I don’t know much about Paolo Soleri, or his work with what he calls arcologies (from architecture-ecology), except that he is highly respected by people I respect.

So, I was interested to see he had an essay in the summer 1976 issue of CoEvolution Quarterly. I read it. And read it again, and again. It moved me, deeply. The writing was sometimes awkward, sometimes self-righteous but for all that it was powerful and inspiring.

The CoEvolution Quarterly (Box 428, Sausalito, CA . 94965) — perhaps the best national magazine in America — has given us permission to reprint it, as has Soleri. With someone’s help, he’s revised the original, and it reads more smoothly. I was amused when Soleri, who was born in Italy, told me he still had trouble with the language; it’s true, but when he isn’t stumbling over syntax, his writing sings. This still isn’t easy to read, but it’s worth the effort.

Soleri lives in Scottsdale, Arizona, where his Cosanti Foundation experiments with self-contained urban environments — arcologies — trying to integrate the best of city and country living. The construction of such a community, Arcosanti, began in 1970 in the mesa country of central Arizona, 70 miles north of Phoenix. When completed, the town of 5,000 people will rise 25 stories, cover 13 acres of an 860-acre land preserve, and will serve as a model for other such undertakings.

Soleri has lived in this country more than 20 years. His work has been honored by other architects and in addition to directing the foundation he is a visiting lecturer at Arizona State University’s College of Architecture. His books include Arcology: City In The Image of Man (MIT Press), The Sketchbooks of Paolo Soleri (MIT Press), and Matter Becoming Spirit (Doubleday Press).

— Ed.


The attempt of this essay is to show relative poverty not as an expedient toward a certain goal but as the brick and mortar for the construction of a condition of equity and transcendence through a lean ecological-theological congruence. The subject of frugality rises from the observation that ignorance is the lock on the door that needs opening. Since no one ever ceases to be ignorant, the presumption of knowing the right key is, per se, fraught with danger. Be that as it may, one can identify two sources of ignorance: ignorance for lack of experiential processes, and ignorance from the inability to profit from experiential processes. Every process is experiential but the experience does not necessarily identify with the subject matter. (In reading about Victoria Falls, one “experiences” the experience of the writer, not Victoria Falls.) The first case of ignorance is part of the existential context of youth; the second is part of the more or less limited “sensitivity” of all age groups. Parenthetically, since growing up is the process of consciously and unconsciously applying cumulative experiences, the learning-doing process, it is in the nature of things that at the beginning (and all situations are, in part, beginning situations) youth can only turn to a vicarious and mimetic modus operandi based on trust, trust in those who have had some learning-doing experience. Watch the little sister acting out her elder sister, the sons and daughters playing grown-ups. . . . For the most of what we do, this modus operandi does not change throughout life. Only in what we “specialize in” do we transfer some of this trust from others to ourselves.

Ignorance is the lock on the door to frugality not so much for the poor who cannot do better, but for the person who has opted for it intentionally. This person must know, viscerally, the rationale for the choice, since not to know is to be ignorant of the issue and consequently blind to the condition of man. To put it bluntly, frugality must come from synthesis, not from ignorance or quiescence or weakness.

There are moments of history when gluttony is impossible. . . . They set the condition where necessity might translate itself into virtue.

Synthesis is a conclusive action in the process of discrimination and elimination by which a few essentials are established as the moorings for one’s existence. It is a divesting of the physical and transphysical self as much as it is an encompassing of both within one’s own specificity so that the garment of frugality can mold itself more intimately to both the tangible and the intangible self. If it were otherwise, if indigence, for instance, were to be the context of frugality, then one would but stand as a synopsis of the least human of the human condition, the condition of wretchedness where the mind cannot work since the body is dying. The body is dying when somatic man is ignored on the poor assumption that once the flesh is fed with the right protein, one can forthwith turn on the psyche anchored to it.

The intent of relative poverty is not to suffer and do penance for the sins of man or specifically for the sins of avarice, gluttony and covetousness. It is instead to glorify life through the lean, conscious exercise of one’s energies in the face of odds which, when understood, cannot but show themselves as overwhelming. It is, at its best, a performance saturated with the tragic sense of life itself, a sense full of seminal particles, a sense that can give reason and scope to sufferance, that immense towering ogre of all history, drowned in cruelty but also suffused with beauty. To perform in the tragic sense of life is not, one must be clear, a morose and bleak prospect. It is a conscious development of the self along a path littered with things that must be ignored, a path irksome with the unexpected, the mystifying, the barbaric, the blasphemous, the malicious. . . .

