Paolo Soleri's Lessons in Architecture

Paolo Soleri

Ringing the Bell on World Class Lessons in Architecture

By LinDee Rochelle

Design & Architecture Magazine, September 2003

In reams of research hailing Arcosanti as a city of the future, few words have been devoted to Dr. Paolo Soleri, the man who belongs to its dream. A soft, arid breeze stirs a few strands of his white hair. Has he lost the spark that led him to create his “urban laboratory” in the desert? Soleri, at age 84, remains true to a passion that shaped his early life and continues to guide him down a steady, windswept path through the Arizona desert. Dressed this day in khaki slacks and a natural linen shirt, with a low Nehru collar, sleeves rolled to the elbows, he looks every bit a man who would build an alternative city based on ideals rising up through the tumultuous Sixties and Seventies. It is now more than thirty years later … what is left for this architect-turned-philosopher and where will he go from here?

A Vertical Future

            It began ostensibly in 1970 with “arcology,” Soleri’s futuristic architectural perception for a new kind of city – if you haven’t heard of it, don’t look it up it isn’t in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary. A seemingly never-ending project in progress, Arcosanti’s arcology is described as: “the concept of architecture and ecology working as one integral process to produce new urban habitats.” Yes, but … what is it? Soleri’s vertical city is the model that reviles horizontal urban sprawl, with its little boxes of single-family dwellings. Social creatures by nature, he sees us living, working, and playing in a nucleus city, leaving a ring of nature for cavorting. The result saves planetary resources by reducing the need for fuel (vehicles) or electricity (there is no air conditioning at Arcosanti) while promoting a way of life that encourages interaction to conserve energy and shrink waste. It’s a viable concept he’s been teaching for over thirty years, why haven’t we been listening?
            Whether visiting Soleri’s residence and sculpture studio in the heart of urbanized Paradise Valley, or Arcosanti, the prototype city built on sweeping basalt cliffs near Cordes Junction, you can’t miss the pungent tranquility. Constructed in 1956 by Soleri and his beloved late wife, Colly, Cosanti endures today like a first-born child; steeped in pride, with fond first memories, offering a springboard to its succeeding descendant.
            Arcosanti is arguably a future Mecca, surprisingly (even to Soleri) funded by the sale of its quintessential bells and the non-profit Cosanti Foundation. As Soleri’s second child it is his promising legacy to future generations. Perched above a picturesque, meandering ribbon of the Agua Fria River, Soleri speaks of it proudly, with a mixture of benevolence and sadness. His intricate original plans – a piece of art in itself – calls for an ultimate population of 5,000 to 7,000 inhabitants. Today’s residents hover around 70. Is he disappointed? Perhaps a little. Disillusioned? Not a chance.
            Italian-born Soleri is as focused on his innovative projects today as he was decades ago when the first cement apse was cast. Constructed to protect the foundries that manufacture his world-renowned bells, the cocoon-shaped structures also nurture its inhabitants ensconced above, in sparse but efficient and relaxed apartments.
            Soleri’s advocacy of vertical living vs. horizontal is indicative of a European principle where it was and is, an urban necessity. In the wake of the late Sixties, as ecology movements espoused urban waste in “the age of environmental crisis,” he envisioned a future in need of major change. An odyssey of urban rebirth based on many essentials gleaned in the ‘50s as a student of Frank Lloyd Wright, seemed fitting for his adopted America. A land where its populace, until recent years, felt a magnanimous, unending expanse. If it was a crisis in the Sixties, what is it now? Soleri’s future is nearly here … and what have we done to prepare for it? He is still hopeful we will learn before it is too late.
            Individually, neither an architect nor a minimalist would easily find the path Soleri seeks today. What is new at Arcosanti is in reality, what is old. Soleri, the man, has come full circle. His early philosophies begot a city to help educate us. He turns now to re-emphasizing those values while the city continues to build itself … slowly, but persistently. Because his ideals ridicule present architecture, offering spatial alternatives for a better future, he has often been labeled a visionary. “Visionary? Forget it!” is Soleri’s response. He humbly defines himself as, “Somebody who scientifically develops some ideas about shelter, along with habitat.”

Interviews Reveal the Man

            Throughout the years, the indefatigable question asked of Soleri has been, “How have you influenced architecture as we know it?” And conversely, to current renowned architects, “How has Paolo Soleri influenced your work?” Michael P. Johnson, prominent Arizona architect answered it best, “If we had listened to him, we never would have built. He has influenced me more in the sense of trying to be a good human being. Much of what I learned from Paolo has to do with a way of thinking in relation to my part in society.”
            Minute particles of Soleri’s architectural philosophies have been woven almost imperceptibly into the fabric of our everyday lives. Renowned Arizona architect, Will Bruder, serves on Arcosanti’s Board of Directors. “My experience at Cosanti with Paolo Soleri was one of discovery in how the ordinary could become something special and extraordinary from the smallest detail to the largest concept. These are traits of the craft of architecture that have served me throughout my entire life. These ideas which I learned as a young man from Paolo, were key to the magic and success of the Phoenix Central Library becoming a reality.”
            The stark, sometimes raw lines of design at Arcosanti and Cosanti may seem crude to some, but not to architect Eddie Jones of Jones Studio whose life was indirectly altered by Soleri’s vital messages. He visits Cosanti at every opportunity. “Paolo goes beyond architecture to the environment and our responsibility to it,. Paolo’s materials and innovations display a childlike disposition and allows a level of creativity which is rare.” Jones feels an indefinable amount of Soleri’s work has penetrated the background of the planet’s consciousness, with people now demanding more “ecologically friendly” designs from planners and architects.

