“On April 9, 2013, the world has lost one of its great minds. Paolo Soleri, architect, builder, artist, writer, theorist, husband, father, born on Summer Solstice, June 21, 1919, has died at age 93,” states the announcement on the Arcosanti.com website.
Great mind, an understatement, only scratches a surface description of Dr. Paolo Soleri’s brilliance.
After earning a Ph.D. with highest honors in architecture from the Torino Polytechnico in 1946, Paolo Soleri came to the United States in 1947 and spent a year-and-a-half in fellowship with Frank Lloyd Wright. Strongly influenced by the French philosophers Henri Bergson and Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, Soleri’s philosophy and works have been celebrated throughout the world with landmark exhibitions that have broken records for attendance.
Soleri made a life-long commitment to research and experimentation in urban planning, establishing the Cosanti Foundation, a non- profit educational foundation. The Cosanti Foundation’s major project, Arcosanti, has been under construction since 1970. The work in progress provides a model demonstrating Soleri’s concept of “Arcology,” architecture coherent with ecology, as well as learning grounds for aspiring architects and urban planners participating in ongoing experiments.
Arcosanti was also home to Soleri’s School of Thought, an educational think-tank of modern philosophy, as well as the Paolo Soleri Archives, the collection of all of Soleri’s art and letters. Prestigious advisors to the Soleri Archives represent the US National Gallery, MOMA, CCA (Canadian Centre for Architecture), The Getty, Eastman House, Taliesin, and The Smithsonian.
Until his death, Soleri remained a distinguished lecturer in the College of Architecture at Arizona State University and a member of the Lindisfarne Association, and taught students practical implementation at Arcosanti.
Soleri’s sustainable theories were decades ahead of their time and overlooked during an era when urban sprawl defined the “American Dream.” As a result, Soleri’s name never realized the iconic “household” status achieved by other modern architects of his generation outside of architectural circles. It is my hope that posthumously he will receive the accolades and recognition he deserves as a fore-father of sustainability. He made an indelible impression on this author and will forever be remembered with fondness and reverence.
Snowden Bishop, Editor-in-Chief, Sustainability In Education
The following article was first published in AZGreen Magazine in 2011.
It was a beautiful mid-winter Indian summer day that inspired a feeling that all things are possible. A slight breeze stirred a cacophony of bells that hanged from every valance of the massive concrete enclaves standing as structural reminders of a visionary ideal only partially executed but fully realized long before its time. With the potential to come full circle given today’s movement toward environmental consciousness, the architect’s own principles are recapturing attention of urban planners seeking to set new standards of sustainability.
The soothing chimes amplified and echoed through the architectural half domes that now serve the practical purpose of housing their creator’s workspace and showcasing the kinetic audible art that supports his very existence. So rare is the opportunity to enter the company of one who arguably could be considered one of the greatest visionary architects and philosophers still alive today – whose principles, had they been implemented, could have vastly improved the we live in the world – that it inspires reverence and reflection about endless possibilities that still lie ahead for the future.
Seated across from me was Dr. Paolo Soleri. He was reading to himself from a small note card he held in his hands. After a deep sigh, he looked over his spectacles and said, “I have prepared a statement. Would you like me to read it?” Naturally I was intrigued and gestured as if to say, please. He continued, “The gigantism of the car landscape and the consequent urban sprawl are the main obstacles to sustainability. The Choice is between the hermitages of urban sprawl and the leanness of the city self containment – a reformulation of the American Dream that is a reformation of culture away from materialism.”
Paolo Soleri was born in Italy during the height of the industrial revolution and became an adult as the world was at war. He was awarded his Ph.D. with highest honors in architecture from the Torino Polytechnico in 1946. He came to the United States in 1947 and spent a year-and-a-half in fellowship with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona, and at Taliesin East in Wisconsin. Whereas most of his architectural contemporaries pursued lucrative careers designing buildings according to their commissioners’ requirements, Soleri devoted most of his career developing theories, constructing models and building prototypes for what he calls “Arcologies” defined as the combination of architecture and ecology to generate complex, compact, highly active, pedestrian cities. Since the early 1960’s Soleri has worked almost exclusively with the design of alternative urban planning models. By 1970 he had designed thirty Arcologies and began construction on a prototype town known as Arcosanti, Soleri’s most important experiment to date, located approximately 60 miles north of Phoenix.
Soleri envisions a modern society based on sustainability and strong community bonds with self-contained, self-sufficient civic clusters, the design of which would minimize human impact on the magnificent surrounding nature. Each Arcology is centered around a cluster of half-dome structures or “apses,” which are positioned based on directional orientation to maximize passive solar effects for climate control. The structures act as anchor for the adjoining buildings, which serve as workplaces and domestic dwellings, and surrounding infrastructure such as greenhouses, water systems and waste management, all of which support the town’s population.
During an era of economic prosperity when cars, highways and inexpensive gas reinvented the American Dream to include spacious suburban homes on an abundance of land, once pedestrian cities became decentralized and public transportation infrastructure was dismantled, Soleri held fast to his belief that the growth occurring was unsustainable. Perhaps sacrificing prestige or popularity, he continued to design according to his principled hypotheses.
Nearly a half-century later, the state of our nation proves his theories about the environmental impact of modern development were right all along. Now that environmental concerns are commanding media attention and infiltrating mainstream consciousness, Soleri’s designs have the potential to resurface and regain well-deserved attention by urban planners hoping to revitalize city centers and alleviate some of the ecological conundrums we now face.