With all of that, and in spite of all of that, one’s spirit can construct a not-so-ephemeral counter-reality, the intent of which is grace and deliverance, a deliverance that is future-oriented, a creation constructed on the warp of the unknown which gives an oracular (demonic) tinge to its appeals. If this grace is suffocated by wealth which mistakenly thinks it can buy deliverance, then those occasional buffers which are necessarily part of the countenance of one’s life, become the indispensable crutches for a life gone astray in the pursuit of happiness, a pursuit which is made ephemeral by the fragility of the scaffolding employed to reach it, the inner fragility of an all-insured, all-granted happiness via affluence. To the fragility which is innate in coupling, if not identifying, inner grace with hoarding and the power to maintain it, is clearly added the precariousness, in both physical and moral terms, of such a condition vis-a-vis the indigence of most of humanity. We are thus faced with a double sin: a sin against one’s own spiritual worth and a sin against the needs of the species of which our own spirit is part and parcel. The intentional condition of relative poverty is not the seal of sainthood but has its rationale in the human condition, when such condition is perceived and understood in some depth and when deeds follow upon the path of understanding. That some or most politicians, economists, and managers might see the frugal way as the suicidal way simply shows what the materialistic turn of mind does to man. While it is certainly true that the application of frugality would play havoc for a while with the western system, the “consumerism societies,” it is also true that such societies have not lifted the spirit of man one iota above the quiet and not-so-quiet greed which conspicuously characterizes them, a greed by now endemically infecting that part of mankind which has been touched by the technological revolution. It might well be that this historical phase of the species has to pass through the quagmire of greed to taste first-hand the bitter sterility of such a condition. Only after that may man freely choose to move into the future with less technological redundance and more inner conviction.

One of the convincing aspects of arcology is that it stands, in parallel with the individual, private, frugal ethos, for an equally frugal, public, universal condition. Environmentally, it does for society what frugality does individually for the person. Naturally, the visitation of grace upon arcological, frugal man is far from automatic. But what is automatic is that as a direct consequence of one’s willful abdication of affluence-opulence. The wealth of the earth is given a chance for more equitable distribution. A forced abdication of opulence would only mean that for the time being someone or some society is quarantined in the indigent’s station, that station where revolt and vendetta mount their pressure. If, on the other hand, abdication meant withdrawal from society and its productive cycles, applying the tenet that “what I cannot get for myself I will not produce for anyone else,” then one deprives man of those tools and those products that need to be produced so that the strength they bring to man can be equitably shared.1 One can hear the laughter or the bone-rattling indignation of a successful society looking at the picture of itself as the good samaritan, as if I were proposing some sort of mass philanthropy making the world into a limbo. I am really suggesting instead a civilization which in a conscious, lean exercise of its energies and knowledge has fewer false gods to indulge in. To such end, some steps seem necessary: 1) Free oneself from the hypocrisy of equality. 2) See and feel that the freedom to be equally mediocre is a sorry state. 3) Understand that mimesis and vicariousness are the indispensable ways by which the anguish of the species, its sufferance, can be contained (the norm) within bearable boundaries when it cannot be transfigured (the exception) into grace.

