Some things are meant to be small

Earlier this year, the great visionary architect Paolo Soleri died at the age of 93. Soleri created the discipline of arcology; something he described as the fusion of architecture and ecology. He was a pioneer of passive design and off-grid environmental architecture and probably best known for designing and building Arcosanti; a community of dwellings deep within the Arizona desert.

I stayed at Arcosanti for some time in 2006; ensconced in its Sky Loft, high up in one of the larger buildings, and there is no doubt that it is a strange and captivating place. Every evening at around seven, I was joined by a dozen or so young students, who would gather on the Sky Loft roof and silently watch the sun disappear and I remember feeling distinctly polluted in their presence; such was their strange and spiritual cleanliness. The Arcosanti architecture has a profound and intense effect on its inhabitant’s state of mind; however brief their encounter. Stay there long enough and the architecture and environment exerts itself on you; and you change.

Arcosanti was intended to be a town of 5,000 people but it is almost impossible to imagine it as a community of that size. What Soleri breathed into existence has remained small.

Yet I had not been in Arcosanti for 30 minutes before two people told me that ‘The next phase of the build is intended for over there, to the West’.

‘This is just the beginning’ said another, some 30 years after the last stone had been laid.

The community now hovers around 70, and never peaked above 200 people. And it was strange to me that something that to a fresh and untrained eye seemed so perfectly to scale and so beautifully nestled within its landscape, should house inhabitants that were so keen on perpetuating a story of scale that would clearly never come.

Soleri himself acknowledged the limits of Arcosanti, proclaiming that it was his lack of desire to proselytise it that inhibited its scale. I’m not persuaded. I think his aesthetic eye perceived the reality; Arcosanti is beautiful at the scale that it is. 

Over the next 12 months we will be firmly focused on scale, on supporting the replication, adaptation and diffusion of good ideas that are proven to work. This is a good and necessary endeavour. We have too many small scale ideas that achieve marginal impact yet burst with potential.

But I want to keep Arcosanti in mind. Because sometimes innovations are the size they are meant to be. And no amount of effort can explode an idea beyond the DNA of its originator. And you know what? That’s fine.


Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Helen Goulden

Executive Director, Innovation Lab

Helen was an Executive Director at Nesta and lead our Innovation Lab. The Lab’s mission is to support and scale innovation for the public good; working with partners to run innovation …

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