Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Two intentional communities, two very different approaches

In my attempt to catch up with blog posts it seems I glossed over a place that I visited a few weeks ago...Arcosanti in the middle of Arizona, an intentional community/laboratory for urban living started back in the 70s by architect and artist Paolo Soleri. At the time, Soleri's theory of "arcology" (architecture+ecology) was revolutionary, and his thoughts surrounding urban planning were rather unique. Now however, much of his vision and the work continuing in Arcosanti seems rather outdated and rigid. When I arrived, the very first thing I noticed was that the entire structure is made of concrete! Yikes...if you've been reading my previous posts, it's the same criticism I had for Earthship Biotecture...everyone is using so much portland cement (a main ingredient of concrete), but it has an enormous embedded energy! And the plan for the building of the city called Arcosanti has not changed much since the obsession with concrete in the 70's (as my friend Dave pointed out, SIPA on Columbia's campus is one example too many of that trend in architecture...). That is mind boggling. All the best designs and ideas must change as they are further developed and articulated, no?
I will say there are some successes to be claimed by Arcosanti, one of which is the ability to shape and work with concrete...making silt-cast murals, forming amazing arches, etc. The other being a city (really a small commune, ~100 people) that champions artistic expression (they have entire spaces allocated for metal work, woodworking, pottery, concerts) and forces people to interact with each other. Perhaps force is a harsh word...what I mean is that the buildings are designed to channel people into central locations, with smallish living quarters and large communal areas.

The other intentional community I visited was recommended by David Eisenberg, called LA EcoVillage. The community is, of course, in LA, which is a huge contrast to the more rural intentional communities I've encountered thus far, and I can say that I liked it so much better! Maybe I'm biased toward urban lifestyles, but I also just think it was functioning better due to the higher density...for many, it becomes their refuge in the big city. Still, there were many rules which were sort of lax and ambiguous duties, so much of the garden seemed neglected.

The things I found most interesting at the LA EcoVillage were the following:
1. They ran a CSA out of their 40 unit building. Totally something doable within a community, all this requires is a coordinator that schedules volunteer times for the members...and I believe they offered shares to non-members in the surrounding area.
2. They petitioned the city for permeable pavement. Is this possible in other areas of the country?? When walking on it there was seemingly no difference, and frankly I could hardly tell it was permeable...I need to research that material...
3. They painted their intersection. Hooray! I love this idea...though it seemed they did not use road paint, since the paint was slowly fading.
4. They champion reuse AND actually demonstrate by doing...their fence is made of welded bicycle parts, they used old doors in their renovations, they have a giveaway table where people leave their unwanted items that are still usable (Arcosanti had a huge room for this purpose, plus an attached library)
5. The diversity of folks living there. I think this is somewhat by chance, but it was refreshing to see a mix of all ages, races, classes, etc. Maybe it is this way because it is LA? Maybe they're just lucky? This returns me to a question I am always interested can a program be successful in having all kinds of people involved? Should one actively try to increase participation in certain cases for certain people?
6. They have set up a land trust...I need to look more into this...

After visiting both Arcosanti and the LAEcoVillage I still remain somewhat skeptical of the exclusiveness of intentional communities. The LA EcoVillage has definitely been more successful in involving people surrounding the buildings that they occupy, but...don't the gates around the building utter a silent "keep out?"

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