“This experience, not surrounding himself with four walls, filtered air, narrow-spectrum light; but instead receiving information directly from nature rather than from flat screens, earned Paolo Soleri an understanding of the Sonoran Desert broader and deeper than most. His experience, both intellectual and visceral, allowed Soleri to imagine the desert was not just a ‘forbidding landscape that God forgot,’ as many of the early European settlers to the New World viewed it, but a rich and complex — though fragile — ecology.”
Paolo Soleri was born in Torino, Italy on the summer solstice in 1919.
“My name, Soleri, means ‘you are the sun,’” he said in 2001 — a coincidence that is entirely fitting for the life work that he so passionately pursued.
Until his death in 2013 at the age of 93, Soleri advocated for urban design that was mindful of the natural environment. He understood — well before it became a prominent issue of global discussion — that humans are negatively impacting the environment through their consumptive and wasteful routines. Soleri wanted to establish solutions for the healthy and happy existence of future generations. He believed that “the future of life is in the hand of frugal man.”
The master and the sponge
Yet prior to his ecological work, Soleri studied art history at the École d’Art Industriel in Grenoble, France and received his PhD in architecture from the Polytechnic Institute of Torino in 1946.
At this time, architecture was experiencing significant changes. New materials and technologies that had emerged from the Industrial Revolution were inspiring architects to experiment with new approaches to design. Steel, iron and reinforced concrete were replacing wood, brick and stone in construction, allowing architects and engineers to build increasingly tall structures. Skyscrapers quickly became the norm, while clean lines and an obsession with minimalism replaced the traditional, classical style of excessive ornament and décor.
Some architects were uninspired by these changes and were compelled to pursue a more genuine and natural approach to their work. The master architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously established the concept of Organic Architecture, a style that promoted the harmonious union of structures with the natural world. Wright’s environmentally sympathetic designs appeared to spring directly from the landscape through low, horizontal forms. Their furnishings were often handmade, further emphasizing this natural, anti-industrial approach.
“Wright’s models fused the natural and human environments, where the man-made extended and heightened appreciation of the natural world,” said architect Jeffrey Cook in a preface to one of Soleri’s books.
Wright’s Fallingwater is perhaps the most well known example of this organic method. The home — built in Pennsylvania in 1935 — sits atop a waterfall, blending into and embracing its natural surroundings.
Soleri discovered a book about Wright in Torino and was inspired by what he saw. He wrote to the architect in 1947 and was soon invited to work as his apprentice at Taliesin West, Wright’s winter home and architecture school in Scottsdale, Arizona. Soleri left Italy and stayed at Taliesin for 18 months.
“It wasn’t so much a conscious architectural learning process as an absorbing experience. I was a sponge,” Soleri said in an interview in 2001. “I was absorbing the desert, and what I might be able to do in the desert.”
"IT WASN'T SO MUCH A CONSCIOUS ARCHITECTURAL
LEARNING PROCESS AS AN ABSORBING EXPERIENCE.
I WAS A SPONGE."
The dry landscape influenced Soleri in some intrinsic way. After leaving Wright’s compound, he further immersed himself in the Sonoran Desert by setting up camp on Camelback Mountain in Arizona. “I lived for three years altogether without a roof over my head,” he said. “The desert winters were pretty cold, but at that age, you don’t mind, especially if you enjoy the outdoors.”
The dead weight of inefficiency
Perhaps the absence of a roof for three years is what prompted Soleri’s mind to wander beyond the physical realm to imagine a human connection to the sun, stars and cosmos. Perhaps his bed, perched on a mountain in the middle of the desert, allowed him to appreciate the beauty of nature and the attractiveness of simplicity. While we may never know the exact instigator, it is clear that soon after these experiences, Soleri’s own architectural career began to take shape — guided by visionary beliefs and idealistic solutions to the problems that he believed plagued the current built environment.
Indeed, the majority of Soleri’s ideas were avant-garde. While many were rooted in Wright’s organic philosophies, others were unique and immensely ahead of their time. Soleri foresaw the issues of global warming and climate change that threaten the Earth today.
