Futuristic: Arizona's Biosphere 2 The Real Living Under a Dome and Arcosanti

Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2
Biosphere 2

Biosphere 2 Dome

It will take a few more decades before historians can determine whether two of Arizona's most famous experimental sites, Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti have been true beacons of the future or expensive flops. Those with much sharper brains than mine have written glowing articles on the scientific and cultural importance of the sites, and then last year, an article appeared in The Arizona Republic, Arizona's largest newspaper, that both sites were listed as two of Arizona's biggest "white elephants" of all time which offered the strongest criticism I'd ever read regarding both sites. There doesn't seem like a whole lot of middle ground, when describing them. Both Biosphere 2 and Arcosanti have been very attractive tourist sites, which can't be disputed.

Biosphere 2 lies about 35 miles north of Tucson, near Oracle Arizona in a somewhat remote area ringed by desert and beautiful mountains. The premise of Biosphere 2 was that the earth or Biosphere 1 was becoming so environmentally polluted that eventually mankind would be forced to live in sealed environments either on what remained on earth or somewhere in space. With $200 million in capitol from Texas millionaire, Edward Bass, Biosphere 2 was begun in 1987. A glass and steel, million cubic foot, structure was constructed with no internal pillar supports and contained 6,500 panes of glass. Areas inside called biomes were designed to correspond to various areas found on earth such as a desert, a fertile crop growing area, a rain forest, a savannah, a marsh and a one million gallon ocean. Computers operated by technicians worked to balance the air and water withing the ecosystem and the interior was planted with over 3,000 plant species.

The ultimate experiment was to determine if humans could sustain their lives inside the sealed Biosphere 2, and if so, for how long? Four men and four women call Biospherians were chosen for their scientific and communication skills. On September 26, 1991 the crew stepped through the air lock and the experiment began. Slightly before the Biospherians entered, conflicting news stories and rumours about Biosphere 2 began circulating. (I was living in Tucson at this time.) A neighbor of ours who had been working on the project from the beginning, and who was a noted scientist suddenly quit the project telling us that not enough empirical research had been completed to support sustainability of the Biospherians, but in the rush to obtain more grant funding and tourist dollars, the project was going forward anyway.

Articles on Biosphere 2 as a self sustaining experiment often failed to mention that electricity from the outside was required to operate the facility and that low levels of oxygen were also pumped inside because of low levels of oxygen. Food stores were also required as crops didn't produce as planned. Life inside was difficult. Jane Poynter, one of the original Biospherians, has written a book about her 2 years and 20 minutes inside Biosphere 2 titled The Human Experiment. Hunger and disappointment took their toll. It would seem that the Biospherians couldn't get past personal differences and work together. After 1993 when the experiment ended, Biosphere 2 suffered a number of changes. By 1995, the air, water and soil inside was replaced. From 1995-2003, Columbia University managed the property, where scientists and students conducted a number of projects. Next CDO Ranching and Development bought the property for fifty million and planned a resort and housing development to surround the site.

In a press release on 6-28-11, from the University of Arizona, CDO donated the property and Biosphere buildings to the University of Arizona. Another major gift from the Philecology Foundation (founded by the original donor Edward Bass) gave $20 million to the U of A for scientific research at Biosphere. Long term projects will include studies in climate changes and water and energy sustainability. A new project in the Biosphere was announced by the Univeristy of Arizona in December of 2012. The project named LEO for Landscape Evolution Observatory, was funded at 7.5 million to discover "secrets" of the Earth's water cycle. The project is supposed to help scientists understand how the Earth's climate affects water supply by measuring how plants affect groundwater. It is estimated that the project will be a 10 year study. It would seem that Biosphere 2 is off the "white elephant." list

The success of the debut of the CBS Miniseries Under the Dome on June 24, 2013, based upon the Stephen King novel of the same name, has had people taking a renewed interest in the Biospherians and what their lives were actually like when living inside a dome.


Soleri Bell Studio at Colsanti

Arcosanti

Near Cordes Junction Arizona, about 65 miles north of Phoenix off Interstate 17 sits an unusual string of buildings that form Arcosanti. Arcosanti was created by architect and artist Paolo Soleri as an "urban Laboratory" following Soleri's principles of Arcology. Arcology City in the Image of Man was published as Soleri's concept of design which was introduced in the 1960s as an alternative to urban sprawl. (Arcology meant a combination of archaeology and ecology)

Paolo Soleri was born in Turin, Italy and studied under Frank Lloyd Wright at his Taliesin West School of Architecture in Arizona and at Taliesin East in Wisconsin. Soleri studied Wright's principles of design using on site materials to create designs that were in sync with the natural landscape. Since both architects had strong personalities, Soleri left and opened a studio which he called Cosanti in Paradise Valley near Scottsdale Arizona. By 1970, Soleri and his foundation began work on Arcosanti which would be an alternative city, capable of sustaining 5,000 residents.

Arcosanti was constructed of tilt up concrete panels with passive solar energy and water for air cooling. Since the buildings were positioned to face south, in the winter the buildings have natural light and in the summer, the buildings are in shade. A cafe, bakery, art gallery, apartments, greenhouses, dorms, a performance area and a foundry was constructed. Sources of income for Arcosanti come from Arcosanti's Foundation, guided tours, educational workshops and sales of the very distinctive Soleri cast bronze bells. The bells are sandcast around aluminum patterns at both Cosanti and Arcosanti by volunteers and students who attend educational workshops. It's estimated that 20 to thirty tons of raw clay are used in the process every year. The five week workshops are attended by students from all over the world.

To critics of Arcosanti, the experimental city is often described as an overpriced commune. Most times the population of Arcosanti is listed as having 50-150 residents, which after 40 years is way short of the projected 5,000 residents and hasn't yet reached its completion.. Many food sources must be purchased from outside Arcosanti. Critics charge that Soleri continued to spend most of his time at his Paradise Valley home. Still others praise Arcosanti as a place of global interaction and ecological principles. Arcosanti attracts over 50,000 visitors each year. When Soleri passed away earlier this year (2013) a number of tributes and celebrations of his life and work took place. For more information www.arcosanti.org.

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Comments 3 comments

mactavers profile image

mactavers 3 years ago Author

Thanks for your kind comment. I guess you should write about what you know and love, and I've lived in AZ since I was five.


mactavers profile image

mactavers 5 years ago Author

Hey Peter, thanks for your comment, and I'm glad you had the opportunity to visit Bioshpere 2. While both sites have had more than their share of "pot holes" I think that experiments that try to improve our environment are on the right track


PETER LUMETTA profile image

PETER LUMETTA 5 years ago from KENAI, ALAKSA

Back in the day these two 'experiments' were all the rage. I visited Biosphere 2 and thought it was a grand try at selfsufficiency. Had not thought about it for 20 years. Thanks for the reminder. Peter

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