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Synthesis/Regeneration 17   (Fall 1998)

Tale of Two Paolos: From Gaviotas, Colombia to Arcosanti, USA

by Bob Rudner, Chicago Greens

Could it be after 500 years of exploration that El Dorado has been discovered? Only with a profound sense of irony could one envision this possibility. After all, where on Earth can a nation loose vast forests to illegal coca growers while in another part of the country be raising a forest around a cooperative run by ecologists? This is a part of the dilemma undergone by author and National Public Radio reporter Alan Weisman, and chronicled in his work Gaviotas: A Village to Reinvent the World (Chelsea Green, White River Junction, Vermont, 1998). As a Fulbright Scholar in Colombia, Weisman found a place that can not only change this ravaged nation, but change the nation to which most of the cocaine flows.

Gaviotas was conceived as a place where life could reclaim itself. Its founder, professor Paolo Lugari, worked with youth in the streets of Bogotá in the early 1970s. There was a strong revolutionary current at the time, and an environmental movement with a rising appropriate technology. Lugari went into the production of solar water heaters, windmills and other useful devices for ecological energy and recycling, hiring street urchins from Bogotá's notorious slums. Lugari and his associates searched the midst of Colombia's great savanna, and claimed a location where the water was plentiful if only it could be pumped out of the ground and purified-which he did using easily obtained and inexpensive materials which common people could use. He named the site after a river gull, the gaviotas, hence Los Gaviotas. Since most diseases were water-borne, technicians at Gaviotas were able to lower deaths and crippling effects by assuring pure water. The United Nations and the Colombian government at that time aided Gaviotas' development. Hot water heaters covered many a rooftop in Colombia as a result of Gaviotas' work, and their state-of-the-art windmills -- no quixotic techno-fix-supported development throughout the vast savannas.

They have pioneered reforestry, while they have changed the very soil-chemistry of their natural habitat to make it more supportive to a great variety of species...

The region exists between the great rivers leading to the Amazon and north into Venezuela, but its flora was limited to grasses and its soils almost toxic with aluminum. But by planting sterile Caribbean pines, the soil was slowly changed and a renewable industry was born: resin-tapping. Eventually, the sterile pines will be replaced by indigenous plants. Meanwhile, a forest grows where once it was a grassland desert ruled by malaria-carrying mosquitoes. By identifying useful plants, a medici-nal industry was generated. Working with both the settlers of the llanos and the indigenous Gauhibo people, Gaviotas employed the spirit of collectivity and self-sufficiency. Since the site is isolated, bicy-cles are prevalent. The countryside is dotted with windmills and child-operated teeter-totter "sleeve-pumps" for irrigating the land during the dry season and supplying fresh water purified by solar panels all of which Gaviotas designed and built. Now, remote village life has electric power and fewer mortalities from disease, and is experimenting with substitutes for cattle to end what is called "hamburgerización."

Organic agriculture is the only agriculture Gaviotas has ever known. They have pioneered re-forestry, while they have changed the very soil-chemistry of their natural habitat to make it more supportive to a great variety of species-rather than less! As the Caribbean pines age, they prepare the earth for species of plants which had not grown there in 30,000 years. Wild figs, jacarandas and tuno blancos have reestablished themselves, while ant eaters and even pumas have reentered the forests, flocks of birds like brown-throated parakeets, tinamou quail, vermilion and yellow-breasted tyrant flycatchers have taken up residence. Village life is a matter of traditional cooperative living intensified by the renewable resources from innovative individuals with their urban life turned rural.

The development of Gaviotas happened in a 28-year period coinciding with the world movement towards appropriate technology, the decline of the Soviet Union, the rise of narco-terrorism and the establishment of the omnipotent power of multinational entities to control the nations of the world, eliminating the very programs which gave rise to Gaviotas. Its sustainability is legendary, and its example may prove to be the one much of the world has been waiting for in an age of competition. Cooperative living is not un-American, yet it might as well be, given the religiosity of the lifestyle of hyper-consumerism and automania to which Americans have become accustomed. Gaviotas' growth occurred simultaneously with that of another experiment, one in another "marginal" place, Arcosanti, Arizona.

Since 1970, the urban laboratory has been slowly erected by some 5,000+ volunteers who wanted to build a city designed from scratch, which housed thousands within walking distance of a verdant valley of riparian trees and shrubs. The settlement of inventive ecology-minded communitarians with the "workshoppers" who flock to the central Arizona High Desert has only accomplished some 5% of the projected structures which would make them self-reliant, yet they have survived years of regression. Reagan's sabotage of solar power and the yuppie mentality of atomized individualism notwithstanding, Arcosanti like Gaviotas is a miraculous survivor of the age.

