Paolo Soleri Is the True Legend of the Arizona Architecture Scene

In 1950, two upstart architects, Paolo Soleri and Mark Mills, finished their first commission — the Dome House — a model of which is included in the permanent collection of New York's Museum of Modern Art. Their glass dome-covered tour de force was built in rugged, barely accessible desert in Cave Creek for Nora "Granny" Woods, an iconoclastic divorced socialite who later would become Soleri's mother-in-law.

Two years earlier, legendary American architect Frank Lloyd Wright had unceremoniously banished Soleri and Mills from Taliesin West, where they were serving architectural apprenticeships.

Clearly, Soleri stuck in Wright's craw.

Paolo Soleri
AP Photo/Bob Daugherty
Paolo Soleri
Soleri, circa 1973, with Arcosanti's completed north vault in the background and early stages of ceramics apse construction.
Soleri Archives/Annette Del Zoppo
Soleri, circa 1973, with Arcosanti's completed north vault in the background and early stages of ceramics apse construction.

Location Info

Map

Arcosanti

13555 S. Cross L Rd.
Mayer, AZ 86333

Category: Attractions and Amusement Parks

Region: Outside the Valley

Cosanti Originals

6433 E. Doubletree Ranch Road
Paradise Valley, AZ 85253

Category: Retail

Region: Paradise Valley

Details

Years later, Granny Woods would tell Roger Tomalty — who worked closely with Soleri for nearly 45 years — a story about Frank Lloyd Wright appearing one day unannounced at her home.

"She said he swept in like a bat, with his cape and fedora and cane," the longtime Soleri associate laughs. "He pointed with his cane at different elements of the house: 'That's mine, that's mine, that's mine, that's Soleri, that's Soleri's, that's mine,' and then he swept out."

After that visit, Frank Lloyd Wright just might have had an inkling that his former apprentice, Paolo Soleri, was fast eclipsing the old master.

Few will come out and admit it, but I think he was right.


See a slideshow of Paolo Soleri's life and work here.

To millions on the planet, iconic Arizona architect, artist, and philosopher Paolo Soleri — who died at 93 in April — was a futurist extraordinaire, an architectural crystal-ball gazer who predicted how cities of the next millennium would be, and a source of inspiration and hope for an ecologically balanced world in which nature and man could co-exist peacefully.

In Arizona, Soleri's basically known as the guy who makes bells and wind chimes and designed that eyesore steel bridge and plaza on the Scottsdale waterfront.

And yet in fact, in Arizona, Soleri should be considered the finest architect this place ever harbored, one whose legacy is far more significant in our desert environment than that of the more famous Wright.

There's no question that Paolo Soleri is better known and respected throughout the rest of the world than he is here at home. Worldwide, he's recognized for his seminal concept of "arcology," his unique theoretical mash-up of architecture and ecology. After his death, glowing obituaries and commemorative outpourings from every corner of the globe praised his visionary thinking about urban planning for a grim future beset by global warming, depleted, often-manipulated energy sources, and irreparable pollution of earth, sea, and sky.

From Time, Newsweek, and the New York Times to Wired, Dwell, and Popular Science, Soleri has been exalted and lionized as a countercultural folk hero, primarily because of Arcosanti, his forward-thinking experiment for a self-sufficient, vertically dense planned-living complex in the high desert north of Phoenix, which he dubbed "an urban laboratory." Under construction since 1970, Arcosanti was proclaimed by Newsweek in 1976 to be "the most important urban experiment undertaken in our time." Though historically and creatively important, Arcosanti has failed to fully materialize as the answer to the world's urban and ecological woes — primarily and predictably because of money.

And that Soleri Bridge and Plaza in Scottsdale, in all its shiny metallic glory, doesn't remotely resemble the earthy design aesthetic for which Soleri is justly heralded.

No, Soleri's real legacy was left behind in the middle of metro Phoenix: Cosanti, his original home and studio complex in the heart of Paradise Valley, on Doubletree Ranch Road, where he lived, worked, and eventually died. Cosanti is the home of Cosanti Originals, the workshop that continues to produce handmade, sand-cast clay and bronze bells that for years were a major source of income for both Cosanti and Arcosanti. It's also an official Arizona historic site that needs to be carefully preserved for future generations.

Just as important, Soleri's Cosanti, constructed with the most humble of materials, also was a magnet for innovative artists, architects, and academics drawn to it over the years by the sheer force of Soleri's ideas and charismatic personality.


