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The Christian, the Future, and Paolo Soleri

by John B. Cobb, Jr.

John B. Cobb, Jr., Ph.D. is Professor of Theology Emeritus at the Claremont School of Theology, Claremont, California, and Co-Director of the Center for Process Studies there. His many books currently in print include: Reclaiming the Church (1997); with Herman Daly, For the Common Good; Becoming a Thinking Christian (1993); Sustainability (1992); Can Christ Become Good News Again? (1991); ed. with Christopher Ives, The Emptying God: a Buddhist-Jewish-Christian Conversation (1990); with Charles Birch, The Liberation of Life; and with David Griffin, Process Theology: An Introductory Exposition (1977). He is a retired minister in the United Methodist Church. His email address is cobbj@cgu.edu.. This article appeared in the Christian Century, October 30, 1974, pp. 1008-1011. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.


For all our Christian talk of hope, we are offering little hope today. Some people still believe that our problems can be solved within the basic structures of our society. New international agreements on trade and development, increased support for the industrializing nations, the "green revolution," implementation of birth control programs, adjustments in the economic system that will add the social costs of production to the price of goods, massive redevelopment of our cities, rural community development programs, a guaranteed annual income for all persons, the harnessing of solar energy, recycling of scarce materials and substitution of plentiful materials for those in short supply -- such changes in the present system, some think, will assure worldwide economic growth. They are not totally wrong. Certainly any viable society will have to take measures of that sort. But the most that can be expected from this program of reform is postponement of more radical social and economic change -- that is, a new kind of society.

Images of Hope

Hopeful images of possible societies of the future are already on hand. One is that of a return to the ancient hunting-and-gathering society. This is a realistic image in the sense that people can live that way and, its advocates insist, can live well; for they believe that such and only such a way of life is in tune with the deepest rhythms of the bodily and psychic functioning of human beings. Experimental groups have proved the point, at least to their own satisfaction -- witness poet Gary Snyder, whose writing reflects a vision gained in part from participation in such groups. But the world will scarcely revive the hunting-and-gathering system unless it has passed through unimaginable catastrophe.

Another hopeful image is that of a return to simple agriculturalism. Those who favor this vision argue that, on the basis of labor-intensive farming and skill in handicrafts, largely self-sufficient communities could develop -- communities that would not be destroyed by the breakdown of global economic systems or by regional collapse of transportation or energy transmission. Moreover, the environmental damage caused by a given population living close to the land would be very small compared with that caused by the same number of people living in our industrial, technological, growth-oriented society. Warren Johnson ("Paths Out of the Corner," IDOC International, North American edition, October 1972) has proposed practical means for starting such communities. Radical as his ideas are, they deserve attention in a world that seems bent on suicide.

Like Gary Snyder, Johnson envisions a return to an earlier social order. Barry Commoner shares that vision, though his proposals for realizing it are more moderate. In any case, all three are probably right when they say that our species has overreached itself, that our desire for more and more has brought us to the brink of annihilation. Certainly there is much evidence today that the human race has transgressed the boundaries set by nature and will have to pay an enormous price.

If this is indeed the truth about the human condition, we who hold the prophetic-Christian faith must confess to great responsibility for our collective transgression. Christians have always looked to the future to vindicate the present, and in doing so have made humanity restless with the injustice, ignorance and poverty that have characterized history. Either we have been fundamentally wrong, or else there lies ahead a way that is not primarily a return to the past but a forward movement -- a movement that will so redirect science, technology and interpersonal relations that a large human population within a limited biosphere will be assured of a decent life.

Impossible, most will say. But there is among us a man who is proving that this vision can be made fact. Paolo Soleri, architect and prophet, sees the profound connection between cities and civilizations, and he affirms both. Our problem, he says, is not that we have become urbanized but that we have built our cities in such a way as to sacrifice our relation to nature for the sake of urban values; and the ironic result is that for most of their inhabitants our cities no longer provide even urban values. Cities have become agents of dehumanization as well as of denaturalization,

Soleri believes that the fundamental problem of the city is that it is only two-dimensional -- a thin web of human life and human construction stretched over a large area. As it spreads it destroys both the natural surface and the possibility of rich interrelationships among its people. Thus it alienates the affection and loyalty of the inhabitants and at the same time becomes more and more inefficient in its use of energy and raw materials.

