Paradox III

This is a revision of my previous notes and reporting on the Paradox Conference during my time at Arcosanti in 2001. 

At the time, I had just been introduced to some of the key ideas and people who would evolve my ideas and vision of a sustainable world society the point where they are now. 

The reason I have devoted so much time to documenting and revising this report about the Paradox III event is that it was a key time for me intellectually in terms of opening my eyes to the pivotal point we are at not only in humanity’s history but that of the entire planet.

Paradox III (2001): Sustainability Virtuality and Community
This was the 3rd in a series of cutting edge conferences on consciousness held at Arcosanti that were called the Paradox Conferences. The previous two Paradox conferences focused more on in the rise of the internet in relation to Arcology theory and possible scenarios for developing Arcosanti using the innovative resources of Silicon Valley/cyberculture. This includes a discussion on what’s termed Neo-monasticism which I thought fit very well into the Solerian Lexicon of words and terms oriented around around Arcology. 

Paradox III focused on what Michael Gosney and Ron Anastasia identified as convergence points or nodes of convergence, the three focus themes at the conference revolved around

  1. Community

  2. Virtuality

  3. Sustainability 

The idea behind that our ability to integrate the three into a comprehensive approach would be a key precondition for moving the “Community Green” movement forward in a decisive way on a global level. We can see with the growing movement of concerned citizens converging about the need for decisive action on Climate Change that we need some kind of acceleration in the pace of things. The sustainability movement needs a major takeoff with a massive remaking of the built environment, starting with projects like Arcosanti that are aspiring to promote more community oriented and ecologically conscious development.

Event Problem Statement (based on my observation)

Basically the event framed the idea of Paradox as a human dilemma. Technology had emerged as the driver for the ultimate paradoxes that define the human struggle and contradictions of modern civilization.

Technology although necessary to modernization, is creating structures of complexity distancing people from each other, while at the same it creates the illusion that we are closer together through Facebook and other social networking devices. We have in the process of history built ourselves and our reality around a social architecture where we exist in isolation of each other and so we live fragmented lives in denial of the larger truths that sustain us - like the ecology of the earth.

The biospheric truth is that we are interconnected and interdependent. However, in the dysfunctional political geography of our rapidly globalizing culture, distance under the dominant hegemonic socioeconomic system only leads to exploitation.

A lifelong commitment to community is neither sustained nor supported by the prevailing systems of the modern, mainstream society. Central to the problem is that genuine notions of community have limited tangible value to people and systems who are trained to define success in purely short term economic terms. The resulting superficial measures of success stimulate shortsighted decisions that devalue and undervalue holistic knowledge & systems, creating major social evolutionary or in fact devolutionary events that pulls us further away from our more altruistically and idealistically stated social goals and values.

People are using technology to isolate themselves rather than to build community—build interconnected and synergistically sustainable economic, social and political relationships—and within that goal, also aspire to develop a deeper more intrinsically based sense of existence.

As modern people we have lost our sense of place; our rootedness to our world, on the local level. This is particularly evident in America as powerful corporate systems have been so successful in remaking the built environment into an aesthetic that is designed to encourage consumption, materialism and separation that we have become the envy of the world. What is not so obvious is that the remaking of America into a wealth creation machine may have negative long-term consequences that override the short-term benefits that make America the envy of the world. We face a world that is rapidly growing in complexity and so many feel overwhelmed and quite confused by modern life. It seems that many social, environmental and economic trends are on the verge of careening out of control, for we feel alienated from that aspect of life, which centers on this vague concept of sacredness. 

What is life about, and what is most important in life? Often-shortsighted architectural design and development leads to the creation of modern spaces that create problems by not investing properly in healthy living spaces. While this way of thinking about problems and satisfying human needs, has sustained the greed desires of those who have organized the rapid growth of vast industries and infrastructure, it has not met a deeper need for human societies to have a strong sense of space and the importance of that to create a society that is able to sustain its prosperity over the long term. Because of this, a system has emerged from which economic value comes more from subtle mechanisms that weaken the population instead of an authentic desire to help and grow. As the problems grow, our ability and will to solve them collectively as a society declines:

  1. While health care spending increases the quality of care has not kept up with those increases.

  2. People are encouraged to overeat and embrace addictive thinking, increasingly living their lives through commercial culture broadcasting messages that put corporate America’s needs over that of ordinary Americans.

  3. Prevailing development patterns not only degrade the aesthetic, and the environment, but they also affect human health physiologically and psychologically. Nearly every aspect of modern life is geared to weaken the individual to make them more subject to manipulation, by highly sophisticated modern systems.

Educators and architects of a more sustainable and holistic worldview must confront this moral and ethical conundrum by working to develop more compelling community based ways of overcoming the social dysfunction that materializes from the present hyper-consumerist system. 

