It was perhaps fitting that during one of the windiest weeks in Arizona, visionary architect and artist Paolo Soleri died at the age of 93. Known for his many accomplishments, it is Soleri’s artistic bronze and ceramic windbells that many Arizonans recognize – and indeed, many of us own at least one or two. During this week's windstorm, his bells rang loudly on our porches and patios, as if in herald.
Born in Italy in 1919, Soleri came to the U.S. in 1947 and studied under Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona and Taliesin East in Wisconsin. After returning to Italy for a time, he moved to Scottsdale, Ariz., permanently in 1954.
On his trip back from Italy, Soleri stopped in Santa Fe and met an artisan who taught him an earth-casting techniques that Soleri would go on to use to not only make the windbells, but he also scaled the process up to form concrete buildings, says Claire C. Carter, curator of Paolo Soleri: Mesa City to Arcosanti, currently showing at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art.
It was during this time that Soleri began a quest that would occupy the rest of his life to meld architecture with ecology – what he coined as ‘arcology.’ He demonstrated environmental sustainability in his built and theoretical work decades before the advent of green building, says Craig Randock, AIA Arizona president and design studio leader at HDR Architecture's Phoenix office.
Soleri practiced and preached building urban environments that minimize energy use, reduce raw materials and land use, eliminate waste and maintain a direct connection with the environment. Carter says the first passive solar plans he made first show up in his 1964's Macro-Cosanti, an early concept for a high-density city.
While many of his urban environments reside only in concept design drawings – including massively vertical yet contained city-sized structures designed for up to two million inhabitants – in 1970, Soleri and his Cosanti Foundation began building its first experimental desert city, Arcosanti, 70 miles north of Phoenix. Still under construction today as donations and bell revenues flow in, Arcosanti is currently comprised of 12 unique, organic-shaped buildings perched on a cliff face above the Verde River.
The facility is as multi-faceted as Soleri himself; Arcosanti serves as a tourist destination, foundry, artistic commune, educational destination and a wonder straddling the line between natural and man-made.
Jeff Stein, Cosanti Foundation president, says that instead of thinking of Soleri as the grandfather of green building, we should see his legacy as showing the urgency of what the green building movement needs to morph into. "From Soleri’s perspective, making buildings burn fewer BTUs of fossil fuels in both summer and winter is not much of an answer," he says. "Instead, what he was after in his lifetime--and the work that we are still carrying on here at Arcosanti--has to do with reformulating how we think of buildings as separate objects and begin to think about how we can integrate them into the living biosphere of the planet."
Soleri thought of cities as the newest organism on the planet, Stein says, meaning cities should be designed the way all organisms are: in a contained, complex, miniaturized way in which buildings aren’t separated by roads, streets or parking lots.
Soleri's early work includes his striking bridge concepts. Soleri's first bridge to be constructed was added to the downtown Scottsdale landscape in 2011. The project was awarded an ENR Southwest Best Projects award that same year. The 100-ft-long pedestrian bridge connects to a 22,000-sq-ft plaza and features twin 64-ft steel-frame pylon structures that act as a giant sundial. The stainless-steel encased pylons are tilted at an angle and are set exactly 6 in. apart so that the shadows cast by the pylons, along with the spire of light between, precisely mark the solstices along the bridge structure.
It was through his evolving bridge designs that Soleri made the leap to thinking about bridges that could contain an entire city, which led to his later concepts. "That high-density living and connectivity he saw as a metaphor in the bridge," Carter says.
Like many longtime Arizonans, Soleri was somewhat of a maverick. But he inspired many, and his building concepts will be passed down through the over 7,000 students who have participated in the construction of Arcosanti, and the 50,000 annual visitors to Arcosanti and Cosanti, his architectural workshop and home in Paradise Valley.
I know he inspired me to see that there are no age boundaries for a mind always willing to look at the world and the built environment in a different way.
Read GreenSource's Q&A with Soleri from 2009 to learn more about his thoughts on sustainability.