by J J Cohen and Julian Yates
Feb 3-4 2019
Because we are building an ark, we traveled to Arizona for the the third of our site visits, Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti (for parts 1 and 2 follow the links). One of us was already on the ground, in the neighborhood, if you like, the other arrived to join him.
Biosphere 2 (AZ)
If there were a governing topos for Biosphere 2 it might be “hold it.” This was the imperative lightly and amusingly delivered by our guide. There will be no bathroom breaks on the tour.
Something similar obtained for the original bionauts or “biosphereans” as they named themselves. Yet we know how that story ended--even as today, if you visit Biosphere, that is not the story which you will be told or the story that anyone wants to remember. The intention for the dome to remain sealed against the world failed. Those within did not manage to “hold it” (or to be held by it). Difference was that we only had to “hold it” for an hour. They had somehow to manage being held for two years, though the issue for them was not waste management. We learned that their effluvia was incorporated into a comprehensive system. Their urine became water once again; their excrement fertilizer for vegetables. They were much like the koi of today’s Biosphere, who participate in an aquaponics program which grows food without the need for soil using only one tenth of the water required for traditional farming. Biosphere was never as self sufficient as promised, triggering crises of oxygen (which rapidly diminished), carbon (which proliferated) and human nourishment (which became scarce). As one page from a journal kept at the time observes, “the current diet” does “not provide enough calories and fat to perform the physically demanding tasks leaving a burned out biospherean at the end of the day.” The same journal entry recognizes the importance of a “closed system” but observes that there has been or needs to be a “change of mission objective.” “This project is not about survivalism in a closed system,” the entry reads or posits; the objective is not “mission-based,” but a “laboratory.” Holding it, holding out was a rubric or a protocol or a heuristic, not a do or die reality. Or so went the narrative from some of the occupants.
Part of the problem seems to have been that the project was conceived for an extra-terrestrial gaze. Why else attempt a terrarium, a system sealed against its outside? One day, one day, what occurs here upon the Earth (which the biosphereans named Biosphere 1) will occur in space (in a ship that we presume would be Biosphere 3). But with failure, with multiple failures, as the journal entry observes, comes the possibility of enlargement, of system change. If an ark cannot, even when vacuum sealed and minutely articulated in its cycles of water, heat, and air, generate sufficient support for living for those within, then that vessel must open to what it lacks. Or cascade into ruin. The orientation shifted back earthwards. And the project became, as in truth it always had been, a laboratory or proving ground or kitchen for concepts that might one day apply on other planets, but whose purchase might be closer to home: aquaponics for when Arizona runs even lower on water; the resuscitation of conservation techniques from now displaced First Peoples; the superlatively engineered “lungs” which create a pressure relieving valve deep within the structure; an laboratory for climate science and desert terrain studies; a conference center; a tourist destination, welcoming anyone who will pay for the tour.
Enter the monkeys. They were brought aboard Biosphere 2 as companion animals. Our guide thought these galagos were supposed to be there as primate friends, fun to interact with. But unlike the humans who knew very well how many bananas made for a total daily allotment, the monkeys ate as much fruit as they pleased. They made a mess. They screamed in people’s faces. They were not good company. They were eventually moved to the San Diego Zoo. But neither were the humans good to each other. Frictions led to factions. At times the whole place seemed in an uproar: the oxygen depleting, the food stores becoming meager. Rice, wheat, corn, sorghum, sweet potatoes, soybeans, tomatoes, cabbage, carrots, eggplant, peppers and leafy vegetables: none of these were growing as expected, and some of what did sprout was devoured by insects, bacteria, fungi. Well, none of this was confided to us by our guide, who was as upbeat as can be -- except for the part about the galagos. He loved those rebel monkeys and it showed. And he also offered two tales of proliferating stowaways: black ants transported inside with the soil shipped from Brazil for the Rainforest biome, and cockroaches from who knows where, finding their way into every crevice of the building. (We also note that katydids, morning glory vines, and unwanted microbes also managed to hide themselves aboard and cause perennial issues.) A daily vacuuming was conducted of the cockroaches, who had found in the Biosphere a paradise to populate. Hundreds were harvested and fed to the chickens, an unplanned cycle of protein sustainability. Our guide did not mention that in time these chickens stopped laying eggs and were devoured. As food became scarce the pigs were likewise entirely consumed.