A New Kind of City

Soleri recognizes that our cities are strangling themselves and ruining their environment. But he does not for that reason turn his back on the city as such. He prizes the humanizing power latent in urban life. And to make that power manifest he proposes a radically new kind of city, an architectural ecology or Ďarcology."

The image Soleri holds up is an image of hope. For one thing, an arcology would largely do away with environmental danger, because it would use only a fraction of the space, energy and resources required for building or maintaining our present cities. Problems of waste and pollution could be solved with relative ease. For instance, the waste heat from underground factories would provide the energy for the businesses and homes above, and the air would be kept unpolluted by making the automobile a rare plaything rather than a necessity. For within the arcology everyone would have convenient access to all its inner facilities, as well as to the world of agriculture and wilderness outside. Also, everyone would have ample opportunity for interaction with other people and for participation in decision-making. Residential segregation by race, age or social or economic class would no longer be a major problem, for the whole city would be a single unit.

Soleriís arcology is no mere wishful fantasy. It points to real possibilities vividly evident in his breathtaking models. In nature, Soleri observes, effective organization is always three-dimensional. A thin layer of living cells spread out in two dimensions over the globe could accomplish little; but concentrated in three-dimensional forms, cells constitute the vast and varied world of plant and animal life.

Until now cities have been two-dimensional, hence have overreached themselves and become cancerous. They have found it necessary to concentrate huge skyscrapers in their centers, but this move in itself does not help. Indeed, most of the efforts to improve cities have for some time now been self-defeating.

To visualize the problem, imagine a million small cubes each representing a two-story building. The cubes can be spread out in a square, a thousand cubes on each side. Of course, this arrangement disregards the need for transportation. To provide for that, groups of buildings will have to be organized into city blocks, with space left between them for streets, sidewalks, parking lots, service stations, etc. The distances, already great, will be extended. Thus, providing space for motor vehicles increases dependence on them. As the square grows larger, distances to the open areas outside it also grow larger. But life in a vast, solid mass of buildings and streets is intolerable; so large areas must be opened up for greenery and recreation. Playing fields and parks must be scattered through the city, and these will require additional streets and parking lots. The city is now so big that access from one part of it to another is extremely difficult. A freeway system must be built, and to make room for it large sections of the city must be torn down. These sections are moved to the outside of the city, thus once again extending the whole, increasing dependence on motor vehicles and heightening the need for open space scattered throughout. Each step in the solution of the problem adds to the problem, requiring further steps. Just to slow the pace of decline within the city demands enormous efforts.

The million small cubes could also be formed into a single large one, with three dimensions of 100 cubes each. This single cube too will have to be enlarged to allow for movement within it. But distances in the three-dimensional city are but a fraction of those in the square. Motor transportation will not be needed; elevators, moving stairs and sidewalks, bike trails and foot paths will answer. The need for open space within the cube will also be much less, since the inhabitants can quickly walk outside to enjoy forests and fields and recreational facilities. Still, gardens, playgrounds, swimming pools, tennis courts and public squares should be scattered throughout the cube. Space for these purposes, equal to a third of the volume of the original cube, can be gained by increasing it just 10 per cent on each side. Distances inside the cube will remain small -- less than a tenth of those in the two-dimensional city.

Obviously, this picture is highly artificial. No city is laid out in a perfect square, and Soleri does not envision building huge solid cubes. After all, he is an artist and a humanist. Throughout his arcology, vast areas are left open for light and air to penetrate. But even if most of the space is left open, the three-dimensional city will occupy barely 1 per cent of the land surface of the present two-dimensional city. Nor does this scheme involve crowding. It would leave each family, business, industry, shop, school and church with just as ample space indoors and out.

The Arcological Commitment

What arcology can mean for the human race is best summed up in Soleriís own words:

The Arcological Commitment is not indispensable:

(1) Because it is the solution to the ecological crisis, although it is that.

(2) Because it is a better alternative to the degradation of waste-affluence-opulence, although it is that.

(3) Because it is the true resolution of the pollution dilemma, although it is that.

(4) Because it is the only true answer to the global crisis of energy-production-consumption, although it is that.

(5) Because it is the only road to land, air, water conservation, although it is that.

(6) Because it is a necessary answer to the sheltering of an exploding population, although it is that.

