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.
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.
Wright's response to Blake's enthusiasm for the Dome House was: "'Oh, yeah, it's by those two faggots, Soleri and Mills. I had to kick them out.' Reaching for a reason to condemn their disloyalty, Wright fell into his old habit of charging his enemies with homosexuality," Friedman and Zellman report. "Blake was taken aback by the spew of obscenities that followed from Wright's lips . . . It was all a lie. In fact, Paolo Soleri . . . was reputed to be a lothario with women."
Most sources do agree that Wright and Olgivanna, his haughty third wife, insisted on formal dining protocol, with apprentices, including a chagrined Soleri, acting as waitstaff. Well-known Phoenix-based architect Will Bruder, a Soleri apprentice in the late '60s and early '70s, tells New Times that "[t]he . . . ambiance of servitude that the Taliesin Fellowship existed in was not of his cut. I did hear there were issues about his attire or lack thereof."
Roger Tomalty, Soleri's longtime senior assistant, construction supervisor and the present director of Paolo Soleri Studios (which includes Cosanti Originals, the Soleri nonprofit foundation's bell-making facilities at both Cosanti and Arcosanti), is more straightforward in telling the tale to New Times. "When you talk about Taliesin in the 1940s, it was not an architectural apprenticeship by any stretch," says Tomalty. "It was The Fellowship, so people were not necessarily working on drawings and models, and doing the standard architectural training.
"In Paolo's case, he spent most of his year and a half in the kitchen cutting vegetables and then serving the Wrights. He had this Italian kind of style, so he would wear this little Speedo[-style] bathing suit all the time; he had sort of homemade loincloths. So sometimes he would appear serving the Wrights and he'd be wearing the wife-beater T-shirt, the bathing suit, and flip-flops. And that was not acceptable to Mrs. Wright."
Tomalty also divulges to New Times that friction might had arisen between Wright and Soleri because of The Architecture of Bridges, a book on the subject by Elizabeth Mock, a classic in its field. Mock stayed at Taliesin doing research and writing; she asked both Soleri and Wright to sketch a bridge design for the book. Soleri created "The Beast Bridge," an imaginative, long-span highway bridge that was a concrete tube that ended up being structurally turned inside out as it progressed to both its ends. "Here the book's published and Paolo's in it — that could have been a bone of contention."
According to Tomalty, what Soleri said about his leaving Wright in 1948 was that he had really gotten what he wanted from the apprenticeship. "I think what he really got was not so much architectural anything as much as [Wright's organizational structure] — he really admired it," Tomalty says. "Wright was the center of attention; he's got a group of students that are paying and bowing down to him. And I think Paolo, when he left, had the idea of wanting to start his own organization."
In addition, Wright and Soleri were heading in diametrically opposed directions, philosophically speaking. Wright's utopian urban plan, Broadacre City, officially was introduced in his book The Disappearing City (1932). It involved razing large cities like New York, Philadelphia, and Chicago, and replacing them with semi-rural suburban communities of single-family homes and businesses that would sprawl from coast to coast but be linked by automobiles, with their concomitant freeways, and other futuristic modes of transportation not yet envisioned. Soleri, on the other hand, was beginning to embrace compact, pedestrian- and bicycle-friendly, culturally complex, urban centers built upward, like the one in which he had grown up in Italy, using common materials that were easily and cheaply available. Such centers would have freely accessible, built-in public transportation, and no cars.
Eventually, Soleri approached Wright with his plan to start a Taliesin in Italy. Initially, Wright was supportive, but when several apprentices got excited and wanted to go with Soleri on his new undertaking, Wright summarily announced that they were all fired, including apprentice Mark Mills, who did leave with Soleri. Penniless, they camped out on the side of Camelback Mountain, which at that time was surrounded by untouched Sonoran Desert.
According to Arizona architect Wendell Burnette in "The Dome in the Desert," an article appearing on the ArchDaily website about the history surrounding Soleri and Mills' groundbreaking Dome House, the duo scratched out meager livings designing condos for a local developer, with only bicycles for transportation. Their first commission was taken from a series of elegant drawings Soleri had done while at Taliesin West that filled several canvas-covered sketchbooks and were the starting points for Soleri's arcology concepts.
The Dome House, which Burnette actually lived in for a full year and which is still in existence (though in need of repair due to vandalism), was underwritten by an adventuresome, divorced Philadelphia socialite, Nora Woods, whom everyone eventually would refer to as Granny. Granny's basic request to the fledging architects was to be able to see the sky from every room of the house. She provided tools and meals to the two, who lived at the site during their hands-on construction of the place and ferried building materials to the site in her car. With its movable dome that could be rotated open to the elements and sinuous, natural rock-and-concrete interior design blending into the face of a hill, the Dome House, completed in the summer of 1950, would bring Soleri and Mills to the attention of the international architectural world.
During its construction, Soleri would also fall in love with and marry Granny Woods' daughter, Colly, right there in the Dome House, before the space-age glass dome — made from bent war-surplus aluminum bars — was finally put into place. Colly would be cast as the organizational lodestone of Soleri's enterprises, the diplomatic buffer between an increasingly hyper-private Soleri and the outside world, and the thoughtful, much-loved earth mother to their two daughters, Kristina and Daniela, as well as to Soleri's numerous apprentices, until her death at 60 in 1982.
Another more massive commission came Soleri's way, causing the young married couple to move to Italy during its construction between 1951 and 1954. This one was from Vincenzo Solimene for a ceramics factory, Ceramica Artistica Solimene, in the ancient ceramics town of Vietri sul Mare, on the Amalfi Coast. The stunning structure, still in operation today, features an undulating façade created from clay bottles or amphoretti, their bottoms facing outward to create Gaudi-esque decorative designs. The factory's light-filled interior, built in an open spiral fashion suggestive of Wright's Guggenheim Museum, boasts massive columns in the shape of stylized cypress trees indigenous to the Italian coast and was ingeniously designed so that ceramics production begins at the top and works its way downward to the loading dock area for sale or shipping.
Roger Tomalty, who studied architecture at Syracuse University in the early '60s, and has a master's degree from ASU in physical geography with an emphasis on radiation-budget climatology, points out to New Times the forward-thinking construction of Solimene with regard to climatic conditions.
"You stack about five courses of these clay pots on top of each other about four feet high; then you seal the insides of the bottles and put a wooden form several inches away from the [bottlenecks]. Then you pour concrete into the form. The concrete wall is capturing 10 inches of dead air."
The result, says Tomalty, who visited the factory five years ago during a sweltering August day that set a world record for heat in Italy, is classic bio-climatic architecture: "At 3 o'clock in the afternoon that building was absolutely cool and this is with reflection coming off the Mediterranean Sea facing directly south. Whether Paolo was thinking in those terms, I don't know, but it sure works."
Tomalty also feels that Solimene is a bit of a precursor to Soleri's idea of arcology and that Soleri never fully capitalized on his memorable Italian project to promote his later work. Soleri's arcology idea, says Tomalty, "is a no-brainer — get rid of the automobile as the main driver of urban design. Then the city will implode and pull together. Paolo sees the city as an instrument that really allows for maximum accessibility, so people have access to each other and to all the institutions that the city can and should provide without sitting in traffic for an hour or two."
After completing Solimene, the Soleris returned to Arizona in 1955, buying several acres of desert property in Paradise Valley, some distance from downtown Scottsdale. Soleri began to produce earth-cast clay bells to support himself and family, digging holes in the property's sandy soil, part of an old river bed, and pouring liquid clay into them. He let the clay set, then removed excess liquid slip to make his final product. Later, he would expand into silt-casting his bells and wind chimes in bronze (silt is composed of rock and mineral particles larger than clay, but smaller than sand). Both labor-intensive processes, somewhat modified, continue to be used today at Cosanti and Arcosanti.
In 1956, he began to experiment with his first earth-cast structure, which was intended to be a home for the Soleri family at the property now named Cosanti, another Soleri anti-consumerist amalgam of words created from the Italian words "anti," meaning "before," and "cosa," meaning "thing."
