By Jeff Stein
“This is not a pipe”
The artist Rene Magritte (1898-1967) worried about his fellow humans misunderstanding the world by experiencing it only through images. “The treachery of imagery” he called it and made this painting that describes his concern. Of course, the issue for Magritte was: it’s a PICTURE of a pipe. An image. Two dimensional. Only experienced by sense of sight. Overly simple. Whereas an actual pipe is a 3D object, you can hold it in your hand, feel the smoothness of the briar it is made of, feel it warm to the touch as the tobacco in it burns, smell the aroma of that tobacco, taste it as you bring it into your mouth. A real pipe and its relationship to the human body is complex. Plus, of course, there was the physical exertion to make the pipe, to purchase it, to select the tobacco, and even after it is smoked, the pipe is still lying around the house. As for the image of the pipe, you may have just happened upon it accidentally; and if you click a mouse / turn the page, it will disappear. All of which brings us to Arcosanti.
True, this is a powerful image, yet here online it is just a picture. Striking, but again, 2-dimensional. Colorful, yes, but onscreen, unlike the real place, you are not surrounded by that color. Visually stimulating, perhaps, but the real place stimulates many senses: you can feel the materials, the temperature changes from sun to shade, from day to night; smell the desert after a rain, delight in the aroma of dinner cooking in the café, feel the humidity of a greenhouse, hear the windbells, hear the neighbors, and on really good days, hear the sound of performing artists in your midst. And all the while there is the haptic, real physical experience of three-dimensional space itself.
In addition, of course, Soleri had no illusions that what we have built so far is actually an arcology. A kind of laboratory, yes. A series of prototype buildings that, while sustaining a learning community now, point to an arcology in the future, certainly! On its mesa in central Arizona, Arcosanti is an architectural document about the relationship of humans and nature, architecture, and ecology, a foundation the next generation can build on, shoulders we can all stand on. But photographs alone do not really convey its complexity, the sensuality of what is there now, and of what is to come.
The difficulty of representing architecture in two-dimensions, through photography, is not limited to Arcosanti. It is endemic, throughout our culture. As a result of learning about architecture through photography, a core understanding is lost. That understanding, strongly evident at Arcosanti, is that architecture is three dimensional, spatial; architecture is about space, not surface. The complex, connected, prototype buildings at Arcosanti constructed over time on a really tight budget, embody that three-dimensionality as well as any architecture on earth.
Reading this you should make a note: come to Arcosanti for a visit, experience this architecture, this place with all your senses. Go past the flat screen image to the actual; remind yourself what body-knowing – as opposed to just thinking – is all about, and experience the sort of architecture that we imagine could help all of us realize the fullness of our humanity.