Longform

Paolo Soleri Is the True Legend of the Arizona Architecture Scene

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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.

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Kathleen Vanesian