“Everyone must leave something behind when he dies, my grandfather said. A child or a book or a painting or a house or a wall built or a pair of shoes made. Or a garden planted. Something your hand touched some way so your soul has somewhere to go when you die, and when people look at that tree or that flower you planted, you're there… The difference between the man who just cuts lawns and a real gardener is in the touching, he said. The lawn-cutter might just as well not have been there at all; the gardener will be there a lifetime.”
Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
As I walk through the streets of Arcosanti, I can see Paolo Soleri everywhere. He’s in the massive concrete structures that surround me, the bells that hang from every porch, the drawings and documents in the archives, the desert mountain that sits parallel to the city and the hiking trails that entice me to explore the rich, natural surroundings. He’s in the residents who speak about him every day and the workshoppers who arrive like clockwork every month to learn more.
But Soleri is gone now, and I can’t help but regret my missed opportunity to interact with him. “It’s a reminder that if you see something, go for it,” Elfriede Jeller tells me as we reflect on the passage and value of time. It’s been almost three years since Soleri’s death. “Next time something like that happens, don’t think about it, just go. Because you might never get a chance again.”
Though I never met Soleri, the people who knew him paint a colourful picture of his memory, just as those who continue to be inspired by his concepts reveal the lasting power of his impact. Many of them are carrying on Soleri’s legacy through their own actions and words, while attempting to influence a new generation to get on board with the project.
“Paolo was trying to create something that the next generation and the generation after that could build upon,” says Jeff Stein. “I think in the end, he was worried that he hadn’t done enough. That he hadn’t been a good enough communicator to the next generation.”
In a sense, Stein is right. Soleri’s original followers are aging — and while he managed to reach many individuals from a younger audience, they will soon need to decide if they’re passionate enough to fulfill the legacy themselves.
“Transferring the passion and excitement needs to be done,” says Tomiaki Tamura. “I hope the new generation can get behind these values.”
The nature of legacy
The future of Arcosanti remains unclear, but its impact is evident. Soleri profoundly inspired an international network of people through his work. If his arcology remains unfinished, his legacy will continue to survive through those who are empowered by his mission.
Since returning from Arcosanti, I’ve found myself more conscious of my own bad habits. My recycling bin overflows every week and my water bill has significantly declined. I still value my material possessions. I don’t think I could ever part with my favourite vinyls or my fancy coffee machine. But I’ve come to appreciate the company of others and the benefits of nature. I have access to a lake and hiking trails near my home, and I find myself pulled from my television screen and drawn towards those simple pleasures more often. I’ve started to put down my cellphone and explore the environment around me.
Soleri and Arcosanti had an impact on me, too.
“I thanked him once for the opportunity to come here and see this place that he created, and I told him how much it meant to me,” Jeller tells me, explaining that her most memorable experience with Soleri was the moment she expressed to him how Arcosanti made her feel. “He was totally moved and he just cried. Tears were flowing down his face. I was very touched by his reaction and humility.”
And that’s the reality of legacy. It’s about leaving a mark on people, in one way or another, and inspiring them to pursue similar action or change. Soleri may have been crazy, divergent, an apostate to the masses — but he also a catalyst — a visionary ringleader and an instigator of change.
“Paolo Soleri was human. He had flaws and successes and failures,” says Will Bruder. “But to this day, I believe that he was the Leonardo da Vinci of his time.”
“We haven’t even scratched the surface of knowing what he gave the world.”