The Lean Alternative: Architecture & Ecology

In light of what would have been architect, Paolo Soleri‘s 95th birthday on June 21, we celebrate his extraordinary efforts in architecture to create a sustainable urban community. Although Soleri passed away last April, he spent his lifetime promoting and theorizing better ecological interactions between construction and the environment, which today are continued through his foundation, Cosanti. His theoretical ideal for a “Lean Alternative” in cities was revolutionary, yet some would say optimistic. Much like his predecessor, Frank Lloyd Wright, Soleri was searching to build something that would never quite exist – utopia – a place where efficiency, sustainability, and community meld into one.

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Paolo Soleri. Image via Arcosanti.

However, Soleri wasn’t just a dreamer with the hopes of changing the world. He put his knowledge and skills into practice creating Arcosanti, an experimental town in Arizona where he tested his concepts of a sustainable urban system and the term he coined, arcology. Arcology combines the words Architecture and Ecology to form this new meaning and way of life. It’s a concept which condenses the urban form and connects people back with the environment and community. Let’s face the facts: Cities are quite often deigned poorly. Soleri felt the same, expressing that they were inefficient, producing far too much waste, and consuming far too much of our natural resources and energy. This belief has been proven as an estimated 1.2 kg of waste per person per day is produced globally and with about 2.5 billion people living in urban cities around the world, you can imagine how much waste and pollution is concentrated and created in these areas. Paolo Soleri saw this as a pressing issue in architecture and sought to rectify this through his study of density in urban landscapes, and applying simplicity. Arcosanti became an urban laboratory or prototype in which the construction and design community could learn from.

The Arcological Working Parts

You may wonder what a “Lean Alternative” really means. In short, it proposes a “structure [which] functions like a hyper-organism”. A hyper-organism is a group of working “organisms” that create an ideal and efficient working system. When translated into architecture, those working “organisms” – or parts – would include some of the following:

1. Proximity- Shortening the distance one has to travel between home, work, education, and leisure activities.

2. Urban Scale- Eliminating or cutting down the need for automobiles allowing the physical scale of individuals and their environment to occur.

3. Ecological Envelope- Identifying the carrying capacity of the environment; meaning what we will need to use within the urban surroundings and then creating limitations within which we can grow.

4. Reduction in Consumption- “Applying the appropriate technology” at our disposal such as passive solar systems, innovative water and sewage treatment systems, and using green/recycled materials in construction, so we lessen the depletion of the environment.

5. Energy Apron (energy and food production) – Using both an open field to cultivate crops as well as green houses that provide food directly to the community with no waste in transportation. Through the water, solar, and wind systems we save energy and the use of fossil fuels.

6. Elegant Frugality- Using what we have at our resource rather than importing it from varies other sources, “less is more” or the term bricolage; meaning constructing something with what you have at hand.


Arcosanti. Image via Arcosanti.

Prototype for Future Generations

I think the most inspiring thing about Paolo Soleri is that education has always been an incredible asset to the growth and study of what arcology could one day become. At Arcosanti students are able to study the micro and macro elements within this dynamic and how it creates a working urban system. “We are constantly building on others’ work” using what they left behind as a prototype of how to go further and become more advanced; Soleri work is no exception and for future architects, Arcosanti is a true model of a seemingly utopian concept. Paolo Soleri was one of the great theorists of ecological design and though I may be a little biased as he’s one of my favorite architects, I feel we could all learn so much more by continuing to study the concept of arcology and fueling our efforts to create a more sustainable community. As an architecture student I plan to make my own excursion out to Arizona and visit Arcosanti, the urban laboratory itself and marvel in the possibilities we have for our future.

Feature Image: 3-D rendering by Young Soo Kim of Nudging Space Arcology. Image via Arcosanti.

About The Author

is a undergrad student who has been studying architecture for over four years, first at Pratt Institute and now at UCF. Sustainability is important to her as a designer because architects greatly influence the environment through building and construction. It's vital for her to understand what the current issues are and how we can go about improving them. Her motto is "We can't create innovation without knowing what has already been done".