‘Building the Arcology’, Laura Gullveig

Illustrations © 2017 Rachel Linn

 [ Arcosanti, © 2017 Rachel Linn ] Teri hadn’t seen Nick and Emmy in over ten years, but she recognized them as soon as they got out of their car in the visitor parking lot. Emmy was still as petite as she had been at twenty. Her ponytail had grown long and was streaked with grey. Nick looked good too, not as chiseled and tanned as he had been during his construction days at Arcosanti, but he strode with that same dignified confidence.

“I can’t believe you’re still here!” Emmy sprinted to her old friend and hugged her. When Nick caught up the three walked arm-in-arm toward Teri’s apartment. She lived in the East Crescent, the incomplete building that curved around the Roman style amphitheater.

“So what have you to been up to, besides building the arcology?” Nick wasn’t joking around. He wouldn’t have known that the phrase “building the arcology” was spoken as a punchline more often than not these days. Mimicking that cartoon, one kid would say to another, grinning and bouncing in the lunch line, “What we going to do today, Brain?” and the other would say in a patient and tired voice, “Same thing we do every day Pinky. Try to build the arcology.”

Nothing new had been built since Nick and Emmy moved away ten years ago. They walked through the complex with Teri and they really looked, pointing out whatever little differences they could find, shaking their heads at cracked, dirty windows, crumbled concrete and exposed re-bar. Emmy volleyed name after name: Micky? Rachel, the one with the goat? What ever happened to Jaime and Kat?

Teri was able to answer for most, but there were some she just didn’t know. “So many people have been here. Over seven thousand since they started building.” She looked at Emmy. “You got here before I did, remember? And I don’t remember all the people I did meet.”

Emmy wiggled her fingers, doing math. “Seven thousand in what, forty-five years…”

“But we haven’t been getting as many in the last few years,” Teri said. “About six per workshop, eight workshops per year…”

Nick glared at the old construction crane below the pool. “Whatever happened to that plan for the greenhouse? That should have been done years ago.”

“Politics, I guess.” Teri knew that after Arcosanti Nick had become a successful architect with several innovative projects in his portfolio, some funded by prestigious grants.

They were sitting around Teri’s small kitchen table with drinks, their dinner plates stacked in the sink. Cheap sangria for Teri and Emmy, scotch and ginger beer for Nick. Teri said she’d been saving the sangria for this occasion. Emmy laughed when she saw the jug. It was the same stuff they used to pass around the campfire back in the day—back when Arcosanti was little more than a twinkle in Paolo Soleri’s eye.

“So much for building the arcology,” Nick muttered. “You guys are just barely maintaining it.”

Emmy put her hand on his arm. “Nick, honey, you know how it is, you remember why we left…”

Teri frowned and chewed a fingernail.

“I’m sorry,” Nick said. “I know it’s not your fault, Teri.”

“No, it’s ok,” Teri said. “Let’s talk about it. Let’s talk about why nothing has been built in ten years.”

“I didn’t mean to accuse you.”

“It’s ok,” Teri said. “We can talk about this. We can talk about anything.” Her eyes held Emmy’s, and they both smiled.

Teri refilled Emmy’s glass and twisted around to get Nick another ginger beer from the fridge behind her.

“Let’s go outside.” Emmy said. “Let’s go look at the stars, okay? You know, that’s one thing I miss most about this place is being able to see the night sky.” She led the way to the top of the vaults, two barrel vaults planted in the middle of the mesa as the first and central piece of the future city. Teri hadn’t been up there in years.

The three stood in a line along the beam at the top. The scent of creosote wafted up on a light breeze. Emmy located the big dipper standing on end as if balanced on the horizon beyond the Agua Fria canyon. Nick picked out Orion’s belt.

“You know something…” A guilty look crossed Teri’s moonlit face. Nick and Emmy waited. “Never mind,” she said.

“No. Tell us your thoughts, Teri.” Emmy was one of the few people who had ever been able to draw Teri out when she got pensive.

“Well, it’s kind of a sacrilegious thought, but, I was just thinking, if the arcology were built, if five thousand people were living here, we wouldn’t be able to see the stars like this. There would be too much light pollution.”

“It wouldn’t be a regular city,” Nick said quickly. “No street lights, no headlights, no neon signs.”

“Right,” Emmy agreed. “Look at the way it is now, just path lights instead of street lights, one dim wall sconce for two doorways. It would just be more of the same, going up thirty stories.” They all looked up, trying to imagine Soleri’s thirty-story lattice sprinkled with tiny twinkling lights, the arcology curving and rising around them.

 [ Camp, © 2017 Rachel Linn ] Teri spent the following day directing a group of volunteers to prepare the agricultural field for a new orchard. Emmy joined in with enthusiasm, helping to drag brush to the center of the field, where they burned it as the sun went down.

