Scottsdale's Soleri Bridge Is a Testament to the Artist -- But It Ain't Perfect

I could have lived happily never having seen downtown Scottsdale's Soleri Bridge, which was completed and dedicated late last year. I'd put off seeing the bridge not because I don't like Paolo Soleri's work, but because, in fact, I'm a fan of the world-famous 91-year-old architect, the creator of "arcology," a hippie-dippy meld of architecture and ecology, and of Arcosanti, his experimental community near Cordes Junction.

I was delighted that Soleri was finally getting his due as something other than an arty weirdo who sold copper wind chimes to tourists. Soleri was preaching sustainable building and green living long before those terms were coined, and while he'd designed many bridges over the years, this was the first of them to be built.

Yet I'd read enough about the bridge (its design and construction was originally proposed more than a decade ago) that I was afraid to see it. What if it was just another hokey hunk of twisted pavement, more of the embarrassing stuff that passes for Southwestern "public art," made entirely of heat-absorbing metals and concrete, and — like so many new public places here — utterly bereft of shade?

Still, I went. And was pleasantly surprised. I also had my worst fears confirmed.

The 100-foot-long pedestrian bridge, which connects Scottsdale Fashion Square and the Waterfront shops to the stores and restaurants at SouthBridge south of the Arizona Canal, widens from 18 to 27 feet and opens onto a 22,000-square-foot plaza. The plaza is home to 10 eight-foot concrete panels etched with Soleri designs; they surround a pair of 64-foot brushed-steel pylons that look like the business end of a giant double-barrel shotgun. These are the heart of the bridge's gimmick: a solar calendar that generates a light beam onto the surface of the bridge to mark hours and days using the sun's diurnal and seasonal cycles. At solar noon each day, a sliver of sunlight breaks through a six-inch gap between the pylons and pierces the shadows cast by the towers. As winter progresses, the shadows lengthen, growing shorter as summer nears and disappearing altogether on the summer solstice.

Groovy. And yet very appropriate, I think, to the desert: Public art that uses the sun to remind us of our connection to Earth. The Soleri Bridge is also, I was sorry to note, so very Scottsdale. It links a pair of shopping malls by way of a giant stainless steel bridge that — even on a coolish late morning in April — was hot as heck to the touch. Shopping, and no shade. Welcome to the desert.

I phoned Roger Tomalty, who has been Soleri's assistant for more than 40 years. Because the architect is now 91, Tomalty does most of the work; he and Soleri carved the silt panels on the southern side of the Bridge plaza and the "drip walls" that wrap around the southern side of the plaza.

I wanted to know why an architect known for his frugal more-with-less philosophy had built a bridge of so many expensive, heat-absorbing materials. I expected the usual upbeat rhetoric in defense of Soleri's work; the sort of rah-rah stuff that newspaper writers hear every day from the assistants of famous people. But it turns out that Roger Tomalty agrees with me about Soleri Bridge.

"The opulence of the materials used goes against Paolo's typical work," he admits. "The original design of the bridge was really elegant and different." But those plans were scrapped a decade ago, and by the time the project was relaunched in 2008, Soleri's aesthetic had changed. This time, he was less interested in using inexpensive materials than he was in building that solar calendar, and he, Tomalty hints, was swayed by the builders involved and by the guys from the city of Scottsdale. The results are certainly unimportant to visitors to the site, but Tomalty ticks them off without pause.

"The silt panels are oriented the wrong way," he says. "They should be facing south. Facing them north defeats the purpose of the sun's play on them. There's no shade there, and it will be years before the elms are mature enough to provide shade. There should be tables for people to sit down at. The worst part is the city's choice of location — there's a redundancy to having the bridge so near the Marshall Way Bridge — another bridge!"

It's hard to argue with the assistant to the guy who designed the bridge, but in addition to our shared complaints, Tomalty and I also agreed on this: The bridge stands as a testament to Paolo Soleri's quirky design sense and — more important — his belief that we should all honor Earth's natural ecology and cycles, decades before people started blabbing about "green this" and "sustainable that."

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela