Longform

Paolo Soleri Is the True Legend of the Arizona Architecture Scene

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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.

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Kathleen Vanesian