Longform

Paolo Soleri Is the True Legend of the Arizona Architecture Scene

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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.

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Kathleen Vanesian