Paradox III was based on the realization of an increasing need to integrate the interdisciplinary aspects of sustainable design, into a cohesive integrated plan for the development of alternative economic systems that more appropriately and authentically deliver human needs in the modern world.

The “Paradox Pitch” to Silicon Valley's Counterculture

My understanding of the "Paradox pitch" was that there was a fundraising angle to this conference and although some criticized it I found it to be a very valid approach and strategy - that if  this was pitched in the right way to the Silicon Valley community that a few of these brilliant and uber-innovative Cyber-folk with some change in their pockets might be able to help move the project forward on a more ambitious level. During Paradox III that strategy pivoted towards a focus on Jon Jerde and his links and capability as an Architects’ development of big mega scale projects with budgets in the billions of dollars.

Joe Firmage & His Grand Plan for The Digital Universe

US Web founder Joe Firmage was exactly the kind of person the Arcosanti Paradox Team was looking for. Someone to invest in the project via Paradox who combines savvy business sense with a desire to consider alternative, more sustainable models of development.

Finally with Firmage that white knight much fantasized about in Arcosanti lore finally shows up...and we can only speculate what kept him from investing in Arcosanti. Most likely Soleri's terms for investing were quite restrictive - to see Arcosanti as an invention and thus Soleri is behaving much as an inventor who might not want to give up his rights to be sole proprietor and have sole control of business promoting the idea.

While at the time of Paradox II, he was supposedly a billionaire and may have been the only billionaire to seriously consider investing in Arcosanti (based on the value of his stock) However, Firmage's company US Web went on to crash and burn in the dotcom bubble. This probably had an impact on his investment portfolio and future investments. Revelations of his alien encounters/visions in his bed - of which he wrote a book about - may have added to his downfall in the corporate world (successful CEOs, at least who want to stay that way, just don't write books about their alien encounters/abductions). 

After the implosion of US Web, Formage went on to other ventures - all which seemed very esoteric.  He was able to raise several million dollars from investors to fund a variety of schemes. However he never was able to reinvent himself to return to reclaim those US Web glory-days - none of the ventures he was involved in really seemed to deliver any sustainable value including his most well known effort to create an alternative to Wikipedia called Digital Universe which seems to have gone nowhere, but now appears to be very similar to the Wikipedia model.

Jon Jerde Partners Inc: We have a Plan to Build Arcosanti 5000 in 10 Years

Another great story associated with Paradox is the one about Jon Jerde. Jerde was a protege of Soleri's who very much was inspired by his Cosanti experience in the 60s as a young architect. He went on to do great things and to form his own relatively large architectural firm called Jerde Partners Inc based in Venice Beach employing about 100 people. However he was one of those architects who became known for doing big often billion dollar plus projects that were very commercialistic like the Bellagio in Las Vegas and Horton Plaza in San Diego. Ironic it is that he would be the one to come back to Soleri and basically say: "yes I'm successful now and I want to help you build this thing"...and of course with the caveat, "we have to do it my way because I know how to work with the big money people we'll to actually build a prototype Arcology project at Arcosanti." 

My recollection was that Jerde wanted to create a development that appealed to the well to do and catered to their needs by create a stand alone Arcology spa. He felt this approach was needed to develop a viable enough business proposal to justify a large scale real estate development in building Arcosanti on some more ambitious level as seen in the Critical Mass and Acrosanti 5000 plans.

Can we be surprised again that nothing came of this "lead" as well. Despite Jerde wanting to turn away from a life of selling away his creative soul to the money-changers, he was not committed enough to work with his master and help him to achieve his dream of building the world's first prototype Arcology. Soleri the one whom he so admired, whose drafting table he supposedly slept under and helped him to be a creative force in architecture - it was not enough to help him overcome this idea that Arcosanti can only be built by appealing to those same people who had made him such a success in architecture.

The Challenge of Making Co-creativity Work

A theme of several Paradox III presenters was that of the Dominator Verses Partnership concept as discussed by Riane Eisler, in the book titled The Chalice and the Blade. Ralph Abraham a mathematician also talks about a divergence between two competing cultural values in Chaos, Gaia, Eros. And in capitalist history there are many stories such as Steve Jobs where the boss - while a genius - can be a mean and nasty and be very hierarchal conforming to the Eisler’s dominator model. The subtle mainstream narrative is that this is sometimes what it takes to do great and powerful things that transform humanity.

I recall that I first became aware of the term Co-Creative or Co-Creating from Jerde's team's writing and discussions during Paradox.

Skeptics might have thought Jerde and his team had been in SoCal for too long and were talking in a way that seemed influenced by New Age thinking. They might also have noted that it likely did not mesh well with the entrenched and inward oriented Arcosanti/Cosanti Foundation organizational culture led by the Soleri’s eclectic but still solidly materialist view of the world. Yet I think JPI also did sincerely believe in a new leadership model that that they had experimented with in the company. Often when power is decentralized away from the founder or leader the rank and file of the company can be empowered to become more productive. This ultimately can lead to more profits for the company. Another issue is how those increased profits are shared within the company.