Why do I think I am on target with these rather oblique statements? Willing or not, we are in the theological realm, in that reality where the individual is, for the sake of himself and his progeny, subordinated to something which is more than the sum of all components of life. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, speaking of sufferance, compares mankind to a tree whose branches bear different loads and are in different health conditions (see point 1). All branches are part of the tree’s integrity, they all have part in its development; all branches, and specifically the weakest, partake of the glory of the tree. They partake of it, but they are not equally responsible for and expressive of it. If they were, one could suggest the following paradox: the pruning gardener (God?) works on a pair of twin trees; on one He trims off the weak limbs and on the other He cuts off the stronger limbs. Good sense would say that the first tree has been well-conditioned for further development in terms of inner structural design and that the other tree has been maimed. Carry the analogy too far and you play into the hands of the God’s-chosen-people ethos. Yet, to ignore the unevenness in the components of the system is to be blind, hypocritical, or perversely pious. For the human tree, the point is not whether to cut or not to cut the weak branches but to acknowledge that the truly compassionate way is to see that the weak branches, which are making their contribution according to their strength, are vicariously joyful in the reflection and mimesis of what the stronger branches do for the tree (see point 3). To stay a while longer with the analogy, but now defining the tree as the bearer of fruits indispensable to the betterment of man, and seeing man standing under the tree as short in stature if tall in hunger, only a human pyramid will put the fruits within reach. The pyramid will go up according to physical laws and acrobatic skills. The most limber and best-conditioned individuals will have the joy of picking the fruits (and will, for an instant, rejoice in the life-current). They will then toss the fruits down to the less fortunate, the vicarious enjoyers. One of the assignments of civilization is, of course, the construction of scaffoldings which will afford anyone the thrill of picking the fruits. But it will never happen that everyone will find the interest or the courage or perseverance to pick the fruits. For most, it will be a case of getting fed on a diluted version of the burning flame — fruit. (I must make clear that nowhere in the pyramid do I see the sign of mediocrity. I see only the signs of individual limitations.)

Leaving the analogies, one can look at societies and their histories. Men and women can equally, or better, equitably, enjoy the reality they bring forth in the measure and terms which their inner worth can afford to them. We enjoy or suffer, which are the same, in the measure of the reflection of what we are in what we behold or do, not one iota more or less. We are instruments which can produce only those sounds made possible by the sophistication of our make-up. If it might seem unjust to say that a wired wash tub cannot do for a violin concerto, since it is more fair to see all of us as violins, we might want to consider that: 1) we are not just passive instruments but rather the active players of ourselves, thence what we play of ourselves we make ourselves into: 2) as violins we might be well-made or poorly-made. The quality of the instrument is a genetic fact, as yet beyond our control. Consequently, the quality of the sound, if we so want to characterize it, will be a significant parameter of our performance; but the substance of the music is of our making and only of our making . . . or is it? It is not so much of our making as it is of our choice. The Beethovens and the Debussys play music of their making on wired wash tubs or on Stradivariuses. The professional players choose from the repertory that which suits them to perform. Both the professional player and the listener vicariously enjoy with the composer the music he has made himself into, and by a process of mimesis, doing on our own what someone else has originally done, we even co-create or re-create fragments or figments of it.

We are all pupils of someone who most of the time we do not know and we do not need to know. Each of us is, in fact, the pupil of literally thousands of teachers, our fellow travelers on the journey from beginning to end, our contemporaries or our ancestors. In such a situation, the most damaging thing one could do to oneself, or that society could foster, would be to go after the emptiest of all music in sympathy for impiety. This is to seek mediocrity and to sanctify it with the consumer ethos which maintains that the buyer can purchase only what the producer makes, to which the producer retorts that the nature of the product is a direct result of the market (consumer) demand. This is the most dangerous thing democracy has had to cope with and in the western world it has coped with it poorly. If the elitist societies of the past, western and eastern, have something to show, it is that “freedom” has not been identified with mediocrity. In fact, it was a tenet in those societies that only the exceptional were or had the right to be free. By “exceptional” was meant privileged, a distortion which doomed all of them to extinction, but that position was normative then, since social justice was at best a remote concept.

Can anyone say that the price for non-mediocrity has been too high? What we can say is that if the democracy of mediocrity (“mediocracy” as coined by Frank Lloyd Wright) is the ultimate in freedom, freedom has been a mirage and a poor mirage at that. Its true name is license, the institutionalization of mediocrity by the stamp of approval from the authority and tyranny of the vicarious and mimetic Joneses (see point 3.)

The intentional condition of relative poverty is not the seal of sainthood but has its rationale in the human condition.

The point is that mediocrity and frugality do not mix. They can only coexist. They do not mix since frugality is quintessential and mediocrity is quiescent. It is only by the reduction of mediocrity that frugality can prevail. A mediocre society is by definition a wasteful society, since it is a society which is incapable of that leanness of thought and action that is characteristic of the frugal condition.

It should be somewhat clear that contrition and penance do not necessarily fall into the framework of frugality, as it should be clear that they are not excluded from such a scheme as a matter of dogma. The latter point is a necessary corollary because in the western world it has become axiomatic that both contrition and penance are the residue of barbaric and obscure moments of history. In the meanwhile, the psychoanalyst, with his own contrition-penance syndromes, has in those same moments a field day. Contrition and penance come upon the soul consciously, or, if the society forbids it, unconsciously; but they have to come upon it, since the soul is the testing ground for our sense of rightness, while the world and the persona are saturated with wrongness.

