The word “visionary” has fallen out of favor for good reason as it leans too heavily on the notion of genius. But, in the 1960s, it was regularly used to describe Paolo Soleri, who always thought about architecture in the future tense, in books, futuristic (another dated word) structures, and in his public persona as a philosophical thinker inspired by the Jesuit Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. Soleri was an architectural star for students and those looking for a way out of acceptable norms and culture. Peter Cook recalls that when Soleri (who he called a guru) came to lecture at the AA in the 1960s, there were so many people that wanted to hear him that the school moved his talk to the larger TUC hall across Bedford Square—something they had done only for Buckminster Fuller. Though he was awarded the Venice biennale’s Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2000, when his work appeared at the 2010 biennale his project was largely ignored by the public. It’s not unusual for cultural creators to have careers that rise and fall, but why was Soleri so enormously popular in the 1960s and 1970s?
Soleri did not build a great many buildings, but he did create at least a half-dozen memorable structures mostly near his adopted (he was a native of Turin, Italy) home of Phoenix, Arizona. His most famous work is, of course, Arcosanti—his high density community situated on a desert bluff 70 miles north of Phoenix. He started it in 1970 as a project to explore what he called arcology, which combines architecture and ecology. In 1997, I spent two days at Arcosanti and on a guided tour of the experimental habitation a young architecture student/intern/tour guide from Alabama gestured to the open blue sky and described where one day giant supersonic airplanes would land on a runway that circled the structure some 150 stories above. Given that in 37 years of construction, Arcosanti has only reached 3 stories high, I had to admire the student’s genial optimism and hope that it would serve him well as a future architect. But a naive optimism, I think, was a large part of everything that Soleri did and may explain his life long passion for the off-the-grid life of the American desert—the somewhat dated philosophy of both Frank Lloyd Wright (who brought him to North America) and Pierre Teilhard De Chardin. This optimism about the future can be seen in all of his creations, from his wonderful sand cast bronze bells and technologically adventurous Dome House in Cave Creek, Arizona, with its rotating sunshade that allows for passive solar heating and cooling, to his belief that one day Arcosnati would have 5,000 inhabitants and airplanes landing on its elevated runways.
Courtesy Youngsoo Kim; Tomiaki Tamura
It must be admitted that Soleri was a really good architect. I stumbled upon one of his unique designs when I was on a student trip to Italy and driving along the Amalfi Coast: his 1950 Ceramica Artistica Solimene. The building—which is constructed like Wright’s Guggenheim Museum with interior ramps circulating from top to bottom—brilliantly serves the process of making small ceramic plates and dishes. If you are not familiar with Soleri’s design ability, take a close look at his unrealized designs for long span concrete bridges. He split a straw along its top and folded the sides to the ground to become piers. He was a brilliant designer and one wishes he had stuck a little more closely to design, rather than trying to solve all the world’s ills. Soleri did believe that design can save the world and this belief drove him to create a legacy that is singular and unique.