Yes, all the bees and other pollinators died and the water was too thick with nutrients and the concrete walls triggered unforeseen chemical reactions with the plentiful atmospheric carbon. Yet not everything that unfolded in the Biosphere was a failure. In a favorite moment for both of us our tour group was escorted through a series of tunnels where we could see the various pipes for hot, cold and waste water running and experience the winds generated by the machines that heat and cool the architecture. After walking beneath savanna and sea, we reached a vast round area called The Lung. From the ceiling hung an enormous oval of black material that looked like industrial rubber. We were told it weighs six tons. As the air pressure in the room rises this black barrier ascends, allowing more air into the space. When the pressure drops, the giant diaphragm slowly falls, pushing air back through the doorways and into the Biosphere again. In and out, in and out, the building takes a slow meditative breath. This device had been installed because of the sheer number of glass panels that enclose the Biosphere. Had this machine not been invented to alleviate pressure automatically when needed, those panels would have shattered long ago. Conflict among the crew members and disagreements among those running the project from the outside indicate that no community analogue to The Lung had been put in place. Hold it never works out all that well, neither as imperative nor as aspiration. The Biosphere experiment was a grand failure, both scientifically and socially.
But “what if?” With error, with breakdown, with scandal, the imperative to “Hold it” transformed back into a constitutive declaration of possibility, the holding open of a sentence to imagine so many various ways in which that sentence might close and so make a world or worlds. “What if” reorients the project towards what it makes possible, refusing to close in or out on one criterion that would constitute success. For the closing of a sentence is never a done deal. It just marks the runtime of a given project or the throwing forward of an idea and technique. The sentence closes and then its is time to take inventory of the world that’s made with all the stowaways along with those invited aboard to see what happens next. What should the next sentence be? What if …? Galagos do not make good Biosphereans but the cockroaches do as the chickens like them and this liking increases egg production. For a while. No system is really closed. There are always unexpected tenants. And when those stowed away make their presences felt, it is time for the system to change. Transfer the unruly galagos to a galago-centric environ. Let the ants do their own thing for, in truth, they lead a parallel existence to the project--a world within a world within a world. Feed the cockroaches to the chickens, and their eggs to the humans, and the stories to the visitors. Ensure that the humans get the medical attention they need along with the calories. By the failure of Biosphere 2, the terrarium became something to learn and think with, an Earth to play with so as to limit the risks of playing globally.You can still tour it, and you’ll learn a great deal about ingenuity, resilience, reinvention, re-story-ation.
But “Hold it.” What if, still, there’s something missing. Something you have to travel elsewhere in Arizona to locate?
“What if?” The phrase appears on the cover of every one of architect-ceramist Paolo Soleri’s notebooks on arcology like some sort of talisman against foreclosure. What if…? Don’t stop me. Let’s just wonder. What if, instead of proliferating across the surface of the earth, projecting human habitation at distance and so wasting time and people, we agreed that the “single family home will be the wrong package.” What if “tightly woven minimalist packages for entire communities ... become mandatory?” How might that work? What if we just did without or demoted the car and concentrated our resources, building cities or “arks” that weave together all our needs (food, books, theater, work, community, green spaces, lovely views, fresh air) and which do so in ways that enhance the environment rather than processing the earth as just so much empty or emptied space in which settler-colonist “humans” can manifest their destiny?
“Arcology” is the name Soleri gave to this iterative endeavor or, in the words of our Biospherean archivist, “project.” And heady as the project sometimes seems, it recognizes the co-imbrication of material structure and community. Arcologies, for Soleri, are all about Biosphere 2’s lungs, their ability to regulate pressures of all kinds. Arcologies are all atmosphere; they open perpetually to their outsides. The aim as Soleri elaborates, was “not to imitate the nano-biotechnology of organisms but to put to use its teaching: self-containment, miniaturization, complexity, automation under the tutelage of volition.” “Volition,” he continues or claims, is “the (automated) inner drive of learning.” While “religion is the bonding (derived from religare in Latin) indispensable for the volitional sparks.” You cannot maintain one without the other.
