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Welcome to Utopia, Try the Buffet

What an experimental community in the desert can teach us about the perfect restaurant

Editor's Note: On November 13, 2017, Daniela Soleri, daughter of Arcosanti architect Paolo Soleri, published an open letter accusing her late father of sexual abuse. You can read the letter here and Curbed's coverage here.


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n hour north of Phoenix there's a highway exit that ends abruptly in a dirt road running straight into the desert. Follow the curves ​for two miles​ through flat, featureless scrubland ​and you'll reach a rusting sign that reads "Arcosanti." The clutch of alien-looking buildings over the hill is a utopian commune founded  in the 1970s by the Italian architect Paolo Soleri. It's a surreal sight, so take it in, but we're here for the food.

At the center of Arcosanti is a single tower cut through with huge oculus windows that let in both the landscape's glaring light and its soft breezes. This atrium is the Arcosanti Cafe, a kitchen and dining room stocked with jarringly familiar wooden cafeteria tables, steam trays, and a motley collection of ceramic mugs. Every day, three meals are served here, cooked by Arcosanti residents for whoever happens to be passing through their outpost.

The restaurant is the perfect place to sit down with scrambled eggs. It's also at the heart of a radical lifestyle experiment

The menu is a mixture of cuisines both imported and local, dominated by a hefty dash of unironic Americana. One day's buffet might include squash soup, spicy corn, a pasta dressed with salami, and rows of homemade egg rolls. Vegetarian and vegan options are always available, as is a tank of cinnamon-tinged coffee. Three square meals are offered every day, though you'll have to serve and seat yourself amidst neighbors at a circular table. If you're not trading community labor for food, then you'll also have to pay a small fee. The practice is familiar from a school cafeteria, though the vibe is anything but.

The restaurant is a peaceful oasis, the perfect place to sit down with scrambled eggs and meditate on the boundless backcountry view. But it's also at the heart of a radical lifestyle experiment.

And the Cafe truly is Arcosanti's heart. The most utopian experience in the complex is not exploring the curvilinear buildings, or drinking amidst the cypress trees, or camping out in the fields and waking up to a desert sunrise, but taking part in the bustle of the Cafe in the morning. As residents and visitors wander in for coffee, coming together for a few universal rituals before going back out into Soleri's strange world, perfection seems briefly possible.

The problem is that the rest of Soleri's philosophy of Arcology, a synthesis of architecture and ecology, didn't really work.

Arcosanti

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rcosanti is the rare 20th century utopian project that has survived into this one. Soleri was a follower and student of Frank Lloyd Wright, who had established an architecture school in Arizona, Taliesin West, for his own experiments in designing an ideal city. Soleri eventually rebelled, moving into a tent in the hills outside of Phoenix. There, he evolved his philosophy of using architecture to live with nature instead of against it.

Soleri began by designing rambling, organic homes for private clients and a Phoenix residence for himself and his wife Colly, called Cosanti, for the Italian cosa-anti, "before things." As Soleri's ambitions grew, he decided to attempt his own city, as a test of Arcology's principles.

"My proposition is urban implosion rather than explosion," the architect wrote in his 1977 book Earth's Answer. He saw suburban sprawl as a disease. At its full flowering, a concept illustrated by models unlikely to ever be built, Arcosanti would have been a cluster of concentric monoliths blooming out of the desert. Residential towers would loom over community buildings with an "energy blanket" of solar panels and greenhouse gardens, described on Arcosanti's website as a "highly integrated and compact three-dimensional urban form."

At the Cafe, food is a truly shared experience, made and consumed by everyone in equal measure

As a philosophy, Arcology eschews cars, promotes growing one's own food, and prioritizes healthy social interaction within the space of the city rather than the individualized isolation it finds in the suburbs. Indeed, the current Arconauts (as residents are called) create their own society in the form of a fitfully solvent artists' camp. Some members produce and sell the bronze wind bells designed by Soleri that keep the project afloat, while others tend to the gardens and cook in the Cafe kitchen. They work to be self-sustaining, though groceries are often driven in by van.

Considering the utopian possibilities of cooking, it’s easy to hit upon the perfect restaurant—always seasonal, with impeccable service, forever hitting the trendy format, whether that’s foraged mosses or a fried chicken sandwich. But perhaps the philosophy of Arcology presents a better solution with Arcosanti’s ad-hoc dining hall, a place where people can come together without the necessity of tasting menus. Service becomes about sharing rather than place-settings.

Beyond the local produce, it's this socially organic quality that seems the most utopian, even though the city as a whole might be in its decline. At the Cafe, food is a truly shared experience, made and consumed by everyone in equal measure. Serving yourself there is like taking part in a harvest dinner—because you're a member of this community, however temporarily, you've earned it.

