Longform

Paolo Soleri Is the True Legend of the Arizona Architecture Scene

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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.

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Kathleen Vanesian