Wiser societies have not put up such a (technologically) solid wall between themselves and their anima. Indeed, for some of them it is often in the extreme opposite direction, which makes for infirmity. So much is given to contrition and penance as to bring about mortification and a sullen acceptance of punishment. At one extreme is, thus, the self-righteousness of ignorance, arrogance and contempt, the true garments of mediocrity which is sometimes clad in gentle apparel but most often in its armored opulence; and at the other end is a meekness blurring into the total helplessness of abjection.

It emerges that frugality as synthesis and quintessence, far from being in the lukewarm center of the line connecting the two extremes, propels itself equally away from them both into an asyntropic flight toward the spirit.

It is naturally easy to imitate any mold, including the mold of frugality. It is up to those who seek to be part of the arcology experiment to examine their own consciences and seek guidance from the flame, tenuous or roaring, they treasure there. The experiment might demand a lifetime test, since the aim of it is the transformation and possibly the transfiguration of contemporary man. This transformation is the most utopian aspect of the experiment as it necessitates a durational collapse of tradition into a brief one-generation time-span.The establishment of a tradition is something that can hardly occur within a lapse of time as short as that. That notwithstanding, if we cannot approximate such a condition, we have a poor chance of succeeding.

We are not butterflies sapping the sweet nectar of reality. We are still a divine metamorphosis of the hungry maggot capable of transforming rotten flesh into grace, the dead into the living.

Another difficulty inherent in this proposition is that the goal of establishing a tradition is the least fashionable thing to propose in a time when the most popular slogan is “set yourself free, break out of all traditions.” The fact that the slogan is absurd does not make it less attractive. In fact, it is attractive because it is absurd and the best way to be absurd is to abide by absurd slogans. It is indeed so attractive as to be propounded by the most established (and absurd) of all establishments, Madison Avenue. Purchase this or that and you will be an “original,” unique among (millions of identical) uniques. But then we would not be in what we are in if our aim was to sway dutifully to the tune of the day.

A glance at the unfashionable position of arcology and its fashionable opposite :

frugality vs. affluence
quality vs. quantity
complexity vs. elementarity
gathering vs. scattering
containment vs. diaspora
integration vs. segregation
smallness vs. giantism
self-discipline vs. license
religiosity vs. materialism
technological reliance vs.
      technological mysticism
contrast vs. homogenization
authority vs. power
cooperation vs. confrontation
use vs. ownership
longevity vs. obsolescence
conservation vs. ecological naught
substance vs. sensationalism
self-reliance vs. dependence
      (drugs, etc.)
conviction vs. peer loyalty,
transcendence vs. reductionism
humanism vs. personalism
universalism vs. nationalism

To return to the theological component, in my view true religiousness states and bases its action on the belief that it is more probable that the whole of the universe will animate itself than it is probable that part of the universe which is animated will die. In view of the present as we know it, such a statement will appear as the emptiest of all boasts. It is, notwithstanding that, the only proposition which reduces evil to naught since a fully-animated universe signifies that the living has achieved that degree of pervasiveness and sacramentality which automatically precludes a parallel existence of non-life, that is to say, fate (evil as the absence of destiny). Thus, fate has transubstantiated itself into destiny, has found a destination. At the end of such journey, the laws of mass energy would have ended their reality (usefulness), since the whole of mass energy would have transcended itself into logos. But then this transcendence is not a hypothesis or a future possibility, it is a daily occurrence. We, the humankind, are matter transcended into spirit, a spirit as yet raw, fragmented, dark, violent, and excess prone.

