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Travel: Idealism in a desert of practicality

The urban laboratory of Arcosanti is devoted to environmental principles, and surrounded by freeways

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It's ironic that some of the most interesting examples of conservation-minded American architecture are scattered around one of the country's great sprawls.

Phoenix, Arizona - in the Sonora desert, framed by rock-dry mountains and graced with saguaro cactus and other exotic vegetation - is almost 500 square miles of generously sited low-rise buildings. The rest is pretty much roadway and it's next to impossible to get around without a car.

So after rolling off a plane at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (the "harbor" should serve as a warning), a shuttle bus delivers you to a rental-car complex capable of holding 5,600 vehicles. Then you and your car will be spit out into a vast region crisscrossed by Interstate Highways, U.S. Highways and State Highways, and with "divided" arterial roads, streets and boulevards of as many as six or eight lanes.

Which is why the very existence of Arcosanti is an anomaly. Because here - in a car-culture heartland - a small metropolis is taking shape (albeit at a turtle pace) in which there is no place for the private automobile.

"The idea is to remove the auto from the city," says Roger Tomalty, an architect and long-time participant in the Arcosanti project. Tomalty and his wife Mary Hoadley, co-ordinator for the Cosanti Foundation, which oversees the project, live in an apartment above the bronze foundry here. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

The Sonora Desert, however raw and potentially inhospitable, is unendingly gorgeous. In Phoenix, the 60-hectare Desert Botanical Garden features hundreds of varieties of cacti and succulents along walking "loops." In the early morning, the sun casts the big saguaro, with its upward-bending "arms," into long shadows. Gambel's quail, with a little black topknot and long-limbed jackrabbits, flit about the natural terrain.

In north Scottsdale, a popular venue - not unlike a perfect miniature mountain with multiple trails - is a naturalist's paradise called Pinnacle Peak Park. Then consider hiking the McDowell Sonoran Preserve in the McDowell Mountains east of Scottsdale.

Equally spectacular is the Sedona region, a three-hour drive north of Phoenix, with its Red Rock massifs. For me, a highlight here was a Pink Jeep tour ($75) along the Broken Arrow Trail of the Coconino National Forest. Then, returning from Sedona, I slipped off Interstate 27 near the Cordes Junction, onto a series of unpaved roads on the roughest looking expanse of desert, to Arcosanti.

The Arcosanti story began with architect Frank Lloyd Wright and his winter home and school, Taliesin West, established in Scottsdale in 1937. Among Wright's pupils was Italian-born Paolo Solari who, in 1970, began building this urban environment devoted to sophisticated environmental principles.

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