Dubbed the Earth House, it had been hand-constructed by placing a thin layer of concrete over a pile of silty earth that Soleri mounded, shaped, and carved with abstract decorative designs using a steel trowel and a kitchen knife. The dirt mound acted as a form for the house, which was set slightly below grade. After the concrete set, the dirt was dug away, leaving an organically shaped, decorated concrete shell, punctuated with large openings for light. It was finished with a fireplace, bedrooms, and a cantilevered, polished concrete kitchen table that extends through the kitchen wall to an outside garden courtyard. It was just the beginning of a unique living/work complex that was built with dirt, concrete, and back-breaking human labor — Soleri's own and, later, that of paying volunteers caught up in the heady, save-the-planet zeitgeist of the 1960s.
Soleri soon would add other structures to the burgeoning Cosanti compound, including, in 1958, a similarly silt-cast drawing room featuring giant round windows fashioned from sewer pipes and an adjacent open-air ceramics studio with a north/south orientation to take advantage of cool air pockets in the dead of summer and the warmth of sunlight during the colder winter months. After the artist-architect advertised silt-cast workshops via silk-screened posters he sent to architecture schools, a number of other structures mushroomed at Cosanti in the 1960s, built by paying workshop volunteers from around the country excited by the chance to get real-life earth-construction experience building what might very well be the future of American architecture.
"Paolo Soleri is the reason I moved to Scottsdale," says 83-year-old Dick Seeger, a pioneering Scottsdale artist, gallerist, author, collector, and sometime philosopher.
In 1956, Seeger, who was one of the first artists in the country to experiment with plastic resins as an art medium and later owned galleries in downtown Scottsdale for close to 30 years, started looking at artist colonies throughout the West. He and then-wife, Helen, who were living in Iowa at the time and wanted to move, had visited Santa Fe, Laguna, La Jolla, and Carmel.
Upon reaching Scottsdale, he and Helen had a chance meeting with Soleri, who invited them to dinner at Cosanti. "All he had was the one earth house, and I figured, because he's here, that there's got to be some reason I've got to be here," Seeger recalls.
In 1957, Seeger and his wife moved into an un-air-conditioned wooden shack behind the original White Hogan, a workshop and retail store in old Scottsdale started by Indian trader Johnny Bonnell. "When we moved to Scottsdale, there were only 5,000 people living here. We became friends with Soleri and Colly, his wife, and we used to have picnics out in the desert just about in this area [of North Scottsdale] in the ravine," he says, referring to a stretch of desert now filled with stuccoed, red-tile-roofed mansions and chic shopping areas.
"We used to take the kids and go up and down the dirt-road washes on the way to Cave Creek. I used to sell his work in my gallery."
At the time Seeger met Soleri, the soon-to-be-famous architect mostly was making clay bells to sell. "He would sit there at night watching television and he'd carve these clay bells; then, he got into bronze and, then, sculptures." Seeger says he sold a lot of Soleri's big, multi-part bronze hanging sculptures at his gallery on Fifth Avenue on the Kiva Patio, "which was the place to go in the late '50s and early '60s."
According to Seeger, Soleri didn't usually socialize with other artists — or much of anyone, for that matter — in old Scottsdale. When he did socialize, he seemed to prefer the company of more academic minds. Seeger remembers regular visits with Soleri to the home of Jeff Cook, a professor of architecture and environmental design at ASU. Cook was a seminal passive solar architect, scholar, and educator and was considered at his death in 2006 to be one of the foremost solar technology leaders in the world. Passive solar architecture uses the sun and other natural elements to produce comfortable heating and cooling for structures year-round without resorting to mechanical devices.
Cook's ideas about solar energy and sustainability must have had considerable impact on Soleri's evolving arcology ideas, which would incorporate both solar and wind energy sources as an integral part of his urban planning. At this point, Soleri was in contact with James Elmore, founding dean of ASU's College of Architecture, who early on recognized Soleri's talent. While Soleri turned down a full professorship at ASU offered by Elmore, the two began an almost 12-year symbiotic relationship between Cosanti and ASU. Elmore would send architecture students to Soleri, in return for which the students would get hands-on design and construction experience as well as five hours of college credit for architectural design.
