, 10 artisans make bronze bells and four make ceramic.

Each studio produces 40 to 70 bells daily. The process takes time and careful attention. The ceramic bells are silt-casted — a negative indentation of the bells is made on beds of silt, then filled with slip clay. Once a thin crust forms, the interior is sucked out, and the is bell dried, carved, fired and finally assembled.

The bronze bells are made by pressurizing nickel slag sand in a box around an aluminum form. They are then either given a patina finish (artificially aging the bronze produces a red or bluish tint) or are burnished, resulting in dark blues and purples.

Inspired by Soleri, each bell follows his basic form work and molding. However, the artisans carve their own designs in the bells, creating an entirely new product each time.

Sean-Paul tells me this is a cosmic symbol, an abstract design coming from the artists themselves that “encourages dreaming, visioning and thinking outside the box.” The symbols are elegant and primal, in tune with the ideology of Arcosanti.

Interested in making bells? Anyone can attend a workshop and learn the process. In fact, most of the current artisans had no experience about bronze- or ceramic-making prior to their workshop.

The workshops are one to five weeks. Participants receive lectures, aid in the construction of Arcosanti and learn how to create bells. Afterward, those who catch the passion and fervor of Soleri’s vision can sign on to live and work there for as long as they’d like. According to Sean-Paul, the experience is for those who wish to “meditate on both the human and urban condition.”

Don’t feel like living in a rural urban hostel for five weeks? Both Arcosanti and Cosanti give tours seven days a week. Arcosanti also offers hotel-like accommodations for those choosing to stay the night.

If you don’t take a workshop, at least take a tour of the extraordinary city and purchase one of Soleri’s world-famous bells. The bells are only available at the two Arizona studios and online. They run from $30 to $400. They hang everywhere in the world, from hotels, to exhibitions, to the Paolo Soleri bridge in Scottsdale. If you’re feeling extravagant, you can even snag a Soleri original for around $2,000. Custom orders are also available.

Another option is to purchase a cause bell, in which a portion of the proceeds will be donated to a specific cause. Causes the Cosanti Foundation supports include the Phoenix Art Museum, Tuscon Cancer Center, Christian Family Care Agency, Salvation Army and Arizona Diabetes Association.

Soleri passed away three years ago, and the Cosanti Foundation has found themselves in a time of transition. But they haven’t sold out. Using the money made from tours, workshops and bells, the faithful are still building Arcosanti, still adhering to Soleri’s values and vision.

“We’re following his footsteps,” says Sean-Paul. “[Soleri] gave us a path forward. He handed [Arcosanti] off to future generations. We have an identity already, but how we will confront the 21st century will be a fascinating turn of events.”

Sean-Paul gazes into the desert canyon Arcosanti is built into, onto and over.

“The more dire environmental circumstances become, the more relevant radical sustainable theologies become,” he says. “The more relevant [Arcosanti] becomes.”

Somewhere, bells clink gently. Anywhere you go in Arcosanti, you can hear them, a reminder of both the past and the future. Like Sean-Paul’s words, they ring full of hope and promise. I can hear them still as I drive away.

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