As we neared Hoover Dam on our way out of Nevada, we spotted several mountain sheep on rocks at the edge of the highway. We were immediately back in the Desert mountain sheep wildlife mode, and recalled our gay and fruitless searches for moose through the maritime provinces. Now here were sheep popping up unexpectedly. All the time we lived in Ridgecrest we never saw any Desert Mountain Sheep. We wondered if spotting the sheep had something to do with karma or (as in the case of finding one's ancestors) with high moral character. As we entered the Arizona mountains, we began to see Watch for Elk warning signs along the highway; but the elk, alas, were like the Canadian moose - invisible. (We're not counting the stuffed elk head in the motel.)
A short stay in Flagstaff included a drive down Oak Creek Canyon, a widely advertised scenic drive. At the end of the canyon is Sedona, Arizona, known by many for its vortexes -- mystical spots where electromagnetic forces somehow emanate from the ground -- and where Native American philosophers and psychics can be found. For the casual tourist, Sedona appears all of a sudden at the bottom of the lovely forested canyon, its resorts and shops and restaurants and art galleries crowding the main streets. On this cold Wednesday in March all the street-side parking places were filled, while shoppers and Canyon view above Sedona browsers strolled the already crowded sidewalks. When even the Best Western sports individual balconies, you know you are in Upscale-Land.
On we went, to Arcosanti. Twenty-eight years ago at Whittier College, Bob team-taught a course entitled Cities of the Future, which included a field trip to this visionary community. Paolo Soleri, an Italian-born philosopher-architect, concluding that man must limit his imprint on the natural world, decided to build a city-in-one-building, which would rise high above the earth's surface but would use space so efficiently that many people could live on the same ground usually occupied by only a small village. Arcologies, Soleri's book of drawings accompanied by his philosophy, shows fanciful cities for hundreds of thousands, even millions of occupants. Arcosanti is supposed to be the first working model, and has been under construction for at least thirty years. During that time most labor has been supplied by students, faculty and other paying visitors; to help raise funds, the group sells Soleri-designed wind bells, in bronze and ceramic.
But our return visit, after a quarter of a century, was sad. The only thing that appeared to have grown was the city / building itself. We think it's because of the tremendous strength of Soleri's vision; the only participants are the true believers, led by the master. There simply was no evidence of any new ideas.
Soleri has conceived a fixed (and, to some, beautiful) architectural vision and is striving to realize it while he lives. But in imagining that architect-designed cities might be a practical reality, he has forgotten (if, indeed, he ever knew) that cities are creations of people in a changing social and economic milieu. If the architecture is determined in advance, what is left for the creative impulses of the inhabitants? What will become of Arcosanti Arcosanti visitor center when it is finished and no longer inhabited by eager disciple / builders? Will it be a city that is just a tourist attraction? If so, they'd better pave the road.
A large visitor center has been fashioned at Arcosanti. Instead of racks and shelves filled with books and tapes and drawings by adventurous and visionary architects and city planners, there is one forlorn display of Soleri's writings and some by and about his disciples - perhaps a dozen titles in all - and hundreds of wind bells hanging everywhere to attract the buyer.
Years ago we noticed that the concrete forms used in the construction were all left with rough exteriors; no smooth coat of stucco, not even a layer of paint to smooth the outside. At the time we thought it ugly, and hoped that in the future Arcosanti would present a more finished appearance. Not so.
And yet the problem Soleri addresses -- urban sprawl -- is a real one. Las Vegas is the fastest growing city in the U.S., and it seems like each square mile is a clone of the previous one, with gated residential communities, matching shopping centers, schools, parks, wide streets, and generally no sidewalks. Traffic is heavy at all times of day, funnelling down to a freeway system that is struggling to keep up. There is no creative vision here; each builder wants only to make a buck, and copies the plans and designs which have succeeded in the past, with perhaps some technical improvements. The Las Vegas architectural style is California / Nevada; frame and stucco and red tile roofs.
Do any of our readers know of any new trends in city planning which strive to reach significantly higher efficiency and consonance with the surrounding natural environment?
Avoiding Phoenix, we turned east on 260 and spent the remainder of the day in beautiful Arizona mountain country with rich red rocks and hillsides speckled with trees and shrubs. The mountain roads twist and climb and just as suddenly descend, changing from evergreen forest to desert scrub and back again. Snowy pine trees
Mountain cabins, trailer parks, and small cattle ranches told us about the region's economy. The high mountains must provide a welcome summertime relief from the burning desert to the south, but things were slower in early March -- except for the stretch from Show Low to Hon Dah, where for fifteen miles the highway is lined with strip malls. We decided that tiny Show Low, pop 5000, was a regional center for many more thousands of country dwellers.
We spent a night near Springerville, and continued through the mountains into New Mexico the next day. All the way to Silver City, the mountain country seemed the same. There was hardly a sign of the signature pueblo-style architecture; these were mountain ranchers and, later, miners.
Silver City still boasts a gigantic Phelps-Dodge open pit, 1.7 miles across and 1000 feet deep. The mine feeds the local economy, and the prosperity is marked by the largest Wal-Mart we've seen so far.
Staying on scenic highways, we continued east on 152, which climbs up a squiggly canyon to a magnificent vista -- at least 60 miles of desert and mountains -- and then down the other side to Kingston, a well-preserved former mining town whose picturesque buildings had attracted a few tourists this Phelps Dodge mine, Silver City Saturday.
Just before Interstate 25, we spotted an alien, painted across the highway in front of a home. We wondered if it was freshly painted, or if the owner had to refresh it frequently. The same drawing appeared in the adjacent yard. Of course New Mexico gets its share of UFO visitors.
Finally as we descended into the Rio Grande valley we began to encounter more of the pueblo-style homes. But the place to view this architecture is further north along the valley, near Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
Land in the West (even California) is primarily owned by the government. This makes travelling in the West an altogether different experience than travelling in the East. The government land is not developed flamboyantly or creatively. There is some development; federal lands can be leased for cattle grazing, for recreational uses, for productive mining, etc. But generally the government land is where you view natural beauty, while the private lands show the successes and failures of the developers!
Incidentally, no elk.