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Remembering Paolo Soleri (1919-2013)

Architect Nathan Koren, who lived at Arcosanti from 1992-1997, reflects on his early mentor's influences and vision.

By Nathan Koren
April 19, 2013
Photo © Timothy Hursley
Paolo Soleri

Paolo Soleri—iconoclastic architect, urban theorist, philosopher, and one of the last living students of Frank Lloyd Wright—died on April 9th at 93.

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Soleri was born in 1919 in Turin, Italy. In 1947 he received a Ph.D. from Turin Polytechnic, then began his apprenticeship with Wright at Taliesin West. Wright’s aesthetic influenced Soleri, but his most enduring impact was to catalyze Soleri’s opposing philosophy of urban planning. Wright’s utopian Broadacre City development concept was the apotheosis of the new automobile-centered suburbia. But to Soleri, suburbia was a horror. Soleri was deeply influenced by philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, who attempted to reconcile spirituality with evolution. In de Chardin’s view, the universe’s raison d’etre was to evolve towards a state of ultimate complexity and consciousness—the “Omega Point.” Soleri applied this idea to urban theory, finding in it a personal explanation for the spirited vibrancy—what he called the “emergent consciousness”—of dense, complex urban centers. Soleri saw suburbia as diametrically opposed to this, and therefore contrary to the spirit of evolution itself.

Soleri’s apprenticeship did not survive this argument. By 1949 he was exiled to the desert beyond Taliesin. He soon found a wealthy benefactor, however, for whom he built the small Dome House out of local stones and recycled war surplus. Stripped to his skivvies beneath the Arizona sun, doing most of the construction himself, he was soon joined by the benefactor’s daughter, Colly. She became the love of his life, and they married before the year was out.

In 1956 they purchased five acres in Scottsdale, Arizona, naming the property Cosanti, meaning “against things” or “before form.” There, Soleri experimented with sculptural, earth-cast buildings, and refined his cosmologically-inspired urban theories, producing city designs of increasing complexity and (he hoped) emergent consciousness. These were widely acclaimed, with Ada Louise Huxtable calling them “some of the most spectacularly sensitive and superbly visionary drawings that any century has known.” Acolytes began flocking to Cosanti, for both its hands-on construction and the philosophical discourse it inspired.

Soleri’s seminal 1969 work, “Arcology: City in the Image of Man” caused a sensation when it was published. His arcology (architecture plus ecology) theory proposed cities as integrated ecosystems: dense megastructures that grew their own food and produced their own energy— and consciousness. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy praised the book, saying it “touched every aspect of human existence, defying summation,” while Peter Blake said he had “never seen a book on architecture or urban design that bothered me as much as this one.

In 1970, Soleri’s foundation began building Arcosanti—the first prototype arcology—designed to house 5,000 people within a 25-story superstructure on a remote mesa in central Arizona. Volunteers flocked to build this super-environmental city of the future. The early years were euphoric, with Time magazine calling Arcosanti “probably the most important experiment [in urban architecture] undertaken in our lifetimes.” A collection of initial structures rapidly emerged from the desert. These were not the inhuman megastructures that Soleri’s critics had envisioned, but an intimate environment of handcrafted buildings, nostalgically speckled with Italian cypress and olive trees.

Presiding over Arcosanti was not Soleri, but Colly. Where his head was in the clouds, her feet were on the ground. Colly’s warmth and pragmatism brought Paolo’s dreams down to earth. Thus, her sudden death from cancer in 1982 left an unfillable void. Soleri buried Colly nearby, her grave visible in the distance through the window of his studio apartment. He spent most of the next decade slowly building an amphitheater in her honor. Beyond Arcosanti, the cultural ethos shifted. Few people had time for urban cosmology, eco-cities, or for Soleri’s escalating invectives against the suburban American dream. Arcosanti’s population fell to 25, and Soleri lapsed into obscurity, although arcologies—absent their environmental and philosophical underpinnings, and cast in a dystopian light—became a staple of science-fiction film and literature.

I first met Soleri in 1989, after a lecture at Cal Poly, when he was 70 and I was 13. I’d been enthralled by his work, and asked how I could get involved. “Come to Arcosanti,” he said. Three years later I did, and spent the most formative five years of my life pouring concrete and assisting him with building virtual models of his evolving arcology concepts.

Rising environmental consciousness in the 1990s led to renewed interest in Soleri’s work. Construction at Arcosanti resumed, and has continued ever since, based on evolving plans, with a largely transient population of around 60. Soleri remained aloof from its daily life. “I only build the instrument; others must make the music,” was his refrain. But he continued to promote his ideas through exhibitions and speaking tours, well into his 80s.

Soleri fiercely rejected most labels that were applied to him. Utopian? Visionary? Nonsense, he replied; his outlook was pragmatic. He even rejected the term “megastructuralist.” Cities like Los Angeles are the true megastructures, he claimed, sprawling over thousands of square miles. A compact, walkable arcology was the height of frugality and minimalism by comparison.

Although his faith in his theories never waned, Soleri readily admitted to his personal failings. He’d failed to convince the world of his vision, and Arcosanti hadn’t lived up to his intentions. Yet he was comfortable with his role as a self-appointed Jeremiah, and humility did not incline him towards compromise. During our last lunch together in 2007, he derided less radical eco-cities such as China’s Dongtan and Abu Dhabi’s Masdar City as merely offering a “better quality of wrongness,” and suggested that where my ideas differed from his own, I should “find another mesa” and “build my own arcology.” Yet he said this with a puckish smile and a warm twinkle in his eye: it was a trademarked refrain which he’d told thousands before me, always hoping that someday, somehow, one of them would.

Soleri is survived by two daughters, Kristine Soleri Timm and Daniela Soleri, two grandchildren, and more than 7,000 people who, like me, once called Arcosanti home.

California-born architect Nathan Koren is based in London, where he works as a transport planner and entrepreneur. He designs Personal Rapid Transit systems with Capita Symonds, and recently co-founded Futurescaper.

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