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Paolo Soleri Is the True Legend of the Arizona Architecture Scene

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"He is very well known outside of the United States and in other states," says SMoCA assistant curator Claire Carter, who worked with Soleri over the three-year period before his death. "In Arizona, he's largely been ignored."

"Paolo's had two recent monographic retrospectives that were massive — one in Beijing in 2009 and another in Rome in 2005, which was underwritten by the Italian government," notes the curator.

Carter was responsible for researching and curating a three-part Soleri exhibition at SMoCA, the first part of which was shown in 2010 and related to the architect's design for the bridge and plaza now spanning Scottsdale's Waterfront, decorated with classic Cosanti-motif, earth-cast panels. The second part, "Mesa City to Arcosanti," which ran from February 23 through April 13 of this year, featured models, drawings, sketchbooks, and long butcher-paper scrolls filled with painted design concepts that haven't been seen in literally years. The third part, scheduled for 2016, is dedicated to Arcosanti.

It took Carter 21/2 years to research and finalize "Mesa City to Arcosanti," which she co-curated with architect Tomiaki Tamura, a trustee on the board of directors for the Cosanti Foundation, who has been with Soleri since 1977, is the chief foundation archivist, and curates many of Soleri's exhibitions. Carter even took a six-week Arcosanti workshop to get an intimate look at and feel for the apprentice experience.

"Everything about Cosanti and Arcosanti was stripped down," Carter tells New Times. "It was about [how to] find materials, get needed things done, bring your labor, but don't expect pay," she says. Frugality was, and still is, one of the driving forces behind Soleri's futuristic vision.

Carter ticks off the sum total of Soleri's surprisingly few commissions: the Cave Creek Dome House (1950); the Solimene ceramics factory (1951-54); the Paolo Soleri Amphitheatre for the Santa Fe Indian School (1966), now slated for demolition despite spirited public outcry from around the globe; Glendale Community College Theatre (1995); the Soleri Bridge and Plaza (1990-2010) in Scottsdale; and the Arcosanti/Cordes Junction I-17 freeway ramp design (2012).

As to the issue of paid commissions, Carter believes that the crucial difference between Soleri and other architects of the time whose designs actually were built is that Soleri never wanted to be beholden to capital investors.

"He didn't like clients — not in the way Wright liked clients. Wright hated clients, but he wanted their money. Soleri was not interested in that exchange . . . In order not to have to compromise or negotiate his vision, he decided to experiment on his own terms. And that meant it was going to be cheap."

Carter says Soleri would travel and lecture extensively, taking his scroll drawings with him because they were easy to roll up: "He would unfurl them for people. Awe-inspiring and majestic, but [the paintings and drawings] didn't say, 'That is a building you can build.'"

Roger Tomalty adds that Soleri could have had commissions, but because of a certain arrogance he developed as he became better known, he would turn them down.

"I remember Skidmore, Owings and Merrill [one of the world's largest architectural design and engineering firms] actually contacted Paolo and wanted him to design buildings for them. And Paolo was arrogant enough to say no."

Though Soleri may have left behind few buildings, he has spawned many film documentaries exploring his life and vision, not to mention a slew of science fiction, pop culture, and comic book works that refer to his arcology model, usually in a dramatically dystopian context, including that most dystopian of films, Blade Runner (1982).

At present, there are four full-length documentaries about Paolo Soleri that have been or soon will be released. One of these is the highly personal Paoli Soleri, Beyond Form by director Aimee Madsen, screened several times at SMoCA Lounge by No Festival Required's Steve Weiss in April. Madsen is a former freelance still photographer whose work has appeared regularly in Arizona Highways, Native Peoples Magazine, and Sunset since 1989. She caught the motion-picture bug in 2005 after she took a class in cinematography at Scottsdale Community College, producing several shorts before she began working in the Cosanti gallery in Paradise Valley.

It was there that Roger Tomalty discovered her abilities and enlisted her to document Soleri on videotape, beginning in 2010, without any real plan to produce a documentary film. In fact, the first time Madsen shot footage of the architect, she had to borrow a video camera. Tomalty was astounded that Soleri actually allowed himself to be shot, especially in private settings.

"Paolo was so gentle and welcoming," says the soft-spoken filmmaker. "I heard stories of him throwing people's cameras. I think that as he got older, he loosened up in the area of being filmed. He trusted me, and Roger trusted me. Paolo knew that what he was doing needed to be documented."

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Kathleen Vanesian