The general paradigm for most "nature" oriented housing, I like to call "The Little House in the Big Woods", a classification which covers anything from Thoreau's shack at Walden Pond to Fallingwater: an owner-built (or at least commissioned) house set on a houselot of three or more acres, with such picturesque amenities as a gravel driveway, utilization of site-specific features such as rock faces, inclines, trees, and/or water as part of the structure, lavish use of stone, glass, rare wood, and redwood decking, a nod towards self-reliance, if not self-sufficiency, in the form of generators, a fireplace, integral plantings, solar panels, well water, solid waste composting, and the like. Such houses are interesting to visit, and often a lot of fun to live in, and if done well, don't impact too much on the local landscape.

The problem is, as people in the Hamptons found out in the Eighties, that while scattered quirky houses, separated by a mile or more, among more traditional homes for commercial fishermen and farmers, cause little disruption to the local atmosphere, several hundred similar houses in the same vicinity quickly become a form of big-ticket tract housing. While a seldom-used beach house can use a gas generator and have its own well and septic tank, thirty or forty need a power grid, water mains, and a sewage system. Dirt roads become inadequate for the service of telephones, police, fire, and cable systems. You might even need mass transportation for the domestic help (since the only people who can afford these houses can't do their own housework) and a better school system, and that's not counting the fact that the charming old grocery in the village isn't going to pass muster with several hundred urban sophisticates who want something more aesthetic to eat than corned beef hash and Franco-American Spaghetti-O's. Soon, secondary housing moves in down the road, in the form of condos and apartments for the bookstore clerk, the hairdresser, the firemens' families, and the various fishermen and farmers' kids who can no longer afford to live there, and you might as well have stayed back in the 'burbs. Trying, after the fact, to impose "greener" standards on such a community usually results in fiendishly complex sets of local ordinances on public and private behavior, mandating, for instance, that people spend huge amounts of time and space hand-washing and sorting garbage.

Soleri's vision was to begin, not with the micro-level of a "green" house, but with a whole "green" city housed in a complex of several connected buildings that incorporates all the familiar uses of a city (housing, work, entertainment) and more (agriculture, industry, building) in in an "arcology". Such a complex, geared towards self-reliance, could be situated nearly anywhere, from the sub-Arctic to the tropics, and can house as many as 170,000 people in an area not too much larger than a large shopping mall. In such an environment, crowding is a virtue: by emphasizing shared facilities for eating, transportation, recreation, and entertainment, huge numbers of people can be housed and fed in a stimulating atmosphere rivalling that of the walled cities of Italy and France, while economizing on energy, land and other resources. Not that an arcology, on the inside, feels crowded or limited: light wells, large windows, and landscaped atria and skylobbies abound on the large scale, while in the small, every dwelling space has both a street side, oriented towards the city center, and outward, to face the expanse of untouched surrounding greenery. Further preservation of the beauty and ecosystem of the surrounding landscape is achieved by raising the bulk of the buildings on columns.

Life in such a place would be a constant mixture of city and country: late-night revellers would share maglev space with farmers commuting to their fields, while office workers can come home to meditate in their balcony mini-garden. Infrastructure would be constantly tested and maintained by teams of robots, operated by the construction division.

If this seems more than familiar to you from SF, this is exactly where these notions come from: his ideas and signature cities-on-stilts designs were widely copied for such disparate films as "Barbarella" (where the life inside the city has degenerated into anarchy, while lawful outcasts live in an orchid-overgrown labyrinth outside) and "The Jetsons" (where, apparently, Hanna-Barbera scrapped the mass transit idea in favor of the well-known mini-jetcars).

In reality, Soleri's notions have borne fruit in only one place: Arcosanti, a planned community north of Phoenix, Arizona. There, a community of a bare 500 (out of a projected 7000) souls carry out his ideals in an "urban laboratory". There are greenhouses, arbors, concert spaces, and a cafeteria, as well as sleeping cubicles for the workers at the foundry and ceramic workshop, which, along with the revenue from various agricultural holdings, forms the basic income of the town. While Soleri lives there, and the inhabitants seem happy and have evolved a truly toothsome cuisine, the city remains at only 3% completion...and is rapidly decaying, the result of a too-quick building boom in the early 70's. In the 40 years he's been working, the notion of living in the panopticon environment of a shopping mall has lost its luster. Still the designs are pretty. Some day their time will come again.