(7) Because it is structurally desegregating peoples, things and performances, although it is that.

(8) Because it is a forceful instrument against fear and disillusionment, although it is that.

Most generally, the Arcological Commitment is not indispensable because it is the best instrument for survival, although it is just that. . . .

ĎAll these are remedial reasons important for man but only instrumental to the specific humaneness sought by him. . . . They are not specifically creative. By their implementation, the re-found health of man could never be a substitute for grace but only a threshold to it.

The Arcological Commitment is indispensable because it advocates a physical system that consents to the high compression of things, energies, logistics, information and performances, thus fostering the thinking, doing, living, learning phenomenon of life at its most lively and compassionate, the state of grace (esthetogenesis) possible for a socially and individually healthy man on ecologically healthy earth.

Soleri is convinced that arcological cities must and will eventually be built on a large scale. Imbued as he is with the vision of Teilhard de Chardin, he sees the human odyssey in the context of the total development of life on the planet. Like Teilhard, he has deep faith that the evolutionary energies of the universe which have brought life on earth to its present high pitch are working through todayís crises to a new level. The next step, after the global population explosion of recent centuries, will be "implosion" -- and that means arcology.

But Soleri is not waiting passively for this next step in human evolution to occur. He has drawn up general plans for dozens of varied and beautiful arcologies. Of some of these he has set up huge models that have been exhibited in leading art museums and featured in architectural and art journals. And now -- as if to prove that he is not a mere dreamer -- he has himself begun to build.

There is a humorous incongruity between the scope of Soleriís vision and the resources with which he begins to build. One is reminded of the mustard seed. A major arcology would cost billions. Soleri has at his disposal a few thousands earned from his lectures and the sale of his bells, and from occasional small gifts. His only other asset is the enthusiasm he inspires in young people, who pay him for the privilege of working for him. So with minimal equipment and unskilled workers he has set out to build "Arcosanti," a small example of a radically new type of city, on a mesa 60 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona. Though the means are wholly incommensurate with the end, year by year the resources grow a little and bits and pieces of the new city appear. The next immediate project is the Teilhard Cloisters, which will serve as a retreat center. Somehow, Soleri is confident, there will be a financial breakthrough; someone will give the equivalent of the cost of a bomber or a tenth of a mile of city freeway, and then Arcosanti will rapidly take shape. Meanwhile, it will grow through sacrifice and sweat.

Can the Church Be the Vanguard?

But is this a direction that Christian realists should take seriously? Must we not recognize that given the control of our behavior by habits, and the resistance to change of building contractors and city planners, arcology is an issue for some future generation, not for our own? Should we not concentrate our energies on alleviating the plight of those who are caught in the decay of our present cities, rather than dream of new cities in which these problems would not arise?

This "realism" in our time is analogous to that of the individualists and pietists of earlier generations who insisted that Christians should minister to personal needs but not meddle with the social structure that creates the needs. We should have learned by now that the attempt to end the sufferings of people in the cities by tinkering with political and economic changes is futile. We win an occasional battle, but the war goes overwhelmingly against us. It would be true realism to consider why we always lose and to begin to work on the deeper causes of urban decay. Realists of that stripe will not want to postpone arcologies for another generation or two.

But can arcologies be built today? The answer is Yes. The technological problems are trivial in comparison with those that were solved to build the atom bomb or put men on the moon. The costs per inhabitant would be far less than the costs of the planned cities now being erected or the conventional rebuilding that is always going on in our cities. Once an arcology is there, the economic, social and personal advantages it brings would certainly prompt the building of others. The problem is to find the resources for one substantial arcology in the face of the overwhelming sense of its strangeness, of its not belonging to the familiar world now decaying all around us. Cannot the church, for once, be the vanguard of the coming age and give at least its moral support to an unrecognized prophet?

But will not the human beingís unlimited capacity for perverting potential good into active evil introduce into the arcologies all the problems that we face today? Is it not an illusion to look for real progress? Again, the realists who raise these objections are correct. Soleri speaks of building the plumbing for the City of God. The plumbing does not determine how the City will be used, but it will make possible a decent life in the context of a healthy biosphere. That possibility cannot be discerned today, apart from some such radical change. Christians cannot withdraw from action because they know that no social, political, economic or urban structure guarantees virtue. We need an image of hope to sustain our action -- and Soleri offers that image.


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