Paolo Soleri's almost mythical status might not have come to pass had he not been an apprentice for 18 months at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West beginning in 1946. He was born on the summer solstice in 1921 in Turin, Italy, an ancient, culturally rich city near the Alps that dates back to the first century B.C. Fresh from post-World War II Italy, where he had cinched an architectural degree with honors from the University of Torino (Turin), Soleri had studied under and with some of the most notable architectural and engineering minds in post-war Europe, including Bruno Zevi (1918-2000), a vocal critic of classicizing modern and postmodern structures, even to the point of attacking symmetrical design, however sleek; Carlo Scarpa (1906-1978), a noted architect who also was a glass and furniture designer; and Pier Luigi Nervi (1891-1979), a structural engineering master and innovator in the use of reinforced concrete, whose Stadio Flaminio in Rome is still used for rugby games today.

At 25, Soleri was accepted at Taliesin as a scholarship student, speaking virtually no English when he arrived there. He had a generally cordial relationship with Wright, although there is a variety of stories about why he left and what he did when he was there. The most inflammatory version appears in the well-researched tome The Fellowship, by Roger Friedman and Harold Zellman. In 2000, the authors interviewed retired Museum of Modern Art architecture curator and critic for Architectural Forum, Peter Blake (1920-2006), who related that he had run into Wright at AF's editorial offices in New York in the early 1950s. Blake showed him photos of a new glass-dome project designed and built in the wilds of Cave Creek by Soleri and another of Wright's former apprentices, Mark Mills.

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8 comments
HermanBernstein
HermanBernstein

frank lloyd wright was a "JERK"

enuf.istoomuch
enuf.istoomuch

@HermanBernstein 

Agreed, but he was also successful as an architect. That is something Soleri never was. Soleri designed two homes and a modest factory early in his career that were actually built, not including his own home. His Arcosanti, which I have toured twice, failed. Barely 5% of it was built and he forgot to include a sewage system. That had to come later.

 His amphitheater in Santa Fe failed, being too small and too difficult to maintain. 

What is there after that? I read remarks in stories about him that many of his designs were built, but they always list just what I have here. Where is there a longer list?

Soleri was a theorist, and his theories didn't work. They are charming, enjoyable to look at and ponder and he made a living at it. I am pleased Soleri had a good long life making bells and dreaming big beautiful dreams. 

That's all fine, but hardly worthy of an exalted status as an architect.

bluefire
bluefire like.author.displayName 1 Like

"Arcology" was architectural idealism raised to impossible heights. Arcosanti failed because it was  ill-conceived -- a typical case of architect's hubris exacerbated by the inappropriate desert ecology where tons of concrete were to be poured in service to an ego.  Fortunately, the concrete largely was not poured, or it would have become an un-reversible monument to human imposition on fragile environments.  It's difficult to fault Soleri's sincerity, but person-years of his disciples that could have been spent helping to serve the environment and humans' place in it were wasted in pursuit of a high-rise city in the desert.  Architects are funny people, best when left to their own devices in their own backyards.  Not out in the wilderness experimenting with nature and our future.

Sindi
Sindi like.author.displayName 1 Like

What a dreamer!!!  That place, Arcosanti, will never succeed.  Nobody wants to live in the remote section that is nowhere near to civilization.  Dirt roads to get there off of I17.  How would anyone get to a hospital in an emergency?  How would emergency vehicxles get there??  Would take forever.

This place never changes and it never will.  Started in 1970?? Hardly any changes in the last 25 years.  It can never be come the city this dreamer envisioned.  He should have bought land much closer to the growing city of Phoenix and maybe his dream would have come true.

bobunf
bobunf

@Sindi He could at least have located in a place with roads that were or would be paved, quickly accessible to a viable city with a substantial academic community and a hospital, like Flagstaff.  But half an hour to the 17 ??

Thinking and doing something about air conditioning might have helped.  I didn't see any innovative ideas except passivity.  How about geo-thermal heat pumps for a starting possibility?  INNOVATION!

What about economic viability?  Arcosanti has no economics except for a few craft goods and tourism. One step above Phoenix Trotting Park.  What a waste of talent, time and promotion and puffing.

bluefire
bluefire

@Sindi Phoenix is dying, soon will be dead.  Arcosanti would merely have speeded up the process.  More concrete in Valley of the Sun?  It's already an oven.  Should it become a blast furnace sooner than it already will? These perpetual monuments to self-assertion against the natural order of things are embarrassing in retrospect, not to mention an insult to the Earth.

 
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