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Paolo Soleri Is the True Legend of the Arizona Architecture Scene

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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.

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Kathleen Vanesian