Paolo Lugari and Paolo Soleri are at least a generation apart, but have much in common. Lugari, the son of an Italian immigrant to South America, grew up with the language of engineering in his environment. Soleri, born in Turin, Italy in 1919, was born into a world where everything one needed in a day was within walking distance, surrounding him with music, philosophy and grand architecture going back to antiquity. Lugari grew up in a privileged world but was in close contact with the poor. He held to an ideal of voluntary simplicity and mo-nastic values, as did Soleri -- who has written extensively on the topic, upon which he founded Arcosanti as a sort of hermitage for ecological technologists interested in cooperative responsibility. Both make music central to their ideal of urban life, both draw from Jesuit philosophy, believe in basic egalitarian principles and make natural science the guide to their designs.

If an arcology is ever realized in this remote region of Colombia, not only would Gaviotas be changing the world of Latin American urban life, but the land where most of their cocaine goes, that other "America."

Where the two Paolos part ways so far is in terms of scale and the dimension of space-time. Soleri designed holistic cities of various sizes from 2,000 to 6,000,000. Lugari's village is situated along a horizontal plane, and lacks verticalities. Yet, based upon Gaviotas' founding ideas, Soleri's solutions may be applied. Paolo Soleri developed his ideas from the organic architecture of his mentor Frank Lloyd Wright when he studied at Taliesin West in the late 1940's. Soleri also picked up on the apprenticeship style of Wright, and applied it to Arcosanti. The participatory democratic spirit of equality held between the communitarians of Arcosanti and Gaviotas are amazingly similar. The size of Soleri's new urban forms called "arcologies" is way beyond the surface-life of a standard eco-village like Gaviotas. Just the same, some professors at a university in Bogotá would like Arcosanti to build an arcological city in the vicinity of Gaviotas. But as usual, land-rich Colombia is not matched with the wealth to proceed with construction of a brand new city. Once the funding is found, Lugari should have no problem finding qualified builders, since Colombia possesses a disproportionate amount of Latin America's technological expertise.

Paolo Soleri has been battling with America's obsession with the automobile and its attendant fragmentation of natural habitat. In his 1970 architectural design tome Arcology: The City in the Image of Man (MIT Press, Cambridge, MA), he rein-troduced to architecture a function lost to the auto: the ambulatory. With ramps, elevators, moving sidewalks and stairs, Soleri connected a system of human habitats with sustainable localized urban agriculture wrapped around its surface. This he called "architecture for ecology" or arcology, a term he developed in the 1950's.

Arcology's operating theme is frugal living, with the tools of conviviality sown into the superstructure. The arcology paradigm troika is miniaturization-complexity-duration. The philosophy's foundation is the objective of the "Noosphere" of Teilhard de Chardin, to which Soleri dedicated a monastic design module for Arcosanti. This concept of the Noosphere, global conscience, predated the world of cyberspace and the potential to link humanity via computers. Arcosanti's monastic development involves CAD implementations and 3-D virtual fly-through designs.

Among the thousands of professionals Soleri attracted is a Colombian architect named Rafael Pizarro. Pizarro recently authored a book, Paolo Soleri's Arcology: 50 Years of Visionary Urban Design (Bridgewood Press, Phoenix, AZ, due December 1998). He was approached in Bogotá by professors connected with Gaviotas whose university had available land for such a project as an arcology. If an arcology is ever realized in this remote region of Colombia, not only would Gaviotas be changing the world of Latin American urban life, but the land where most of their cocaine goes, that other "America."

Gaviotas plus arcology may reinvent the city and go light years toward saving the planet.

America's biggest obsessive-compulsive social and personal disorder centers around the automobile. Not only have citizens crossed the continent with asphalt tentacles, slicing and dicing the terrain, but they consume a quarter of the gasoline produced on the planet, while only comprising one twentieth of the human population. As productive as Americans are, with one quarter of the Earth's arable acreage, they also consume five times their share of beef, one third of which is being raised in former rainforests. As South America's beef producers slash and burn their way into virgin forests to produce cash to pay off debts to America, they are destroying the Earth's lungs. While pleasing beef-eating palates and catching up on foreign bank loans, Latin Americans are also being sold the North American way of life, automobilized, petroleum-centered and suburbia driven -- perhaps even applying some of Frank Lloyd Wright's single-family home strategies which Soleri abandoned for arcology.

Indeed, if information is gold, such a place as El Dorado could be discovered -- that is, created. Gaviotas is "the best of all possible worlds," but in the worst of situations. If Gaviotas applies Soleri's organic architecture over Wright's, they would be reversing the trend set by the world's remaining superpower. Gaviotas plus arcology may reinvent the city and go light years to save the planet.

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