Today's date:
Fall 2013

The Frugal City

Paolo Soleri, who died in 2012, is the Italian architect and theorist who has spent the last 30 years building the famed “urban experiment” of Arcosanti in the high mesa in Arizona. His book was “The Omega Seed Chronicles” (Berkeley Hills, 2000). He spoke with NPQ in Fall, 2000.

NPQ | The promise of globalization is that it will create a planetary middle class prosperous enough to have fewer children, clamor for democracy and seek the rule of law.

But can the planet handle globalization if it succeeds in raising hundreds of millions into the middle class in India and China?

PAOLO SOLERI | Well, this depends very much on what the ceiling of affluence is of this new middle class. From the standpoint of resources, to replicate the standard of living of the American middle class with its sprawling suburbia is not feasible, no matter how desirable. We would need something on the order of 10 more planets to sustain such a lifestyle globally.

Recently, I was flying over central China. You could see the very distinct pattern: the village surrounded by rice paddies; then another village surrounded by rice paddies. That went on for thousands of square miles.

Economically, each village is no doubt marginal. People there probably survive with dignity, but do little more than survive. Yet, if those villages were to expand to a Los Angeles-style development, they would eat up all the farm land in between and wouldn’t be able to feed themselves.

That is why 1.2 billion Chinese, 1.1 billion Indians or hundreds of millions in Africa cannot buy into the globalized American Dream.

Above all else, shelter devours the most land as well as resources from energy to water, especially when it has to be delivered to the individual home, which exists as a kind of parasite on the urban system.

Most residents of Tokyo are considered middle class. Forgetting for the moment the rest of Asia, what would happen if they were able to expand from their small apartments to American-style single-family homes? To go from 1,000 square feet to 2,000 square feet would mean double the materials for construction, double the energy to heat or cool and double the amount of things—furnishings, appliances and electronics—to fill the space. To move further out into the countryside to find space for expansion would destroy agricultural land and in turn create the need for new infrastructure—roads, power lines, telecommunications—that would have to extend to feed this parasitic habitat.

Spacing ourselves out and filling in that space with things in the American manner is terribly costly to society and to the environment. For society, it tells us that happiness coincides with superaffluence, with the act of consumption rather than the art of living.

NPQ | The Earth’s population is projected now to level off at 10 billion by 2050. That, technological optimists argue, can be handled thanks to transgenic crops and coming fuel efficiencies. Even the former Saudi oil minister, Sheik Ahmed Zaki Yamani, envisions the “end of the oil age” within 20 years because of hybrid fuel cars.

SOLERI | The theory that soft capitalism or “green capitalism” will eliminate waste is wrong. There is the classic case of the developer who has been able to make deep cuts in the costs of building a house—so he multiplies the number of houses he builds! This triumph of technology eliminates waste at the smallest level only to generate the hyperwaste of suburbia. Making “wrongness” more efficient leads to colossal waste, not to a lean system.

More fuel-efficient automobiles will mean more of them, more roads and more sprawl. In biotechnology, too, it is important not to just go down the path of a better wrongness with efficient pest-resistant plants that wreak havoc with the ecology as a whole.

NPQ | Retail sanity, wholesale madness, so to speak...

SOLERI | Yes. We should instead pursue a “rightness” in the way of living. Even a lean consumer society still has an entirely different logic than the frugal art of living.

NPQ | The right way, as you see it, is a “frugal” lifestyle and a “frugal city.” Can you tell us what that means both philosophically and practically?

SOLERI | Frugality does not mean poverty. It means the most sophisticated use of space and time through complexity and miniaturization, in the sense of a canary being more efficient than a jumbo jet. Philosophically, frugality is superior to materialism because it is a processor of the outer into the inner rather than the opposite, which is consumerism: seeking meaning or happiness through possession of the material world. Frugality is a necessity capable of resolving itself into a virtue.

In evolution, what is gigantic and simple has failed. What is complex and miniaturized has succeeded. Why can’t the brain be as big and as heavy as a city block? Because distance and time are blockers of information response. Intelligence is quick feedback that miniature circuitry enables.

If you unraveled the DNA strand in an individual human being, it would be 125 billion miles long. It is the complexity of the compressed, double helix structure that makes us what we are. Without the miniaturized complexity of the DNA space within us, we would not be even a pale image of who we are.

Space, and its absence, is at the core of everything. It is the only reality.

You have to take as much space away from a process in order to have the liveliness, the intelligence and the passion. This absence of space is the “urban effect.” Liveliness is proportional to complexity, which is not possible without miniaturization.

Profligate systems ultimately fail while lean systems thrive. By spacing out human settlements, suburbia and sprawl nullify the urban effect whereas miniaturization, or close togetherness in space, induces a complex, efficient use of resources through intensive feedback.

Like life itself, as I’ve described, the frugal city should also be three-dimensional. The reason is simple: In three dimensions there is time-saving shortness of distance. Spatial closeness, or miniaturization, not only encourages convivial social life but also enables the rigorous utilization of all resources: complexity.

This is why I envision settlements with vertical spaces up to 100 floors. The “arcological” aspect means integrating the settlement with the natural environment, cooled and heated naturally through passive solar asps facing south, as at Arcosanti, or heat induction designs and ducts for the flow of cool air from the gardens into the residences.

The other issue is the logistical grid. If we adopt a megalogistical system, a gigantic technology, one day it will fail. We humans are ourselves logistical systems of enormous complexity, but we are a microsystem, not a megasystem. Once a logistical system is extended into a large space, it takes more and more resources to maintain it and keep it going at that scale—to fuel the cars, light the homes, water the crops, grow the food.

