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.

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.

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Kathleen Vanesian