“The empty beer can, the discarded napkin, the burned fuel, the ever-growing size and number of the garbage can,” Soleri wrote in 1973, “the devastated landscape is the wasteland of a life unfit for living. Man’s genius is decaying within the process of ecological decay.”
Soleri saw the city as the hub of life as well as the realm of such pollution and decay. The automobile, urban and suburban sprawl, materialism, greed — these, and many other things, Soleri deemed the causes of death of nature and man.
"MAN'S GENIUS IS DECAYING WITHIN THE
PROCESS OF ECOLOGICAL DECAY."
Soleri proposed that architects focus their creative energies on the reorganization and reconstruction of cities. Density and frugality were the most important factors to what Soleri deemed the "urban ideal."
“Our technologists, our energy experts, our environmentalists, our social engineers, our politicians, our planners, our know-what and know-how men are faltering, stumbling, falling on their faces,” he wrote in one of his books on city planning.
“My proposition is urban implosion rather than explosion,” he wrote. “My aim is better access to a freer life by offering man an urban topography that has shed off a good deal of the dead weight of inefficiency.”
To emphasize his point, Soleri coined the term arcology, which advocated for the union of architecture with ecology in design. His ideal cities — or arcologies — would be hyper-dense and would not encroach on their natural surroundings. The cities would be self-sustaining, using their natural resources for food production, heating and cooling systems and more.
They would also encourage minimal dependence on material possessions. “This is the lean credo: ‘Do more with less,’” Soleri wrote in 2008. “The lean habitat lessens dependence on massive injections of appliances, furnishings, equipments, gadgetries, and the enchantment of buying for the sake of buying, while two billion people are deprived of food, shelter, and dignity.”
"MY PROPOSITION IS URBAN IMPLOSION RATHER THAN EXPLOSION."
His arcologies encouraged social interaction among residents through their design. “He called this 'legislation by design,'” says Ottawa’s Elfriede Jeller, who first met Soleri in 2009. “His designs made people naturally gravitate towards each other. He would build stairs that you had to take to get somewhere, bringing you past people’s houses in the process. He created natural meeting spaces where you had the chance to interact.”
“He wanted people to have privacy, but he also wanted them to be a part of the community,” she says.
The futuristic and ultramodern
Soleri drew up 30 of these so-called utopias and compiled them in a grand, two-foot wide book — Arcology: The City in the Image of Man — published by MIT Press in 1969.
“It took me a while to work my way through the book. Although frankly, I never did read the whole thing back then, nor did anyone else,” says Arcosanti co-president Jeff Stein. “But the images were so powerful that people just went for them.”
“His designs were very intriguing,” adds California-based urban theorist Richard Register. “He was an amazing artist and drew them up in ways that were very appealing.”
The designs were incredibly futuristic and ultramodern. Hexahedron, for example, was a proposed megacity for 170,000 inhabitants — an immense population for the city’s strict density. Residential, commercial and cultural centres would be piled on top of one another, confined to a single geometric structure occupying only 140 acres of land (or 0.5 square kilometers).
Such futuristic designs were surely difficult for individuals to envision as reality. More than that, Soleri’s writing was often complex, making his ideas even more difficult to understand.
“It was hard to picture actually living in one of the megastructures, at once so beautiful and scary,” reported Benjamin Forgey in a 1982 article for the Washington Post. “It was hard to decide if Soleri was a prophet or an architectural megalomaniac.”
In his foreword to the Arcology book, author Peter Blake contemplated whether Soleri was sensible or insane. “In view of what has been happening on this planet in recent years, it is safe to say that those in charge are neither practical nor sane,” he said.
“This does not mean, of course, that any ‘visionary’ profoundly critical of the present order of things is necessarily more practical or more sane.”
Crazy or not, Soleri’s arcologies were, at their core, a critical response to the way in which humans were living their lives. Simply put, the designs in Soleri’s book were manifestations of his genuine concern for the well being of the planet and the health and happiness of its inhabitants.
“Paolo never left food on a plate,” says Japanese architect and Arcosanti co-president Tomiaki Tamura. “He wanted to eliminate waste as much as possible.”
“That’s just how he lived his life, and it was reflected in his design.”