Remove architecture from the language of adobe, concrete, and glass, and you’re left with a word describing systems. We speak of information architectures, the lines of code and networks of metadata that carve winding pathways through the density of the cloud. The developers and the urban planners and the utopianists have this in common: they work to define and order the vast, chaotic planes of human interaction.

“We tend to underestimate the political power of physical places,” Michael Kimmelman wrote in late 2011, when he gave Occupy Wall Street the architectural treatment, still one of the most graceful analyses of that moment to be printed in a daily newspaper. “We clearly use locales, edifices, architecture to house our memories and political energy. Politics troubles our consciousness. But places haunt our imagination.”

Place is one thing, but utopia is boring, both as a literary device and a political ideal. It flattens struggle and provides no useable blueprint, only islands in the sky or, for the technoutopianists, the heady promise that the data dump will set us free. I’m interested, instead, in spaces that evoke our haunted imaginations: anti-utopias, experiments in total autonomy, constructions gone horribly wrong, declarative architectural feats. And while Honduras comes dangerously close to auctioning off pieces of land, Parable of the Sower-style, and IBM’s mechanical Eye of Sauron keeps watch over Rio, we could certainly use to cast a wider net.

Speaking of futile utopias: a few words from Paolo Soleri, the 93-year-old lifetime architect of the experimental city Arcosanti, who retired last year and died just last week. From the architect’s 1984 volume—a 63-point outline of the theory behind the city’s practice with cosmic headers like “Equity in a Space-time Frame of Reference”:

“Symbolism has a way of delivering by force that which utopia’s precious mindlessness grunts about. The road splits into of aesthetic creation (symbolism) and one of broken dreams (utopia). Whenever symbolism fails, it fails within recognized limits and still has something to offer; whenever utopia is afloat, failure is paradigmatic.”

Soleri’s 2-acre urban experiment rises out of a small dusty hill 70 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona, on a desolate plot near the Sorona desert. If we live in the future and science fiction is truly dead, Arcosanti remains a monument to a certain kind of optimistic space-age dream. A dozen staggered, boxy buildings and gigantic vaulted apses cut odd shapes into the sky. Circular windows two stories high dissolve the boundary between indoors and out. The complex is at once prehistoric in scale and immensely compact, with living quarters stacked on top of workshops and tucked underneath the dining hall. Greenhouses nest near the town’s base. Throw a dome over Arcosanti, and it wouldn’t look out of place as a comic-book colony on Mars.

“As urban architecture, Arcosanti is probably the most important experiment undertaken in our lifetime,” wrote Newsweek in 1976. But recently, a New York Times reporter paid a visit to the town and found an uncomfortable, sparsely populated curiosity, a city in a “transitional era of privation and possibility.”

The town’s early blueprints included a towering hive of apartments, galleries and workspaces built closely together to maximize the benefits of urban life and avoid unsustainable sprawl. “By intent and design, the project is firmly dedicated to communicating the learning assets of the environment,” Soleri wrote, describing a “lively, self-containing, multi-dimensional environment of the city” where “children, adults, and the old can intermix.” With Soleri’s retirement, the direction of Arcosanti was left to Joe Stein, a former resident and dean at Boston Architectural College. Today the city’s planners “speak enthusiastically about building a retirement tower for golf-shy retirees and the project’s alumni.”

Clearly, priorities have shifted somewhat in the experimental desert town, though the greenhouses and Soleri’s old texts are still on display. Arcosanti was built to house 5,000, but its population peaked around 1980 at 150, and the construction is still less than 5% complete. In its 43-year existence the place has seen over 7,000 residents come and go.

Today, Arcosanti’s citizens pay $160 a month in “user fees” for tools and use of a communal workshop, living in modest concrete apartments and taking some meals in the complex’s mess hall. Most Arcosantians work casting brass bells in the foundry, a gargantuan open-air apse at the center of town, which are then sold to bring in the bulk of Arcosanti’s income, a relatively modest sum from which building costs, food, insurance, and employee payroll are taken. The half-city does make good business as a tourist destination, shuttling some 25,000 visitors throughout its symbolic, eco-friendly labyrinth every year. These days Arcosanti is treated more as a life-size architectural model than a brave new earthship, its relevance confined to a few green-building conferences and classroom visits.

Construction began on Arcosanti in 1970, when a certain kind of social experiment still made sense in the United States, though in many ways it has more in common with the Radiant City (or, for that matter, Masdar) than your average agrarian commune. Billed as an “urban laboratory,” the town was intended to demonstrate the theories Soleri had been working over for decades, primary among them the model of the “arcology,” a synthesis of ecology and architecture. Soleri’s arcology proposed lean, self-limiting habitats that grew in complexity rather than land mass as their populations increased, cutting out the need for cars and providing all the cultural advantages of modern life using the bare minimum of natural resources.

To go back to Soleri’s earlier writings is to recall the rampant optimism of his age, a time when it made sense to speculate on your urban model’s viability in outer space, when the potential of the “computer age” to blur the boundaries between living, working, and learning was a source of inspiration rather than the subject of endless anxiety. Nothing if not evolutionarily deterministic, the architect imagined a completed arcology as a living organism, a conduit for the natural progression of the human species. Less advanced organisms, he noted, adopted unlimited sprawl—“a pathological event”—while “more sophisticated (complex) species (bees, wasps, termites) … opted for “optimal” dimensions.”

The optimization of the urban landscape extended, of course, to the purely functional aspects of the buildings. Arcosanti’s concrete structures absorb sunlight during the day, emitting heat into the frigid desert nights, and the city’s construction materials lean heavily on resources readily available in the Arizona desert. Soleri’s most inventive construction technique, called “earthcasting,” involves pouring concrete over sculptural mounds of earth piled a story or two high. The concrete is decorated with sand and, occasionally, tiling, with the earth removed once the construction has dried. Rumor has it some of the earthcasted structures at Costanti, the architect’s home studio, provided inspiration for Return of the Jedi’s Ewok village.

Architects invent cities all the time; they write books and hire assistants to construct elaborate models of neighborhoods that will never see a single brick laid. But Arcosanti was different, Arcosanti was built. Soleri and his wife perfected a bronze-casting technique, eventually selling their artisanal wind bells and making enough cash to buy 20-odd acres for the project. The same technique, pouring bronze over handmade clay, is still used in the foundry today. That the bells, some of which are sold for thousands of dollars, likely add a touch of bohemian cool to the upper-class adobe homes sprawling ever-closer towards Arcosanti, remains largely uncommented on.

Google around a bit, and you’ll find that the words “utopian” and “commune” are greeted with something akin to a nervous tic by Solari and those he works with. A construction manager shakes his head and tells a journalist it’s just “about the work.” And for all the evolutionary visions of his early writing, the architect himself is surprisingly hesitant to claim his project as anything but a nice piece of design. “I am building the instrument,” he says. “I am not writing the music.” Which is perhaps why it’s not so surprising that Soleri’s arcology failed to grow to the proportions he’d planned, and why the new president tells an interviewer he’s wondering if Arcosanti could “become the headquarters for something like Google.”

Libby Hubbard, a resident of Arcosanti in the ‘90s, wrote about her experience trying to organize the town:

Since 1991, the formation of the Arcosanti Community Council has been trying to be a source of governance and policy for the Arcosanti community. But shifting some of the decision-making power away from Soleri’s hierarchy to a democratically elected council system is difficult to accomplish when the founding hierarchy who has been controlling the project for 30 years is still in place … Only one of the board members, on-site coordinator Tomiaki Tomura sleeps at Arcosanti during weekdays … How many of them are willing to give up their cars, sell their houses, close down their private businesses in order to be pioneers in building an arcological lifestyle? Is it fair that Board of Trustees members will determine the fate of Arcosanti?

It seems Arcosanti’s beautiful vacuum, despite its greenhouses, solar panels, and dense developmental strategies, is more a model for the architect-as-state than a move towards a subversive urban dynamic. For a self-described experimental space, Arcosanti is governed as if its residents were merely set pieces—or, to use a metaphor as Soleri might, insects trailing each other in and out of the hive. If the symbolic potential of architecture is shorthand for the instant degradation of its political intent, Arcosanti might as well be one of the eco-friendly condos going up in my Brooklyn neighborhood—you know, the one with the bamboo cabinets and the green laundry downstairs. So it’s no surprise the force behind Soleri’s symbol failed to materialize. Utopianism may be a false God, but so is the hollow white box of pure aestheticism.

Oddly, I found myself thinking of Doc Searles as I read up on Arcosanti. Searles is an editor at Linux Journal, and he recently spoke quite beautifully—along with many others—at the activist hacker Aaron Swartz’ memorial service here in New York. Though I wouldn’t have seen it coming, interspersed with touching anecdotes and indictments of the U.S. justice system, a number of speakers turned their gaze to the programming community. “If you’re in this room and you work in the technology sector, I’m asking you,” this from Taren Stinebrickner-Kauffman, Swartz’s partner at the time of his death. “Do you understand what makes the world a bad place to begin with? Have you spent time with and listened to the people your technology is supposed to be helping?”

For a brief moment, in the middle of his speech, Doc Searles similarly addressed the information architects. Programmers, he observed, “tend to not want to deal with the politics … they say, ‘I only do kernel space; I don’t do user space.’ Politics is in user space. Justice is in user space.” Perhaps if Soleri hadn’t been so reticent to engage with user space Arcosanti wouldn’t have been overrun by the demands of the world it sought to escape: demands to be a condo development or a museum, an old folks home or a commune, a punchline or a movie set.

But, as Swartz knew and Soleri didn’t, it’s impossible to throw up a partition between the plan and the practice of living, tempting as it may be not to look up from the drawing board. Soleri’s work is a lesson in the limits of spatial engineering for those of us who are already living in the future, who suspect that even if perfect systems circled the globe, it would take more than manifestos and handmade clay to make us evolve.

Images via ArchDaily, arcosanti, goingnomadic; photos by Rahel Aima