Dick Seeger particularly remembers the artist-architect talking about his vision for building cities up, not out, during a rest stop the two took during a long hike in the Superstition Mountains.
"He said that between Phoenix and Tucson it was just going to be one mass of building all the way down. Sprawl. He wanted to build up to save the land for its function. When we were done up there, he decided, since he was raised in the Alps, to run all the way down and I, like a fool, went right after him. It was nothing but boulders — an event in my life I'll never forget." Seeger says he doesn't recall whether Paolo was wearing hiking boots but is sure he was wearing the abbreviated swim trunks that Seeger called Paolo's bikini, which the architect usually wore while working construction with his apprentices.
"He was just a regular, nice Italian guy," says Seeger, who later was commissioned to do a plastic shower panel for the Dome House and built a 6-foot plastic model of one of the arcologies for the architect.
The octogenarian artist reports that, after Colly's death in 1982, Soleri and he lost touch — "he became famous and we just went different ways at that point.
"Colly was beautiful, intelligent, friendly, an all-around good person. She was very nice and handled all of the bookkeeping, the money and the sale of the bells. I liked her a lot; Colly was his inspiration, I think."
Another profound inspiration for Paolo Soleri was contained in Teilhard de Chardin's then-controversial philosophical treatise, The Phenomenon of Man (Le Phénomène Humain), which contained ideas on evolution suppressed in the 1930s and '40s by the Roman Catholic Church, which, from time immemorial, had exalted God-based creation of the world. A latter-day Galileo, Chardin continually was in hot water with church authorities over his evolutionary theories, though his book finally was published posthumously in 1955, not without highly vocal dissent by the Church's more conservative faction of prelates.
A French Jesuit priest and world-renowned paleontologist and geologist, Chardin tried mightily to reconcile evolutionary science with Christianity. Per a long biographical treatment of the philosopher on the American Teilhard Association website by John Grim and Mary Evelyn Tucker, Chardin believed that homo faber — man the maker and user of fire — was the defining moment in the emergence of the human as the unifying theme of the evolutionary process: "The Phenomenon of Man [presented] the fourfold sequence of the evolutionary process . . . (galactic evolution, earth evolution, life evolution and consciousness evolution) [and] establishes what might almost be considered a new literary genre."
Soleri plucked out a number of Chardin's key concepts to explain his arcology theories and wholeheartedly adopted the idea of homo faber. One of the most critical ideas he brazenly borrowed is that of evolutionary progress: As an organism evolves, it becomes more complex, as well as compacted or miniaturized. Soleri would consider the city to be a living organism that, as it evolves, necessarily becomes highly complicated and spatially compressed.
The cultural climate of the late 1960s and early 1970s, especially in the United States, lent itself to the idea of holistically integrating the spiritual with the earthbound. Disillusionment with U.S. involvement in Vietnam, outrage at the seemingly endless body bags being shipped back from the war, the industrial and corporate devastation of natural habitats and species in the sacred name of material progress, and a rising interest in alternative spiritual systems, especially Eastern religions, coalesced in a perfect storm to produce a highly progressive social and intellectual climate for a generation seeking solutions to the pressing problems created by prior ones.
Environmentalism was becoming a powerful political and social force to be reckoned with. Soleri and his designs, as well as those of Buckminster "Bucky" Fuller, the futurist architect and inventor considered the father of the geodesic dome, were featured in a number of issues of The Whole Earth Catalog, the bible of the swelling American counterculture between 1968 and 1972. The newsprint catalog was jammed with products, books, tools, and ideas geared to self-sufficiency and sustainability long before such terms were fashionably cool and/or the province of doomsday preppers. These were the days of Woodstock and the Age of Aquarius, of Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young exhorting the masses to get back to the garden, and Joni Mitchell lamenting the paving of paradise to put up a parking lot.
In this atmosphere, Cosanti became a pilgrimage site for both up-and-coming and world-renowned architects. Rising Southwestern architectural star Bennie Gonzales, responsible for a majority of Scottsdale's public buildings, the Heard Museum in Central Phoenix, and many private homes throughout the Valley, visited for after-hours discussions with Soleri. Twenty-eight-year-old Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie, creator of the memorable Habitat 67, a complex of interlocking living spaces on the St. Lawrence River built for the Montreal 1967 World's Fair, also spent a day and a half at the studio talking to the older architect.
