A Year of Volunteers Helps to Reinvent the Arcosanti Workshop (Finally!)

by Pinto LeBrun

In 1970, a unique architectural experiment began in the high desert about 70 miles north of Phoenix. We call this special place Arcosanti, an arcology prototype and urban laboratory. Over 51 years, more than 8000 volunteers came to build these walls (and floors and ceilings and sidewalks and so much else) during ongoing 5- and 6-week construction workshops that were the signature program of The Cosanti Foundation across the decades. Volunteers worked together, lived together, ate together, celebrated together, and studied together. “Work hard, play hard, Teilhard” was an Arcosanti motto for years. A small cliffside arcology was built, and along with it, a deeply connected community, as well as an international network of alumni.

The constant movement and flow of human energy may have been just as crucial a building block as the concrete and stone in the buildings themselves. If, as Paolo so often suggested, Arcosanti was the instrument, the people were its music. So you can imagine the energetic blow that was felt several years ago when construction was first paused, and then the workshop program was put on indefinite hold. Perhaps you even felt it yourself. And then came a global pandemic that temporarily closed our gates completely, and from which we have yet to fully recover.

But time moves forward, and so do we. As the world now learns to navigate these new conditions, and as communities are trying to heal and move forward, we are doing the same. 

In spring of 2021, just as the world was beginning to reopen, I arrived at Arcosanti as a volunteer. Arco is a place I had visited many years before, and where I already had friends who had gotten to know me during my time as the senior manager of Hostel in the Forest in Georgia. Like a growing number of people at Arcosanti, I was living here, working here, playing here…but I had never had a chance to take a true workshop before the program was suspended. So I did the only thing I could do: I started an experimental volunteer program to recapture some of the content and experience that used to be provided by the workshops. As a volunteer, for volunteers, for Arcosanti, and for this community. It wasn’t quite the same as the original workshop program, but it was a start. The first cohort arrived in April, and the second in May. And then we took a break for the summer to figure out what to do next.

A lot was learned during that time, but perhaps one of the most important realizations was simply the importance of that steady cycle of new energy through the arcology. It was less of a realization, really, and more of a remembering.

We needed our workshops back.

We needed new faces to revitalize the lifeblood of the nonprofit and its community of staff and volunteers still exploring life together on this land. We needed something that supported a new person’s entrance into this unique space and allowed them room to explore how to live within the fluidity of time experienced inside of this framework. We needed a program that allowed people to learn through action, and space to reflect on the practices with a group of diverse perspectives. We needed volunteers to feel that their work was making a difference, and we needed community to open their arms to the new ideas the volunteers would bring along. We needed to provide experiential education rooted in arcology and relevant to an ever-changing global community, and make it accessible to those participating.

We might not be there yet, but we are on our way. After all, in an urban laboratory, one answer is simply a path to the next question. Our current “answer” is the autumn continuation of this experimental volunteer program that will, in 2022, become the new six-week volunteer workshop at Arcosanti.

On September 29th, eight new faces showed up onsite and were joined by three current residents who started their journeys at Arcosanti during a time when workshops were not available. These eleven brave humans came from backgrounds covering every region of the United States and even some other countries. Some moved into a dorm together and others set up tents. They share cooking responsibilities, they carpool to off-site adventures, and they create new onsite activities during their time off from the working and studying and core curriculum of the six-week program. They are learning the history of Arcosanti and the land it was built upon as they help create the future of Arcosanti, including our programming and volunteer experiences. 

They attended the first School of Thought to happen in years, reading Soleri’s Quaderno 11: Arcosanti Genesis and an excerpt from The Omega Seed about Arcosanti. At the end of their program they will start a new tradition of leading a Town Hall during their final week on site. The results of their work can already be seen in the Mind’s Garden and in agriculture, and the work they are doing behind the scenes in planning, archives, and communication will slowly become more visible as well. In the future, our workshops will start to revolve around tangible themes or key projects, but for now, one might consider the fall 2021 volunteer cohort’s main theme to be the experimental development of the new volunteer workshop.

As Cosanti Foundation’s Volunteer Coordinator (and no longer a volunteer myself), I could not be more proud of this group of individuals. Though every person’s experience differs, the last 18 months have rocked all of our worlds in one way or another. This group looks forward, holds each other’s hands, and asks what they can do for each other and the community. From sharing food at potlucks, to raking duck-weed from the oxidation pond, this group has created firm footing to extend a hand to the community at Arcosanti and my heart swells when I watch the community extend that hand back.

The Cosanti Foundation has a mission to inspire a reimagined urbanism that builds resilient and equitable communities sustainably integrated with the natural world. The volunteers who have participated at Arcosanti this year are as inspiring, imaginative, and resilient a group of people as I’ve ever met. They’ve inspired me, they’ve added their imaginations to Arcosanti, and wherever they go next, I don’t doubt that they—like Arcosanti itself—are going to change the world. 

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