Characterizing Excellence

            Soleri knows Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither will be Arcosanti. The difference between spectacular success and abject failure is all a matter of philosophy. With an impish grin and a nonchalant wave of his hand, he takes no credit for the essence of his lifelong philosophies cascading into the lives of those who have ingested his teachings. He knows however that many of the distinguished and recognized architects of the new century take some of his ideals with them, on the job. While their designs may not epitomize his ideals, they have an excellence all their own.
            “Excellence has a strange character or quality,” Soleri emphasized, his hands moving aimlessly in the air. “If everybody becomes excellent then the only way to excellence is to escalate. It is very ambiguous. Still,” he says, “it comes out. When you see somebody who has excellence, it tells you something. Stirs you up. There is excellence, which is not just idiosyncratic. In music, it can survive. Ninety percent is mediocre, then you have five or ten percent, which is excellent, and it’s the one that survives. Mr. Wright was an excellent architect.” Wright also compared architecture to composing a symphony.

Legacy Leaves Footprints in the Desert

            Though short of the thriving metropolis Soleri envisioned in the 1970s, Arcosanti’s presence and continuing affect cannot be discounted. Barely larger than Central Park, much like that celebrated social center in a humanity-packed New York City, Soleri sees its 860 acres eventually becoming the center of Arizona. “Within maybe one generation or so there’ll be a city that starts from Nogales and will go to Flagstaff. And we will be smack in the middle.” Del Webb’s newest planned community, Anthem, is just the beginning and while Soleri admits it displays some elements of merit, it s still the epitome of “wrong things done better.”
            “In the beginning,” recounts Mary Hoadley, site coordinator, “we thought Arcosanti would be done in five years, then we would travel the world helping indigenous peoples (to appreciate vertical living).” Besides Soleri, the primary players at Arcosanti like Hoadley and architect, Tomiaki Tamura, have never lost faith in its principals, continuing to monitor and execute various educational and event programs. “It is very satisfying to work on,” says Hoadley, advocate and resident since 1970. “Even after all these years, I am one of its biggest fans. It is an exciting little foothold, quivering with potential.”
            Like Hoadley, Tamura, who oversees Arcosanti’s construction and design, is a member of its governing board and has devoted his life to living in Soleri’s model city, spreading its attributes to the consumptive masses. “The world is bigger than yourself. I could have been … and could become, just a practicing architect who designs things … could have been very successful at it. But I wanted to see the world in a very different way, by experiencing. For anything to be worthwhile in one’s life, one has to make a choice at some point.” Without making a conscious decision, Tamura knows this is a project worth his decades of dedication. Those close to the project are committed to its survival and vow Soleri’s legacy is as solid as the cement of which Arcosanti is constructed.

Architect or Philosopher?

            Why has this quiet, self-effacing man not motivated more of us? That could soon change, as his metamorphosis from ecological architect to philosopher becomes publicly apparent in his newest book “What If?” Quaderni and its subsequent set of continuum books in progress, beginning with Quaderno 1.
            What If? overviews 123 Soleri ponderings in brief one-paragraph teasers that are begging to be fully dissected in each Quaderno. This is not casual reading … adapted from his School of Thought workshop, “Its main targets,” reads the inside cover, “are faculties and students of colleges and universities.” Be prepared to examine yourself and your surroundings with each short paragraph. From “What If?” Quaderni:  “#9. Better Kind of Wrongness (B.K.W.) – As animals of habit and of the discomfort present in sudden reversals, we see more comfort and practicality in constant laboring around wrong things with the intention of improvement. And we do, we improve the wrong by making it inescapably worse. The investments in the wrong things work as an inertia wheel difficult to stop and to put in reverse.”
            While some of Soleri’s snippets of life have an obvious connection architecture, other hypotheses will appear to pertain only to his perception of life and are designed to raise eyebrows.  “#70. Self Sufficiency – Personal self-sufficiency belongs to the small end of utopia. The Garden of Eden belongs to the large end. They are both non-places, both delusional, both out of touch. Why a universe is needed so that the bug running to hide is for real? The ‘self-sufficiency’ of the bug is to be found in the universe in toto, the only self-sufficient domain (‘The non-place of nirvana’ someone whispers. ‘Intolerance and greed’ another whispers).” Agree with him or not, he will stretch your mind beyond the tedium of daily living.

What Now … Is Soleri’s Dream Fading?

            As early as 1989, a local newspaper postulated on Arcosanti’s apparent failure, describing Soleri’s efforts as striving “to isolate humanity from nature.” Quite the contrary. Arcosanti is surrounded by nature and the lives of its residents resonate with the sounds of it. Soleri’s model city blends humanity with nature as solidly as silt molds its bells. The heart of Arcosanti beats strong with Soleri’s School of thought firmly embedded in its concrete foundations.
            When you get down to the nitty-gritty desert-dirt of it, Soleri’s message to humanity is not about architecture. It is not about art and design. It is not about an esoteric ecological dream. It is not even about the most enchanting bells in the world. Dr. Soleri wraps them all up together in a symphony of lessons making Arcosanti a school, in the purest sense of the word. But will we remember what we’ve been taught after the final bell in our horizontal urban world has rung?

Design & Architecture Magazine, September 2003