Arcosanti

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rcosanti never fully realized Arcology's goalsEven in its current state, buildings designed to house 5,000 residents, its population hovers around 50, with older Arconauts ensconced in beautiful bohemian apartments while neophytes camp in shabbier structures outside of the main complex. Over its 40 years of existence, some 7,000 residents have passed through, filling their work-hour quotas in whatever roles they can find.

Food has always been an important part of the equation for Arcosanti residents, both as a way for the commune to sustain itself and as a means to attract outside attention. I first traveled there in 2013 for a memorial for Soleri, who had died that April. At a gathering in the Cafe, current and former residents held a referendum on how the community would evolve in his absence. Debate raged over whether to replant the greenhouses and if Arcosanti should try to sell a line of organic goods at Whole Foods. Decisions came slowly, and even two years later it remains unclear if any progress will be made on Soleri's plans. "There's only so much people can do with temporary leadership and temporary residents," one Arconaut, an Arizonan architecture student, told me when I visited.

The inchoate utopia is now less a functioning commune than another one of America's great roadside attractions

The inchoate utopia is now less a functioning commune than it is another one of America's great roadside attractions, easily accessed just off Interstate 17. For tourists, a meal in the Cafe is the quickest way to experience what remains of Arcology, pick up a souvenir wind bell, and be on their way. Arcosanti's unique qualities threaten to become kitsch. This year, a Pitchfork-worthy music festival was hosted there to "celebrate life, art, and creativity." Skrillex headlined.

There's a Yelp review of the Arcosanti Cafe left by a certain Lee A. from California, complaining that the restaurant "may or may not meet Arizona health code." The review describes the Cafe's offerings as an "all-you-can-eat buffet consisting of barely palatable meat or veggie quiches, wilting salad components, bread and a toaster, over-steamed vegetables and a scrumptious tomato bisque that became the saving grace for the whole experience."

I can't speak to the tomato bisque, but what the review misses is that the Cafe isn't about the quality of the food. Complaining about it is like critiquing your parents' cooking: it might seem gastronomically off or untrendy, but there's nothing you can do about it, and besides, it's made with love. The Cafe's make-do Americana might not win any Michelin stars, but Arcosanti has sincerity in spades.

After all, elegant food is not a necessary component of a good eating experience. As Soleri had it, the point is not to seek perfection, but to live with what you're given in the context that you find yourself, with the collective support of your community in harmony with the world. It's about adaptation rather than absolutism. Regarding the idea of utopia, he wrote: "The perfect community, the Garden of Eden, a just and loving reality: all floundering presumptions fatally flawed and prime causes of suffering and cruelty. Good intentions, catastrophic results."

Arcosanti

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t's easy to fetishize Arcology, and utopianism in general. The architectural plans look cool. The ideas are grand. The narrative is easy. A group attempts to find perfection, and the attempt inevitably fails, something that Soleri acknowledged in his writing, though his boosters tend to overlook it. Grandeur in itself was never the point. "Ultimately, the cities that we build are like pianos and people are the music. Without good compositions and skilled musicians, the piano is useless," Soleri argued in the 1970 Sketchbooks.

It could be that Soleri didn't find quite the right musicians, or that people couldn't hold up to his vision. If they had, the entire world might look like Arcosanti, with co-op restaurants servicing enormous centralized cities. Here is a humane vision of the future of food beyond the asceticism of Soylent or the automation of robotic quinoa counters, a vision that I often find myself wishing had come to pass. Your baroque vegetarian burgers, your meatball-only pop-ups, your artisanal izakayas — I would trade them all for handmade Arcosanti Cafe casseroles.

Your baroque vegetarian burgers, your artisanal izakayas—I would trade them all for Arcosanti Cafe casseroles

In our current restaurant culture, where food often becomes a luxury commodity rather than a way to connect, Arcosanti offers something different, a method of cooperative action that's about community more than consumption. The idea of cooking for one another and sharing meals in a communal space has much more impact on who we are as people than does getting in front of the next hot trend. If this is the primary legacy of Arcology, it's a valid one, a lesson that we can apply to our own futures of food, society, and cities.

"Future," as a word, "is a sort of self-denial," Soleri wrote. "In order to be true to itself the future cannot exist. What exists is the tide we call the becoming, which in some sort of coherent fashion makes possible anticipatory scenarios." Such is the function of utopia—not to give us a roadmap to follow for decades or centuries hence, but to remind us that, if we want them, other ways of living are possible.

Kyle Chayka is a writer living in Brooklyn
Editor: Meghan McCarron
Photo-illustrations: Kyle Chayka / Dylan Lathrop

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