Both Will Bruder, designer of the award-winning Burton Barr Central Public Library in downtown Phoenix, and Roger Tomalty, who with his wife, Mary Hoadley, have lived in a Soleri earth house at Cosanti for years, remember Bucky Fuller visiting Soleri in the late 1960s, though their memories are very different.
Bruder recalls Soleri, in his uniform of sleeveless T-shirt, swimming trunks, and flip-flops, sitting in the drafting room with Fuller, "who was fully duded out . . .with the perfect suit, perfectly polished shoes, with rubber bands on his glasses. The two of them are going back and forth, back and forth over Paolo's sketchbooks, talking about ideas."
Tomalty and his wife had been invited to dinner with Fuller and the Soleris, after which the ambiance was a little less cordial.
"Paolo is very uncomfortable in those situations; if he's not the center, dinner's enough, and Paolo wants to watch TV. So Paolo goes and turns the television on and Fuller couldn't stand TV, so Fuller takes earplugs, sticks them in, turns in the opposite direction, and starts reading a book."
Paolo Soleri was to become even more high-profile than he already had become from Time and Life magazine coverage of his groundbreaking plans for ecologically based city living in the future.
In 1970, Soleri's visionary ideas for alternative urban plans was the subject of a major exhibition, "The Architectural Visions of Paolo Soleri," at the prestigious Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. Breaking records for attendance at the Corcoran that are unmatched to this day, the exhibit traveled to New York's Whitney Museum, then to Chicago and UC-Berkeley, as well as to Ottawa, Canada.
The show was accompanied by an impressive two-foot-wide book of highly developed arcology drawings and theoretical text. Titled Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, originally published in 1969 by MIT Press, it is now a collector's item. Noted architect Doug H. Lee, who had earned an architecture degree from Cal Poly in San Luis Obispo and then migrated to Cosanti to work with Soleri, directed the drawings in the book and then acted as chief architect contributing to the design of Arcosanti for several years.
"This was a huge thing — 10 trucks transporting these models," notes Tomalty, adding that the large model in the 2013 Soleri exhibition at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, "Mesa City to Arcosanti," came back to Cosanti in 1971. Unfortunately, it had to be stored outside for 40 years because of its size and was so large that only part of it could be shown at SMoCA.
Soleri also began building Arcosanti in 1970, a tangible test of his arcology theories, on hundreds of acres of land near Cordes Junction, north of Phoenix. It was envisioned that 5,000 people eventually would live at Arcosanti. Soleri found a ranch for sale for $340,000 with a $40,000 down payment. Within three years, the land on which Arcosanti is built would be paid for from the sale of Cosanti bells, honorariums, hefty lecture fees Soleri commanded at the time, book royalties, and Cosanti visitor donations.
There were only eight participants in the first silt-casting workshop at Arcosanti; a total of 23 would work there the first summer. Because of the Corcoran exhibit, the number of participants swelled. By 1976, there would be 150 people working on-site. "We thought we'd be finished in five years because we'd have 2,000 to 5,000 people," recalls Tomalty. But that dream has yet to be fully realized.
Though Paolo Soleri had been awarded a meager number of commissions both before and after he broke ground at Arcosanti, the architect's often-otherworldly city designs have been the subject of numerous museum and gallery exhibitions throughout the world over the years, including one at Northern Arizona University featuring his older, futuristic bridge designs, mounted in February of this year.
"He is very well known outside of the United States and in other states," says SMoCA assistant curator Claire Carter, who worked with Soleri over the three-year period before his death. "In Arizona, he's largely been ignored."
"Paolo's had two recent monographic retrospectives that were massive — one in Beijing in 2009 and another in Rome in 2005, which was underwritten by the Italian government," notes the curator.
Carter was responsible for researching and curating a three-part Soleri exhibition at SMoCA, the first part of which was shown in 2010 and related to the architect's design for the bridge and plaza now spanning Scottsdale's Waterfront, decorated with classic Cosanti-motif, earth-cast panels. The second part, "Mesa City to Arcosanti," which ran from February 23 through April 13 of this year, featured models, drawings, sketchbooks, and long butcher-paper scrolls filled with painted design concepts that haven't been seen in literally years. The third part, scheduled for 2016, is dedicated to Arcosanti.