I remember discussing how the notion of so-called Co-Creative collaboration was not really Soleri's strongest asset. I thought that the real reason nothing came of this collaboration between JPI and Cosanti Found had to do with the fact that they could not really understand each other because they were using different languages and had dramatically different points of view.

Stephanie Smith: Creating Spa-like Environments

Architect Jon Jerde brought with him Stephanie Smith who was a protege of his who had also worked with another well known architect Rem Koolhaas. She seemed to be flirting with the same kind of capitalist approach as Jerde. Her work with Koolhaas as a Harvard GSD student which was more theoretical also seemed to reflect a more commercial approach: she wrote a section of a book by Koolhaas called Great Leap Forward as part of her work as a Harvard GSD student in 1997. Her section was titled To Grow Rich is Glorious and was about the Chinese Economic Miracle and its impact on the architecture in China. What was more interesting however was what Smith discussed that did converge with the potential I saw in Arcosanti and how it related to my vision of Paolo Soleri's aesthetic ideal that I thought was best represented by Cosanti and not his bland, one-dimensional and overly industrial Arcosanti 5000 and Linear City designs. She discussed the idea of creating a "spa like environment" in her presentation in 2001 at the Paradox III Conference

She seemed very affected by what just had happened a few days on 9/11 and she spoke a bit about this during her presentation to the audience at Paradox. What I interpreted from her was that people needed a place to heal and that meant building more architecture that reflected the need to create places for people to heal. Creating a spa like environment seemed very important to her as an architect and as a person. 

I identified with this deeply and I stayed in contact for a time after meeting her. We later met again at the LA Ecovillage with Lois Arkin (LA Ecovillage founder). I continue to see her idea of creating a Spa-like environment as one of my greatest inspirations both at the conference and in general. It was her presentation that inspired me to create the idea of EdenSpace - that central to a massive social movement and transformation for real and authentic change in how we do things must be a process for deep inner healing and personal transformation. The importance of architecture and aesthetics in this process is what led me to link Soleri's Cosanti with her vision of creating spa-like environments and to consider the healing aspects of architecture.

Marilyn Ferguson & The need to Change the Mythos/Story of Humanity 

Marilyn Ferguson has since passed away but I remember her presentation as one of the memorable ones (she wrote The Aquarian Conspiracy). She spoke at Paradox III of creating a new story, a new mythos for human civilization. This seems like a similar point to what Daniel Quinn was expressing when he wrote Ishmael. The "uncivilized" and "primitive" state of indigenous societies has been and still is often used as an excuse to subjugate primitive people and take their lands. Ironically civilizations as they reach their "peak" end up encouraging their people to behave in ways that are more brutal and savage than the simple societies that are labeled primitive and barbaric by the civilized people. Many have grown up challenging the prevailing assumptions of reality that arise from a social system built on immediate gratification and greed, they now seek to create a new value system to better explain life and also sustain human civilization. 

The creation of a new mythos is really what many intend as they communicate these concepts and understandings to humanity. Mythology and the Human Condition are tied closely together. Mythology tells us much about the human condition. The ancient Gods once played an important part in the lives of our ancestors. Modern day psychology suggests that the powers and activities of these Gods are simply the inner powers of the individual, disowned and projected into their outer environment. With the growth of Identity Consciousness (IC), there perhaps comes a realization of this situation and a reclaiming of these powers. Whether or not this is the case, mythical symbols can be extremely valuable in identifying and giving color to the various attributes of the human being discussed and described by our model. Attributes which we will now expand upon. 

Janine Benyus and Biomimicry 

Janine Benyus was one of the key speakers at this event. At the time she was just getting to be recognized as a leader in the ecological design movement. I remember attending her presentation in the Red Room (back then it was the Drafting Room at the bottom of the SOD Building) which was my first introduction to her work in packaging the study of designing human systems inspired by nature. This was a common theme of Ecological Design Visionaries - they each have their own particular take on one overarching theme designing their own words and metaphors to describe a similar thing. The result was many overlapping branded words that had similar meaning leading to confusion and ambiguity and the need for people who could explain and iron out the difference between say Biomimicry and EO Wilson's notion of Biofilism which actually came originally from the Erich Fromm. 

