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  • The Built Environment and the Architecture of a Performance:Arcosanti, Chicago, and the Making of Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment
  • Chloe Johnston (bio) and Ira S. Murfin (bio)

"Imagine, if you will, a kind of . . . shipwreckA big weather patternColliding with another weather patternAlso there's a wooden structure thrown in there for good measureWhat do you get?You get a disaster.Get it? We're colliding stories and it's going to be disastrous.See?"

—Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment

"The Urban Effect is that fundamental phenomenon in which two or more particles of physical matter begin to interact in ways other than statistical and fatal. That is to say, in ways which are organic or living, and eventually the instinctive, self-conscious, mental, cultural, and spiritual ways. It is this Urban Effect around which the whole of life is clustering itself."

—Paolo Soleri1


The arrival at Arcosanti—an experimental architectural project in the high desert of Arizona—is a long one. You turn off Interstate 17, travel on a gravel road for two-and-a-half miles, your tires kick up dust all the way, and if you pass another car, you wave, because you have this space in common. The drive down the road gives you time to think about this. You try to catch a glimpse of the place itself. It bobs in the distance as your car goes over hills, like a boat approaching the shore through choppy waters. When you finally pass the rusted sign, you might get excited, because you think you know something about where you are, or because you know nothing, and you are the kind of person who likes that (Fig. 1).

In March 2009, the Laboratory for the Development of Substitute Materials (LDSM) marooned itself for ten days on a mesa in Arizona.2 We had, for the previous several months, been preparing a template for a structured response to that environment upon arrival. The collaboratively devised performance produced from this experiment, Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment, integrated Shakespeare's The Tempest; research on the development of the atomic bomb by the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, New Mexico; and the work of Italian architect Paolo Soleri, the founder of Arcosanti.3 We had deliberately marooned ourselves there and, like the shipwrecked Neapolitan nobility in The Tempest or the physicists arriving by train in New Mexico to work on the [End Page 133] Manhattan Project, we sought to create a process that would address this question: Why do certain individuals recede from civilization in order to re-imagine it?

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Fig. 1.

Arcosanti, Arizona. (Photo: Chris Ohlinger, reprinted by permission of the Cosanti Foundation.)

The project was inspired by a historical anecdote. In The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Richard Rhodes recounts an event at a cocktail party at Los Alamos: "(Edward) Condon pulled from a bookshelf a copy of Shakespeare's The Tempest and skimmed it for speeches meant for Prospero's enchanted island that might play contrapuntally against Oppenheimer's high and dry and secret mesa" (468). By exploring this connection at Arcosanti, the project unfolded against a landscape similar to the desert mesa where the first atomic bomb was built.

In this article, we analyze the process of creating Theoretical Isolation: A Post-Atomic Experiment as a performance that is architecturally determined in both form and content in order to expand the practical understanding of site-specificity to include theoretical context and to argue for architecture as a collaborative presence in devised work. We took both the physical architecture and the ideological content of the site—a prototype for arcology, Paolo Soleri's urban-design concept for compact and environmentally friendly cities—as collaborator in structuring the content with which we arrived. Once written onto one specific site, Arcosanti, the performance was re-imagined and grafted onto an entirely different performance space, The Neo-Futurists' theatre, The Neo-Futurarium, in Chicago.

At Arcosanti, we worked within the unusual structure of this architectural experiment, creating a promenade performance that moved the audience around the small community, culminating in an outdoor amphitheatre where we...


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pp. 133-146
Launched on MUSE
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