Sometimes when tourists and new workshoppers came in, Teri could just tell which ones were going to stay. They blended in somehow. People came to Arcosanti for a lot of different reasons so the community was pretty diverse—it wasn’t that she was identifying a type. She could tell when there was a connection. She used to challenge other residents to place bets on how long newcomers would stay. It turned out that most people couldn’t see it. Some of the arrivals didn’t even see it themselves. People who thought they were only coming for a one-hour tour stayed for years. And there were people who came saying this was the home they’d always been looking for—those people sometimes didn’t last two months.

There was a couple once who came with all their worldly possessions—he worked construction and she was a school teacher. He persuaded her to take a leave of absence and come try it out. He couldn’t get along with people, he had this over developed sense of entitlement. He ended up leaving, she stayed. She learned ceramics and made sculptures she sold in the gallery. She mostly kept to herself in her studio and her room. Residents saw her walking along the river sometimes in her scarves and long skirts. An Arco-nun.

Teri watched how Emmy came to life working and horsing around with the volunteers and she sensed that familiar voice inside saying “that one is going to stay.”

That night Teri joined Nick and Emmy outside their guest room. Blankets tucked around their laps, they were stargazing again.

Emmy said, “I’m exhausted! I’m not used to all that hard labor anymore.” She tilted her head toward Nick. “What about you, hon? How was your day?”

“I got some things done. Dropped in on a meeting they were having about the housing policy.” He shook his head. “They’re arguing about whether to remodel East Housing into a family apartment or dorms.”

“Yeah, that’s the hot topic of the hour,” Teri said.

“Who ever heard of living in something and building it at the same time? What’s wrong with everyone staying down in camp until the arcology is done?”

Camp, where everybody started out, was a cluster of 8 foot concrete cubes thrown together in the seventies. It was down the hill, between the river and the old agricultural fields. As the first structures of the arcology were completed residents gradually moved out of camp and into the new apartments, but some still preferred to live in camp—those who worked in agriculture and young people who wanted a place to get loud and crazy away from the tourists. Others saw it as antithetical to Soleri’s vision of compact urban environments as ideal for human development. The agriculturalists argued that somebody was going to have to feed the city.

“Did you go down there?” Teri asked.

Nick stared at her. “Lost Boys City, the sign says. Looks like a bunch of kids hanging out.” One of the pistachio saplings he remembered planting now towered over the cubes and was decorated with Christmas lights, paper lanterns and peace flags. Chairs of all styles and stages of disrepair surrounded a large fire pit. Wine bottles, beer cans, and empty cigarette cartons littered the ground. “I was looking at the rosters,” he said. “You have more paid employees than volunteers now. People are just living here, settling in.”

“You have a point. You hear these kids talking about living in the arcology like it was already finished. They call this,” Teri waved around at the scattered lights along the canyon’s edge, “the city. Or, they talk about moving here to get away from the city. They show up and announce they’re going to live out the rest of their lives here.”

Teri glanced at Emmy, who had slouched into her nest of blankets and looked asleep. She leaned forward. “But you know, Nick, it’s a whole new generation here. And a lot of these kids never met Soleri. Can you blame them for focusing more on what’s actually here in concrete than what even we can barely grasp, when we’re the ones he described it to directly?”

“What?! Teri, it’s not that hard to grasp.”

“Compare what we actually built to what was supposed to be. Tourists are right, what we’re living in is not much different from an Italian hill village. People come as much for what’s in the here and now as what Soleri envisioned, and the two have turned out to be very different.”

Nick heaved a loud, irritated sigh. “So you guys have given up, is that it? Allowing people to move in before it was finished was a big mistake.”

“Building the arcology has become kind of a religion for these kids,” Teri said softly. “The details are fuzzy and mystical, grand concepts, not really applicable to everyday life. There’s plenty of lip service, some of it heartfelt, but deep down do any of them really believe it can and will be built?”

“If they don’t really think it’s possible, why are they here?”

Teri looked into her glass.

Emmy shifted in her chair, startling both of them. “What do you think, Teri? Are we building the arcology or not?

The moon had finally appeared, a quarter moon shining weakly from the horizon. The three watched its wobbly ascent.

Finally Teri said, “I’ve already said too much.”

Nick continued to watch the moon. “Why are you still here, if not to build the arcology?”

“For the kids,” Teri said firmly. “For the students, even the tourists. Watching the workshoppers build their confidence and develop skills, and then they go into the world. Like you did, Nick.” She was smiling. “Look what you’ve accomplished out there. I mean, imagine if you had never come to Arco. You applied what you learned here, right? You’re actually one of my biggest inspirations for sticking with it, so it’s funny you should ask. I should have thanked you a long time ago.”

She paused. “Maybe no arcology will ever be built, but after seven thousand people have had this place impressed on them, there are little pieces of arcology out there everywhere.”

© 2017 Laura Gullveig

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