Driving to the desert is a meditation. The further I press towards its isolated vastness, the clearer my mind becomes. Perhaps this is a symptom of my job – I am in an industry that requires me to be connected all hours of the day, which bears twice the burden when paired with my insatiable appetite for information and the need to absorb and analyze everything around me. But the moment I see the clear expanse of a horizon, I melt into my true self. That feeling of not knowing enough, doing enough, being enough disappears. And the pressure releases.
My parents used to take me on road trips through the American Southwest growing up. I remember sulking to Brand New’s Deja Etendu album on my CD player as we descended into the Grand Canyon. I remember looking out the window in marvel at the raw and wild landscape. Perhaps it was these early memories absorbing the American South West on our drives down Route 66 that’s paved a lingering fascination with the desert.
To this day, driving east bound to Joshua Tree, Palm Springs and “Other Desert Cities” has been my preferred escape hatch. The eastbound drive is a place of respite after a long media trip, where I’m often too stimulated to properly process my experiences. I found my contrast in my love for the desert. The isolation and space has attracted outside-the-box visionaries and also a cast of characters of wild abandon and alternative lifestyle approaches.
On my last trip to the desert, I visited an experimental town called Arcoscanti. The off-the-grid town is designed by an Italian architect named Paolo Soleri, a utopian idealist who created the term Arcology, to describe the process of architecture coupled with ecology.
The concrete domed structures houses a village designed to be self-sustainable. The layout is complete with residential housing, workshops, recreational theaters and a looming cafe and kitchen which holds the iconic views well recognized as Soleri’s work. There is a rare sense of intent and a distinction with the architecture here that’s rare to find in America, which makes Arcoscanti even more exceptional. The entire space is a projection of a single man’s ambition and focus to use design as a way to solve complex, urban problems. Though the faded facade now errs on the side of post-apocalyptic, the layers of wear only adds more character to the structures.
The concept of Arcoscanti is un-American. The property is located off the grid, without any commercial real estate development (or prospects of) for hundreds of miles around. The site was built on the vision of a society led with goals of preservation and a lifestyle of thrift and restraint. Residents on the property live with the intent of building out the vision of Paolo Soleri: creating a city where citizens have evolved beyond capitalist needs. As I pulled out a five dollar bill for my donation offering at dinner, served by a resident cook who I had seen making pottery earlier that day, I felt a sense that they succeeded in maintaining his vision.