Although, for the most part, some of Soleri’s most ambitious designs remain unbuilt, the genius behind them is lauded among architectural scholars, scientists, engineers and ecologists alike. Early in his career, he gained international recognition for a bridge design displayed at the Museum of Modern Art and published in The Architecture of Bridges by Elizabeth Mock. His most recent commission is a pedestrian bridge over the Arizona Canal in downtown Scottsdale.
So rare are completed Soleri designs that one attempt to demolish the aging Paolo Soleri Amphitheater located at the Santa Fe Indian School on the Pueblo Indian Reservation in Santa Fe caught the attention of U.S. Senators Jeff Bingaman and Tom Udall, who offered their assistance to the All Indian Pueblo Council if they agree to preserve the historically significant building.
The Cosanti Foundation has actively fought to stop the demolition. In a press release issued last summer, Soleri stated, “Imagination was at the origin of the theater, imagination is essential now. This American culture is bent on demolition in all fields. It is a deleterious way of making history and forfeiting memories, the very memories cutting the landscape of history for a country in search of culture and civility.”
Preservation of the amphitheater has garnered a groundswell of support from a myriad of organizations and area residents who have bombarded the Pueblo Council with petitions, letters and even a “Save Our Soleri” group on Facebook. So far, four years after the intended demolition was announced, the amphitheater remains unscathed; but it has yet to be removed from the chopping block.
“Although the theater is small, seating maybe 500 people, it offered one of, if not the best, concert experiences in New Mexico. The diverse, and generally well-known acts that toured through the venue every summer were a privilege to see in a setting that was so intimate you literally felt like the artist had invited you personally to attend,” said Cherith Cutestory in an article that appeared in Archinect.com.
Intimacy and connectedness are intended effects of Soleri’s designs. In fact, the Arcologies are meant to promote a sense of community cohesiveness.
One has only to look into the trial and error of Arcosanti in order to understand its intrinsic value. Intended for 5,000 inhabitants, Arcosanti embodies Soleri’s urban ideals, and was designed to maximize the interaction and accessibility associated with an urban environment; to minimize the use of energy, raw materials, and land, thus reducing waste and environmental pollution; and to allow interaction with the surrounding natural environment.
Since 1970, well over 6,000 people have participated in Arcosanti’s construction. Their international affiliation group is called the Arcosanti Alumni Network. As of 2010, construction is underway to complete Arcosanti’s Greenhouse Apron, a series of tiered gardens protected by greenhouse elements, which will provide organic vegetables for Arcosanti residents.
“The project was met with much excitement in the 1970s during the oil crisis, for many people thought that this was the solution to gas consumption,” stated Ben Terris in an article for the Huffington Post. “Today, as oil prices rise again, members of Arcosanti say there has been a renewed interest in the design, but even forty years after Soleri broke ground, the graying utopia is less than 10 percent of what the model promised.”
Soleri is quick to blame the automobile for the urban sprawl he so abhors. In fact, he contends it is the value that we place on material possessions, including our cars, that has brought us to the environmental crisis we face.
“Somehow, after 200 years, we have become hyper consumers possessed by materialism, buying our happiness,” said Solari, who repeatedly expressed concerns that the waste we create will have catastrophic results unless we begin to change our way of life. He asserts that our automobile culture has caused us to move away from what is most important. “It has segregated our communities, wasted our resources and moved us away from the glory of culture, which should be appreciated as a great miracle.”
As urban sprawl proliferated amid the materialism that seemed to define the American Dream, Soleri’s Arcological designs might have seemed radical – such as utopian settings of science fiction novels and films. Perhaps not so far fetched, Soleri was intrigued by the futuristic novels of Jules Verne. The irony is that Soleri’s theories were so far ahead of their time, they might have seemed like premonitions to a general public that failed to believe in limited natural resources then, but realize differently now.
“Twenty years ago I proposed that physical, emotional, racial and functional segregation were a greater evil than waste, pollution and environmental destruction. I think that I was on target then and that I am now,” said Soleri. Some of his most ambitious Arcology models, designed to accommodate up to a half-million people in vertical cities, would retain pedestrian accessibility, completely autonomous ecological support systems and social cultural centers that promote human interaction and belonging.
But what is even more remarkable, they are designed to maximize efficiency and minimize environmental impact on the surrounding nature.
“Without question, he is one of the most important architects of our time, and hasn’t received even a fraction of the notoriety he deserves. Like many great artists of our passed he’ll get his recognition in our history books” said Doug Edwards of Edwards Design Group. “Some of the most modern fundamentals of green architectural design being used today are have been handed down and inspired by Paolo Soleri especially here in the Southwest.
In fact, according to Edwards, the most sustainable building practices now considered fundamental to green building have been integral to Soleri’s designs for more than fifty years. These include architectural elements such as solar orientation, calculated shading and shadowing, venturi-effect corridors promote healthy airflow, and subterranean structures that utilize the thermal mass of the earth for natural insulation, which are strategically utilized to naturally maximize warmth in the winter and cool the air in the summer – without using mechanical devices.
Architects and architectural students continue to visit Arcosanti from all over the world, and as long as they continue to visit, Soleri will continue to engage them in his School of Thought. Asked what he’d most like people to learn from him, Soleri replied, “Talk to your conscience more often and you will learn a few things.”
Then he added with a smile, “Come to visit. Come and help. Please buy a bell.”
The Soleri Bells continue to support the research and ongoing development and construction of Arcosanti. For more information, visit www.arcosanti.org.