Arcosanti is unlike any town you’ve ever seen. The brainchild of famed architect Paolo Soleri, the small collection of buildings sits isolated in the Arizona desert, 70 miles from Phoenix. The place, which he’s called an “urban laboratory,” is an exploration of Soleri’s “arcology” philosophy—architecture and ecology. The idea is simple: A city should behave like a living organism, adapting to new challenges and reorganizing itself to survive. His dream was to design a city that was lean—more frugal and efficient, less wasteful, and, overall, beautiful.
Arcosanti is an example of an attempt at such a city. Constantly under construction and built with the help of visiting volunteers, the city rejects the usual sprawling urban structure in favor of a more vertical and sustainable approach.
Though it’s an incredible place to explore any time of year, the best way to see the potential of this future city is at FORM Arcosanti, an annual music festival held on the grounds each May. (This year, it runs May 13–15.)
FORM was started by musicians. The guys of the band Hundred Waters were beginning to get tired of the typical tour schedules and stops, so they started doing free pop-up shows in beautiful spaces around the nation, like national parks and outdoor arenas. Things really clicked for them when they visited Arcosanti. A friend of drummer/trumpeter Zach Tetreault mentioned the city as a cool spot architecturally, so Tetreault stopped by on a road trip from Florida to Los Angeles.
“We serendipitously aligned with Arcosanti at the right time,” he says. “There happened to be a community council meeting that day, and someone from the community overheard me talking to my friend about how I would love to play a show there. He came up to me and told me to talk to the council.”
Tetreault did, and Hundred Waters ended up playing there only six months later. Arcosanti had been just what they were looking for, and they became enamored with it.
“Paolo Soleri believed that art and music were the heart of a city,” Tetreault explained, “so it was a perfect match for something bigger.”
Tetreault and his bandmates designed a model for the festival that is as unique as Arcosanti itself. FORM brings in artists from all over the world and a variety of genres—this year’s range from Bonobo and Skrillex to Bill Callahan and Moses Sumney—for a three-day festival that’s more like a musically inclined pop-up community. Unlike most festivals, Tetreault and the other organizers insist that performing musicians stay for the entirety of the festival, and sleep, eat, and mingle with the other participants and artists on-site.
“This is a great way to promote creativity. Last year, collaborations between artists happened organically. People would start jamming together, just out on the grounds,” says Tetreault. This year he expects more of those spontaneous communal shows, and is even bringing in mini, mobile studios to make the process of collaborating even easier.
The fest is also unique because of its payment scheme. Most of the participants pay nothing. But there is an application process: “We accept applications from people across the board,” says Tetreault. “Social workers, painters, musicians, teachers—everyone is welcome. There is no hard line with any of it. We’re looking for people who are thoughtful and interesting for any reason.” The event is then funded by the small group of people who can afford a ticket (the price tag on those hits $2,000 or more) and want to donate to the spirit of the festival. Patrons, as the fest calls them, get perks like free food and drink, as well as the ability to crash at the Lost Hotel, a moving group of luxury, fully equipped tents (we’re talking queen-sized beds and electric outlets) that have also landed at Burning Man and Lightning in a Bottle.
For music loving travelers—regardless of whether they pay for it or not—FORM is a three-day escape as good as any wellness retreat. A day may start with the twinkling sound of Arcosanti’s world-famous bronze bells, made on-site in the foundry, and sunrise yoga or a hike to the mesa overlooking the city. By night participants are watching scheduled shows at dedicated stages set up throughout Arcosanti, or catching one of the impromptu jam sessions that tend to pop up when so many musicians are together in one place. Once the dark really settles in, Arcosanti’s clear night skies and minimal light pollution offer the perfect excuse for stargazing. The activity is so beloved in the city that its buildings all have built-in ergonomic head rests designed just for that purpose.
If you catch the festival (or even if you don’t) plan to stay an extra day or two in Arcosanti’s dedicated guest rooms, each of which promises a sunrise view over Agua Fria National Monument. Fill your day with guided tours of the city and its architecture, which are offered daily, then visit the bronze foundry and ceramic studio to watch local artists work. While exploring the grounds, make sure to stop and talk with the artists, volunteers, employees, and students you meet—all make up the total of 60 residents that live year-round in the communal city, and each has a story to tell that’s as unique as the place they call home.