The madness, hope, and lessons of building cities in deserts both real and fictional
In the 5 months since I've last written here (!), I've moved to New York City, almost as far away from the West as I can get. I miss it every day. The howling canyons of Manhattan's skyscraper boulevards will never compare to those of the desert, but for what it lacks in harsh natural beauty the city more than makes up for in that great obsession of the Western mind: water. My first night here there was a thunderstorm and I sat out on my friend's balcony staring at the rain in wonder as she continued working on her computer, complaining about how sick she was of the rain. "Sick of the rain"...? On another rainy day another west coast transplant texted me, "Doesn't this rain make you deliriously happy?" This city is so absurdly abundant with water that the fire hydrant on my street has been bursting forth like a fountain for weeks now and no one seems concerned about this rampant waste. There is in fact so much water here that the city is at risk of drowning in the ocean, and water continuously needs to be pumped out. Forgive my rambling about this, but after a lifetime of living in a drought, my mind struggles with this new reality.
These thoughts about cities and water were floating around in my head when I recently watched then rewatched Villeneuve’s Dune. Much has already been said about this film — how hot Oscar Isaac was, how unlikely it is that a little string bean like Timothée could lead anyone into a holy war, etc — but what stuck out to me in particular was the impracticality of the desert architecture. The ziggurat palace and the surrounding city (sorry I don't care to learn its name) were clearly designed by people who have never spent more than two hours in the desert. Everything is huge and spread out, without public transit or cars to collapse the distances. The palace alone is so massive it looks like it takes a full 10 minutes to walk from one room to another and these people are doing that in 140 degree heat every day. I can suspend my disbelief about Oscar Isaac's ducal ring fitting Timothée's bony little hand but this is too much.
I was admittedly primed to be nitpicky about this after my road trip through Arizona this summer, where I was regularly faced with all the ingenious and nonsensical ways people have tried to build cities in the desert, an undertaking that does require a certain madness. And who am I to criticize Dune's sprawling capital when Phoenix, a city that should not exist, exists?
Phoenix is the fifth largest city in the US and the entire metropolitan area is home to 5 million people over an astounding 517 square miles; the sprawl makes Los Angeles look dense. It gets about 9 inches of rainfall a year, compared to a US average of 38 (NYC gets 46), and yet despite this aridity you can find lush green lawns and golf courses everywhere. To see something as rare and precious as water wasted on something as pointless as golf is enough to make you think Ted Kaczynski was onto something. I never once "walked" in Phoenix, because I would've gotten heat stroke and died on some sinner's beautifully manicured lawn. Instead I went from my air conditioned Airbnb to my air conditioned car to an air conditioned antique mall, and back again. This Sodom only exists by the grace of the canals first built by the Hohokam thousands of years ago, and these canals were never meant to withstand the demands of sunburnt golfers. Everything about this city is designed to fill me with disgust. And yet...
Phoenix is a testament to humanity's hubris and doom in the face of climate change, but it's strangely charming. The air conditioned spaces have a lived-in patina from years of eclectic desert rats creating community in an improbable place. Everyone welcomed me and made me feel at home. Against all odds, I had the time of my life here. Mark Twain was right: Hell has some good company.
I carried this surprise with me as I drove north of Phoenix to visit what should've been Heaven: the experimental village of Arcosanti, an architectural marvel that graphic designers everywhere are obsessed with and that would've made more sense as inspiration for the palace in Dune (Villeneuve please consult me for the next movie).
Arcosanti is a little speck of nothing compared to Phoenix: you can walk across the whole town in about 3 minutes. Really it's less of a town and more of a townhouse complex but like, a hella pretty one, for people who crave the sterile isolation of a suburb but also want to signal they have good taste. It's all sustainable and multi-use and pedestrian-only. Of course you still have to drive to get there and the olive trees planted around it aren't native and demand too much water, but at least they're not lawns, right?
I hated Arcosanti. Now here was a town that did fill me with disgust. Most of it is closed off to visitors unless you pay for a brief tour: how can a visionary model for future cities still privatize public spaces? Everyone who lived there seemed to resent visitors, and while some vistas offered glorious views of untouched desert, others faced the highway and the cluster of gas stations half a mile away, quickly dispelling the fantasy of Arcosanti somehow rising above the petrochemical demands of modern life. Its density and walkability were admirable, but when you can only walk about 3 minutes, does that really matter? The whole thing has taken literally decades to construct and is only about as large as Paul Atreides' man cave. I worry that this avant-garde apartment complex may not in fact be the urban planning solution we need for our desert future.
We're living in awkward times, where we realize our cities need to radically evolve to adapt to climate change but we're not really sure what to do yet. Most solutions I see to prepare for desertification just make me go "lol" while the despair in my soul grows deeper, like this billionaire greenwashing pipe dream in the Southwest or this one in Saudi Arabia. Yes Phoenix's existence is literally a sin but it does have one thing that makes cities genuinely work: community. Arcosanti does have beautiful brutalist amphitheaters but this may not be enough. And what's more, nothing about Arcosanti is actually novel. Long before some Italian pervert came to the desert claiming he had discovered how to make it habitable, the Sinagua had already figured it out.
After I veni vidi whatever'd Arcosanti, I drove further north to Montezuma Castle National Monument, a set of thousand-year-old cliff dwellings built by the Sinagua, just one of many indigenous peoples in the Southwest who had cleverly managed to survive in this dry hostility. The cliff dwellings have a vertical density reminiscent of Manhattan: several stories of small rooms conveniently clustered together, built right into the cliff and protected from the elements. Sustainable, multi-use, and pedestrian-only, with that lived-in patina that defines a successful city. The Sinagua weren't the only to make cliff dwellings either: the Anasazi created them in Colorado, the Mogollon in New Mexico. These desert peoples had learned to meet the desert on its terms and thrive in a place that has baffled and defeated outsiders ever since. Honestly do I even need to make the parallels to the Fremen here?
Some cities, like NYC and New Orleans and Miami, will soon have more water than they know what to do with, which is soooo neat! But for those that are destined to balance in the sandy jaws of the desert lest they be completely consumed and forgotten, it's critical that we look at all the different ways people have survived in such conditions before, and to be blunt about what's worked and what hasn't. I know you all know we cannot keep relying on cars and letting urban sprawl go unchecked and allowing lawns to exist. We must wage a holy war on lawns. And we also have to remember that flashy design solutions only take us so far. No matter how clever the architecture, if it takes decades to build and can only accommodate like 10 people, that's not the path for us. But there is no need to despair. People have figured this out before and we can figure it out again. And while we’re at it I hope someone also figures out stillsuits soon lol but seriously please :(
And one last time... FUCK lawns.
Wonderful piece, and fuck lawns so much lol.
They don’t say it the Dune movie, but in the book the palace is totally meant to be an extravagant and extremely wasteful symbol of oppression to the native people.