The utopia of sectarian religion is the assumption that such a condition existed once, “at the beginning was the word,” and that for unexplained, unexplicable reasons, such total plenitude had to be broken: imperfection as the off-spring of perfection. Since this is an immense fall from grace, in fact an absurdity (the only true impossible), the causal entitity for such a fall must always be singled out as the most damnable of all possible realities, Lucifer, the Devil. Only the invention of the Devil could begin to justify the invention and existence of God, since those actions unbecoming to God had to be the attributes of an evil spirit. But the Devil cannot be a son of God gone mad, he can only be the son of a mad or impotent God. The Devil is that bottomless bag where one can find an explanation for every thing that faith cannot reflect upon its own God. If my theological, ecological analysis is correct, the bag is even more capacious than the religious soul is capable of imagining. The bag is the universe in toto from which must be subtracted the perfectable speck of nothingness we call the living. “The Devil made me do it” means that what is bearing upon me outside and inside of myself is causing me not to be master of myself. I am a tiny god while at the same time I am an immense turmoil of brutishness, spanning immense spaces for infinite times. Therefore, the Devil not only possesses me (I am lost within it), but I am the Devil which has somewhere in a remote corner of itself a tiny speck of divinity speaking, shouting out his (my) anguish. My relative sacredness is still the relative concreteness of a sigh in a caldron full of boiling sulphur.

Relativism says that even the maggot is holiness in the flesh, the paragon being not those living things upon which the maggot feeds, but rather that same matter which the maggot is minus the living flame which is the maggot’s make-up. The maggot, therefore, is either sublime ecstasy of matter made flesh or it is a dumb pile of isolated sub-atomic particles given to randomness. This is a measure of the anguish which Lucifer, the universal maggot, is prey to: a Prometheus whose most sublime thought is to reach that platform of being where the devouring of dead flesh is pure ecstasy, the ecstasy of perpetuating one instant longer the remote possibility of the divine through the sufferance of the evolutionary ladder. To my understanding, Lucifer is not then a fallen angel who has lost grace, but a maggot in search of a condition of grace which will offer possibility for its own evolutionary progeny. We, the super-maggot, niched somewhere on the evolutionary ladder, still in very close proximity to our Father, the maggot God, must have a taste for the sublime flesh, the food of consciousness, and for the responsibility it carries with it.

The frugal want to make sure that the ties to the maggot God are strong in the context of the past but constantly cut and dissolved in the context of the future. We are as acrobats at the tip-top of the living pyramid and the apple we reach for is the apple we can create while resisting the call of the immense sea of nirvana, the once all-powerful, all-inclusive, proto-living universe.

The lust for life is not to be found in maggot-like ecstasy, the unselective gluttony of the mediocre, stated and willed. It is to be experienced as an emergence from the Red Sea of life and of man’s sufferance, cleansed of all those deposits which are the end product of acquiescence to the call of our maggot ancestry, the sediment of mediocrity. There are moments of history when gluttony is impossible. The temptations remaining, the possibility of their satisfaction is remote. Those moments are in many ways precious and catalytic. They set the condition where necessity might translate itself into virtue. At that conjunction, the individual has to be the persona prima in the melee, missile and target in one, a flying target seeking the heat of the thick of things because there lies the possibility of a magic leap into an unknown, higher grace.

Piety and frugality are not the same thing. Piety has a ring of resignation to it which frugality cannot endorse. Since the true anguish of life is that which hurls itself upon indifference, seeding each speck of matter as if the present battle against unresponsiveness were the conclusive one. That makes each moment the magic moment, the key to deliverance and creation. In this unlimited naivete, the world is always new as if the beholder were acquainting himself with it for the first time. That is the state of being for creation. The frugal (the lean) rubs the flesh against each of those particles of indifference; the frugal is a state where the tragic sense of life, this acknowledged anguish, is the bread and wine for that hunger by which consciousness is possessed in its emergence. We are not butterflies sapping the sweet nectar of reality. We are still a divine metamorphosis of the hungry maggot capable of transforming rotten flesh into grace, the dead into the living.

A vow of relative poverty is a conscious acknowledgement, within a socio-economic structure which equates happiness with affluence, that we are the battleground where life confronts non-life and that we choose to be responsible for its eventual transcendence. If this vow lacks the fire portrayed by the cenobite and the wretched, penitent seekers of God, it does possess, to say it once more, the belief that the flesh is part of the divine spirit. It is, in fact, the original tabernacle of it. It is earth saturated with expectation, the expectation of a grace beyond conjecture.

1. In a humanized family of man, the U.S.A. could double its productivity and export two-thirds of such wealth to other societies by a willful vow of relative poverty. This might become a must. In Christian terms that is what ought to be, and concomitantly, that is also what ecologically, in survivial terms, must be. It is not pure coincidence that theology and ecology come to be one indivisible process.

Copyright 1975 CoEvolution Quarterly Reprinted with permission of CoEvolution Quarterly and Paolo Soleri