Nature tells us that taking up too much space is a mistake because the burden of maintaining the overhead sooner or later exhausts resources. After all, we don’t live in order to feed our circulatory system. Our circulatory system is there to give us life and consciousness.

In times past, one can look to the Italian hill towns and some of the larger settlements like Florence to see the urban effect. How was it that so much genius was generated in small little Florence during the Renaissance? Because spatial proximity enabled the intensive interaction of excellence. That is the urban effect.

NPQ | In the 30 years you have been building Arcosanti brick by brick out in the high mesa of Arizona, Phoenix has sprawled across the desert and is today America’s fastest-growing area. Absent a cultural revolution that trades a mentality of square footage for the frugal art of living, is there any real hope of change?

SOLERI | I have often been accused of being impractical. My response is that I am realistic. It is the grand delusion to believe that hyperconsumption and sprawl won’t some day collapse under their own weight and scope. The fact that it is so difficult to discover a practical path from here to there is only a testament to how deeply this unsustainable way of life is entrenched, not how realistic it is.

Only a change in mindset that brings people into a realistic frame of mind, what I call “evolutionary coherence,” will matter. Today, the dominant frame of mind is lodged in the very immediate, politically correct present in which “the pursuit of happiness” through consumption has become the chief aim of globalizing society. In such a civilization, the practical has become utterly unrealistic.

NPQ | Asia will have by 2050 some 50 megacities with 20 million in population each. Out of this population pressure, a kind of generic post-urban “scape” of continuous sprawl is emerging, as among Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Guangzhou in south China.

Aren’t your ideas of arcology—the integration of architecture, ecology and vertical density—perfectly suited to respond to this emergent reality?

SOLERI | Yes, I think so. But verticality in and of itself is not a virtue. A person can be just as isolated stacked up on top of others as distanced from others. It is a nexus between the two which makes it arcological, both convivial and ecological.

Also, one can’t go to these countries on the edge of poverty and tell them, “Well, you have it right with your villages and rice paddies, you should stay with it and not make the mistakes of the West.” That would be cruel and stupid.

Rather, it is up to those in the wealthy countries to say, “We have a responsibility and should face it. We are the ones who can do with less. We don’t need more.” Bigger houses, further distances, more goods and more energy for some do mean less for others. Technology can’t change that.

Hedonism is a wonderful thing within bounds. But when it becomes hyperconsumerism, the main guideline of life, then there is an exponential growth of fear and greed that others will take what I want. This doesn’t come from evil, but from the natural fact that we are consuming machines. It is only when this trait crosses a certain threshold of self-limitation that we become monsters devouring everything in sight, but always remaining hungry.

In America especially, being a consumer has become our main identity. That is the root of the problem in the wealthy countries. Our lust for square footage will only wane when we look inside instead of out for the point of life, when we convert from the profligate to the lean.

NPQ | How do you see the impact of the Internet, a realm of the mind instead of real estate?

SOLERI | In the 1950s, the theologian Teilhard de Chardin spoke of a “noosphere,” the Greek word for a sphere of the mind, that had emerged alongside the biosphere and the geosphere. This idea of a global mind anticipated the rise of the Internet.

What is happening now is that this noosphere, though virtual, is producing so much wealth that a kind of big bulge has grown in this transcendent realm that returns to matter. Paradoxically, materialism is a consequence of ephemeralization. Cyber­wealth, in short, is feeding hyperconsumption.

If the shopping center is on its way out because of the Internet, it is only because every household has been turned into a shopping center by the Net. Making habitation and shopping access into one is to give new fuel to the production-consumption cycle. And let us not forget the key fact of space: whatever you buy on the Internet still has to be produced, stored and distributed in real space. Can the ephemeral create gridlock of all those trucks on the road? It seems so.

One of the key challenges is how to make this wealth into a continuous ephemeralization that transcends material limitations, realizing the promise of some kind of spiritual domain rather than a mere medium for e-commerce.

For the moment, we are stuck with this cloud of the noosphere and its materialistic precipitation.

One thing that is disturbing about the Internet is that we have a three-way communication—the mind with the machine, and the machine in turn with another mind. What is missing is the body. If we detach our head from our body, we are in danger of defeating the human genome, which may well be what the technological imperative is all about. What we are doing, after all, is suicidal.

We are using our brain, in effect, to make our brain—which is really “thinking hydrogen”—obsolete. We know the machine, whether you call it a robot or silicon man, can become many times more intelligent than we are. In a few generations, the “carbon man” who has evolved for millennia may end up in the zoo or a museum. Progressively, hybrids of flesh and nanotechnological organs will walk the planet. Will flesh slowly give way to a progeny of stored-up “information” in vanishing spaces?

The challenge is how to combine the silicon intelligence of the virtual network of the noosphere with the tangibility of the planet in terms of the biosphere itself and the intelligence which has been developed in it.

So, we should not only cultivate silicon intelligence, but also the physiological intelligence of carbon man. The presence of the city, philosophically speaking, is that physiological intelligence of carbon man.

NPQ | Finally, what impact will the decentralizing, networked society of the Internet have on living patterns? Will it encourage sprawl even further because there is no need for a center, or enable smaller and more dense cities?

SOLERI | The Internet enables one to be both globally connected and to live at a human scale. There is nothing spiritual in this, but it is a kind of time-space magic. From this angle one can see the Internet as the main facilitator of the lean alternative.

This will be true, however, only when we can escape this paradox: The Internet could create a “global hermitage” rather than a “global village,” actually reinforcing the spacing out of human settlements into even more sprawling suburbia, a space of hermits connected virtually but separated in reality—mind without body.