It took Carter 21/2 years to research and finalize "Mesa City to Arcosanti," which she co-curated with architect Tomiaki Tamura, a trustee on the board of directors for the Cosanti Foundation, who has been with Soleri since 1977, is the chief foundation archivist, and curates many of Soleri's exhibitions. Carter even took a six-week Arcosanti workshop to get an intimate look at and feel for the apprentice experience.
"Everything about Cosanti and Arcosanti was stripped down," Carter tells New Times. "It was about [how to] find materials, get needed things done, bring your labor, but don't expect pay," she says. Frugality was, and still is, one of the driving forces behind Soleri's futuristic vision.
Carter ticks off the sum total of Soleri's surprisingly few commissions: the Cave Creek Dome House (1950); the Solimene ceramics factory (1951-54); the Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre for the Santa Fe Indian School (1966), now slated for demolition despite spirited public outcry from around the globe; Glendale Community College Theatre (1995); the Soleri Bridge and Plaza (1990-2010) in Scottsdale; and the Arcosanti/Cordes Junction I-17 freeway ramp design (2012).
As to the issue of paid commissions, Carter believes that the crucial difference between Soleri and other architects of the time whose designs actually were built is that Soleri never wanted to be beholden to capital investors.
"He didn't like clients — not in the way Wright liked clients. Wright hated clients, but he wanted their money. Soleri was not interested in that exchange . . . In order not to have to compromise or negotiate his vision, he decided to experiment on his own terms. And that meant it was going to be cheap."
Carter says Soleri would travel and lecture extensively, taking his scroll drawings with him because they were easy to roll up: "He would unfurl them for people. Awe-inspiring and majestic, but [the paintings and drawings] didn't say, 'That is a building you can build.'"
Roger Tomalty adds that Soleri could have had commissions, but because of a certain arrogance he developed as he became better known, he would turn them down.
"I remember Skidmore, Owings and Merrill [one of the world's largest architectural design and engineering firms] actually contacted Paolo and wanted him to design buildings for them. And Paolo was arrogant enough to say no."
Though Soleri may have left behind few buildings, he has spawned many film documentaries exploring his life and vision, not to mention a slew of science fiction, pop culture, and comic book works that refer to his arcology model, usually in a dramatically dystopian context, including that most dystopian of films, Blade Runner (1982).
At present, there are four full-length documentaries about Paolo Soleri that have been or soon will be released. One of these is the highly personal Paoli Soleri, Beyond Form by director Aimee Madsen, screened several times at SMoCA Lounge by No Festival Required's Steve Weiss in April. Madsen is a former freelance still photographer whose work has appeared regularly in Arizona Highways, Native Peoples Magazine, and Sunset since 1989. She caught the motion-picture bug in 2005 after she took a class in cinematography at Scottsdale Community College, producing several shorts before she began working in the Cosanti gallery in Paradise Valley.
It was there that Roger Tomalty discovered her abilities and enlisted her to document Soleri on videotape, beginning in 2010, without any real plan to produce a documentary film. In fact, the first time Madsen shot footage of the architect, she had to borrow a video camera. Tomalty was astounded that Soleri actually allowed himself to be shot, especially in private settings.
"Paolo was so gentle and welcoming," says the soft-spoken filmmaker. "I heard stories of him throwing people's cameras. I think that as he got older, he loosened up in the area of being filmed. He trusted me, and Roger trusted me. Paolo knew that what he was doing needed to be documented."
Madsen and her film are prime examples of Paolo Soleri's lifelong beliefs in the lean, frugal, and creative. She raised $11,000 on Kickstarter to cover some of the costs of filming and post-production on Beyond Form, most of which she did herself. "Paolo's life inspires all of us to do what we dream about — to not give up, to not be afraid to go against the grain or be unconventional," Madsen muses. "He taught me that there's not one right way for a person to do something they want to do and that it doesn't have to be perfect before you start."