Far from a sealed system like that to which Biosphere 2 aspired, arcologies model flows of energy, information, affect, as communities form in and around the making of a world within a specific landscape that is intimate to that process. They provide no answers and offer no solutions. Instead they pose the whole business of building or dwelling as a question and seek out volunteers to explore the nature of the experiment with them. They might turn sour, vicious, fascist. But what if…? And so it was that Soleri went on to imagine, in pen and ink, some thirty arcologies that attempt to think and build a community and an environment together--the word arcology itself a blending or meeting of architecture (life in plan) and ecology (life in place), modeling architecture itself as a handling or solicitation and distribution of flow within a set of boundaries that must constantly be thought in order to be maintained and so maintain all within them.
Yes. You can call it utopian. That it certainly is. But as our tour guide at Arcosanti told us utopias are no good -- impossible, maybe even totalitarian -- but they do accomplish some good. Spurs to thought and striving, they are full of aspirations. Heuristics. Experiments. They are not total systems, at least not the kind you ever want to live in. But that’s OK because life never works according to plan (no matter how finely detailed that plan appears when sketched so intricately on butcher’s paper). Our guide was also a resident. He told us that he likes Arcosanti because it is an open utopia, an adaptive throng, long in its traditions and largely unrealized as a dream. He spoke to his gathered auditors about the difference between an intentional community, which builds a wall around itself and calls itself the world, and an extensional community, which even though anchored moves outwards into a world full of strangers, new ideas, unexpected challenge. He did not think that Paolo Soleri really intended any of his blueprints for a “City in the Image of Man” to be made real, not at least as drawn; the work of realization is up to those who do the building, and they may have to revise the plans many times along the way. Pleasing as it might be to behold Soleri’s plans for “Arcoforte” perched atop a cliff or “Noahbabel” straddling the verge where land gives way to sea, these are not architectures for anyone really to dwell within, at least not in body. A thing of fits and starts, an arcology is the work of many hands. Each pair leaves an imprint on the total design, builders and makers with lingering impress.
Coincidentally Soleri lived and worked in Arizona only a few hours north from where Biosphere 2 in time came to stand. He mostly supported himself as a ceramist, creating resonant bells out of clay and then out of metal with shimmering patina. He embarked on his arcology projects with the resources from these projects. On a mesa seventy miles from Phoenix, Arcosanti was originally supposed to have been a sustainable city for 500, then for 2500, then for up to 6000. These days many of those who live there (they number about 70) are suggesting 500 as sufficient population. At least for now. At the time we visited the youngest year-round resident was six weeks old, the oldest (Soleri’s sister) nearly 90.
But with a new CEO and changes to the demographics of both those who make their home in its high desert structures as well as the 30,000 people who yearly make the pilgrimage, Arcosanti seems to have found itself at a road with many possible directions ahead, each of them a what if that will profoundly alter its destiny. One small veer that we noticed our tour guide make as he spoke the Arcosanti story stays with us. He ended the tour of the environs in the green room behind a large outdoor amphitheatre. Above a piano hangs a portrait of Colly Soleri, Paolo’s spouse. Our guide told us that he wanted us to linger here so that we could think about the Great Man narratives we love to tell, centered around imperious and egotistical and often toxic figures. Is it enough to praise the vision of Frank Lloyd Wright and Paolo Soleri, as if they strode into empty lands and dreamt within them some vision that derives from them alone? Our guide asked us to think about the labor and community that Great Man narratives will always obscure. He told us to think about Colly, without whom none of what Soleri achieved would have been possible. She should not remain invisible. We did linger with her, and hope we can be forgiven if we thought about Mrs. Noah and what she gave to or resisted within her husband’s crazy project.
In Arcosanti and Biosphere 2 we found two different stagings of what we have come to understand as the core problematic of Noah’s Ark, parceled out under the contrasting topoi of “hold it” and “what if.” The two are not opposites. They may, in practice, jar, even war, but in truth they designate different moments in a project and its projection. Hold it signifies duration, a suspension of inquiry during the madness of fulfilling what has been decided or set in motion. We paid for the tour and this is what the tour entails: no bathrooms, a few stairs, some low headroom, a story of possibility beyond serial failures. Do you agree? But as visiting Biosphere 2 and Ascosanti and thinking them together taught us, “hold it” remains premised on a constitutive “what if.” A structure closes only, it is to be hoped, to open again and inquire into what and who were made and unmade in the process. In and by its failure to hold on or out, the crew of Biosphere 2 enabled the structure to recover its orientation towards the unforeseen.
For Arcosanti, the question is different: can its orientation to possibility, to the project of projecting an open inquiry into building (what is building?) hold out? The expansive “what if” requires some reserves, resources, futures-in-process. If you visit Arcosanti today, you will encounter the co-presence of this “hold it” and “what if” in numerous small ways as the project adjusts to who its visitors are now; to the differences among its community. You also see it writ small in physical terms, in the bells they make, whose sale now sustains the site financially. All bear different markings, markings keyed to their individual makers, who learn the process but inscribe their own marks within the general pattern. There are rules. But no set patterns. Or, those patterns that Arcosanti offers contain within them the capacity to accommodate new arrivals and be changed by what they add. It is poetic, this soliciting of drift in making.
“Montezuma’s Castle” (AZ)
We wrote that it is a coincidence that Arcosanti looms some three hours drive from Biosphere 2, coincidence that both these speculative, utopian projects, make their home in Arizona. And perhaps it is so. Or, perhaps, in a longer, different story tuned to the complicated and the difficult, we might recognize in both an enduring narrative of utopian movements West into land made seemingly vacant and so available by way of violence fast and slow. The orientation of the buildings at Arcosanti towards the sun was anticipated by Arizona’s first peoples, the Anasazi and the Hohokam and the Hopi, as were the irrigation devices at Biosphere 2. The “what ifs” of both Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti unfold on ground long occupied, ground cleared through bloodshed, ground on which descendents of those first peoples still live along with the ghosts of those who came before and who were relocated without the (we assume) gentler hands that relocated the galagos or the biosphereans.
Had we planned better, had we anticipated the timber trails along which Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti would lead our thoughts, we would have journeyed a little further up the road to what is now ridiculously called Montezuma’s Castle (in truth, one of us has been there many times before). Thirty two miles north of Arcosanti’s mesa rises an “apartment building” structure erected by the Sinagua people, whose name means “without water” in English. All these names are crazy, the dreams of white colonists: Montezuma had nothing to do with the expertly engineered architecture. The anthropological designation “Sinagua” is also pure fantasy. The ancestors of the Hohokam and other indigenous southwestern peoples were masters of living with water, not without. Their canals still cross the state of Arizona and make Phoenix possible today. The area around the beautiful cliff dwellings was continuously inhabited for five hundred years before being abandoned early in the fifteenth century -- a feat of near continuous occupation that Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti are unlikely to match. Five stories high, set breathtakingly into the sheer face of a cliff that overlooks a tranquil creek, prone to less tranquil flood, almost four thousand square feet in its living spaces, this immodest architecture was built by hands that have in the narration of American history been actively forgotten. The gorgeous pink and white walls are a reminder that desert communities experimenting with sustainable living are nothing new -- and have been far more successful in the past than as practiced now. White history is typically shallow history. The “empty” lands across which colonists or utopianists build their arks have for millennia been settled, an abiding home for projects of future making that surpass in duration and cohesion more recent arrivals.
So hold it. What will it take to imagine a refuge that did not forsake or disown the presences in land taken as if given when that land has been stolen? What if today’s communal experiments, arks or arcologies, were to hold on to that obligation and build with it? In their own sometimes small ways we see glimmers (however foreclosed) of that possibility at both Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti.