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Best Visionary Phoenix 2009 - Paolo Soleri

Sometimes we wonder whether legendary Italian architect Paolo Soleri isn't feeling a little smug these days. All signs point to no: The 90-year-old trailblazer was nothing but gracious during his birthday celebration in Scottsdale in June. He took time to pose for photos with families and fans, sipping water, nibbling on a scone, listening intently, and sitting through the heat for much longer than would be considered healthy for most men nearing 100. (Though, admittedly, most men nearing 100 aren't cementing their legacy in that decade).

But how could he not be? This is a man who was prophetic about one of the most urgent issues on the radar today: sustainable living. (He thought of it about a generation earlier than the rest of us.) More than 50 years ago, he founded the Cosanti Foundation, and 10 years after that, he began building one of the most ambitious architectural projects in the country. Arcosanti is an entire city in the desert that, when finished (if ever), was designed to house 5,000 people and take up only 25 of 4,060 acres of land. His idea was to create an alternative to urban sprawl, a city that works more like a complimentary organism than a never-ending growth spurt. Arcosanti looks something like a space-age community built entirely out of the dirt, sand, and stone. It is both modern and retro, beautiful and rugged.

The experimental community is basically in the middle of nowhere, located about 50 miles north of Phoenix along Interstate 17. It is (at least the beginnings of) an entirely new kind of city — one that conserves energy, land, and resources. In other words, it is (cough, cough) sustainable. In fact, Soleri's 50-year-old philosophy is based on a theory of sustainability: the combination of architecture and ecology (i.e. arcology; check it out on his Web site). Feeling a little silly yet? Maybe if we'd listened to him 50 years ago, we wouldn't be facing ozone high-pollution advisory days now.

Either way, the city of Scottsdale and Scottsdale Public Arts seem to have gotten the message — and they're bringing it to us in the form of the Soleri Bridge and Plaza, which will cross the canal at Scottsdale Road just west of Camelback. The project, designed by Soleri and partly built by his groupies at the Cosanti bell foundry in Paradise Valley, will feature two 64-foot pylons that will cast shadows to mark the course of the sun and a suspension bridge, as well as areas for walking and biking (and horseback riding, apparently). Okay, so ours is no revolutionary, self-sustaining city in the desert, but it will hopefully be a suitable tribute to our favorite architectural, environmental, ecological, artistic visionary. We salute you, Signore Soleri.

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