Maybe a major role of the counterculture is to not only create an alternate view of history - one that goes beyond the simplistic and stereotypical definitions of civilized and primitive - but to develop a new mythos that is more appreciative of the human experience and all the people involved in making that experience what it is. That is, we must replace the mythos of the dominator mindset with that of partnership one. And this is a primary precondition for any bona-fide progressive aspiration towards a socially just and ecologically and socially sustainable society. We must strive to put the notion of civilized back into our working understanding of civilization. This is the most challenging task that lies ahead in our future. Humans need to feel like they are being affirmed as human beings in order to function properly. While we are very adaptable, we may not function properly or optimally in environments that are alienating. In addition the long term implications of many contemporary trends may in fact, be very destructive to humanity, but since most of these changes are very gradual and subtle, they are ignored, by a face paced, highly competitive commercially driven society. 

Jim Fournier on the Challenge of Dramatically Changing the Course of Global Society 

A Mid-course Correction (this is also the name of a book by Ray Anderson who is CEO of Interface Carpet a leading sustainability pioneer) is similar to what Paradox III speaker and Planetwork founder Jim Fournier terms the Point of Inflexion. Such a dramatic change in the course of human civilization is so vital for the continued viability and possibly the survival of the human species. A Consideration of Human Scale Development Part of this mid-course correction involves encouraging the development of living and working spaces that are human scale.Human scale is a vague term, but I think that in developing human settlements we need to think about not only limits to growth, but also limits to density. What is problematic with many of Soleri's designs and concepts is that he blindly assumes that greater complexity and density are always better. While Soleri is eager to criticize the bigger and more is always better mantra that dominates the modern age, he overlooks the possibility that similar arguments could be made in terms of too much density and complexity. 

Nan Ellin on the Need for Authenticity in the Construction of our Built Environments and Social Architectures

On one of the Panels, Urban Planner Dr Nan Ellin spoke of the need for authenticity in our lives. Critical thinking people are seeking authentic spaces from which to live their lives in. Orthodox Modernism is no longer functioning effectively and we are starting to see the cracks in the modern facade of progress. As we are rendered into commodities of the marketplace, we lose our sense of identity, for we begin to visualize ourselves as an incomprehensibly small part of the mass society that is to be maximally digested by the marketplace. Alternatives to sprawl over-consumption must allow and encourage us to express our visions and develop our creativity: 

  • Create environments and systems that encourage us to express our feelings more honestly 

  • Learn to embrace constructive criticism. 

  • Acknowledge and use architecture and planning as the powerful that they are in designing and engineering conscious societies

The need for authenticity arises from the fact that modern methods of determining progress make us into consumable automatons. Francis Fukuyama speaks of the quality of an experience. That is the experience must yield qualitative and not only quantitative returns. The measurement of these returns is difficult to quantify because each individual has their own relative sense of happiness and well being. Therefore the shifting role of government should be to ensure that a diversity of choices exist for the many different interpretations that emerge, particularly those that focus on the development of human consciousness and move us closer to environmental sustainability and social justice.

One thing I found interesting about the conference is that people even in the counterculture want to believe in something so bad, that there is this need to embrace something as authentic that it causes us to shy away from looking at things from a critical and totally realistic perspective. The key realization though is that if we do not facilitate a process of radical honesty and also a participatory environment within the organizations that we are a part of, we will end up doing little more than mimicking the dysfunctional patterns of existing systems. 

Paul Ray & The Emerging Cultural Creatives Movement

Paul Ray seemed to be suggesting that we were in the process of creating a new Avant-Garde. There are now many competing forces that are fracturing society into many broken and disjointed parts - between virtuality/real life; the ego/collective; have/have-not; political left/right and spiritual/material. All these considerations led to discussions of how to create small, human scale alternatives to the prevailing dehumanizing, over-corporatized, mass scale, capitalist social system. Alternative culture seems to be trying to organize new forms of community such as coops, intentional communities, cohousing and ecovillages in an attempt to evolve towards a more “Integrationist approach”, - one that seeks to find balance in life by more thoughtfully designing human systems with the human in mind.


The event was a coming together for people interested in Arcosanti providing a chance for them to see the unique project for the first time. Its brought people and ideas together in a way that stimulated a lot of the 300 people’s minds in a new way. It seemed a successful gathering although none of the promised follow ups were ever realized.

It reflected a growing movement that Ray termed Cultural Creatives and their need for a revolutionary mid-course correction (a term coined by Interface Carpet’s Ray Anderson). This realization also fit with what Paradox speaker Jim Fournier referred to as the point of inflection - in not only the design and building process, but the entire mindset of humanity. It was expressing a need for convergence, a coming together of people who have an extended awareness of how we as humans are modifying and extracting resources from the environment beyond any measure of sustainability.

The event also expressed the crystallizing of the belief - in contrast to what we are taught to see things in the mainstream corporate professional reality of modern American Society - that its about relationships and not accumulating an seemingly endless array of things or objects to impress others. Any sustainable community or habitat must have at its foundation - in order to be truly sustainable - the will and desire to nourish and cultivate sustainable relationships that bind us to such commitments in a long term and meaningful way.