This is the second in a series of articles about forward thinkers who are helping to solve some of the world’s greatest challenges. These remarkable people are helping to define the future direction of their community, country, and even our global society. Vote for your favorites to win the Pilot Fish Trailblazer Award and suggest new nominees in the comments section below.
Ultimately, the cities that we build are like pianos and people are the music. Without good compositions and skilled musicians, the piano is useless.”–Paolo Soleri
In the late 1940’s a quiet and unassuming Italian architect arrived in the United States to study under Frank Lloyd Wright. This slight man with wavy brown hair traveled to the high Arizona desert to Wright’s home and design studio at Taliesin West. He was inspired not only by the master architect’s work, but also by the desert landscape, a stark contrast to his native Turin, surrounded by the Italian Alps.
From this formative experience, Paolo Soleri developed a theory of urban design, which was diametrically opposed to the sprawling suburban communities that were springing up across America in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Concerned with their environmental impact, Soleri created a fundamentally different design philosophy, which opposed the American dream of more land and bigger private homes. This dream was “a myth” according to Soleri. In fact, he believed it promoted materialism and “hyper consumption.” (Soleri, Arcology: City in the Image of Man.) Soleri called for a radical change away from consumption and towards conservation–of land, energy, and natural resources. Instead of isolated collections of single family homes, he envisioned communities that were dense, complex hubs that would increase human interaction.
The term for his design philosophy is arcology (architecture + ecology). Soleri believed that arcology communities should share services (electricity, water, heating and cooling), which would reduce costs, conserve water, and reduce sewage, energy usage, environmental waste and pollution. His communities were also integrated with the natural environment with self-sustaining gardens and greenhouses for producing food. When his designs were exhibited at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. in 1970, The New York Times architectural critic Ada Louise Huxtable said that his work contained: “some of the most spectacularly sensitive and superbly visionary drawings that any century has known.” (Source: The New York Times)
Soleri turned his vision into a prototype in the Arizona desert, an hour or so north of Phoenix. Since 1970, over 6,000 people (including several generations of architectural students) have lived in and worked at Arcosanti, his urban experiment, helping to build Soleri’s vision. The construction has continued up to the present, despite Soleri’s death in 2013. Right now, they are completing Arcosanti’s greenhouses, which will provide food for the community and some income.
When I visited Arcosanti three years ago with my son, its stark beauty and simplicity took us by surprise. Communal spaces are the heart of the complex–an outdoor amphitheater, an indoor dining hall, a series of terraces off the private residences for people to gather and talk. In the photo below of the dining hall, you can see Soleri’s signature round windows, which bring in light and the desert vistas.
As we walked around the grounds, the guide mentioned that Soleri must have missed his native Italy, so he planted cyprus and olive trees. It was surprising to see them flourishing in the desert. Who would have thought that they’d thrive so far from their native environment? But then again, that was true of Soleri too, described by others as a truly imaginative thinker, who was “out there,” and “quirky,” and yet his ideas have resonated here in America, his adopted home, as well as around the world.
Not surprisingly, Soleri’s work was controversial. When his master work, Arcology: City in the Image of Man was published in 1969, architects were divided on its impact. Sibyl Moholy-Nagy praised it, saying the book “touched every aspect of human existence, defying summation,” while Peter Blake said he had “never seen a book on architecture or urban design that bothered me as much as this one.” (Source: Architectural Record) Still Soleri persisted, drawing more and more architectural students to Arcosanti as environmental awareness took hold in America. He is credited with influencing popular culture and inspiring novelists, film makers, comic book illustrators, and designers of computer games like SimCity.
There is no doubt that Soleri’s work as an architect, urban designer, artist, craftsman, and philosopher was far ahead of his time and has inspired generations of architects and urban planners. His criticism of suburbia and the American dream, which was considered radical generations ago, is now far more mainstream. Many of us who grew up in suburban developments can understand Soleri’s objections. We have seen first-hand the isolation and wastefulness of the suburban “utopia,” and its inherent competitiveness for greener lawns, bigger houses, and the latest styles in home decorating and technology.
Soleri’s visionary ideas from the 1960’s are being echoed today as people grow dissatisfied with suburbia and return to cities to reclaim the urban neighborhoods that were languishing for decades. Environmental awareness has grown. Leed-certified green architecture is more and more the norm. Even the McMansion has come under attack, as well as the assumption that greater consumption is an American right. The growth of the Tiny House Movement, spurred in part by the economic downtown, is just one indication that Americans are shifting their opinions towards “less is more.” Now more than ever, we recognize that Soleri is right. We need a different paradigm, where we live in harmony with our environment, as well as with each other.
So, what do you think? Do you agree with my choice of Paolo Soleri? I’d love to hear your thoughts!
For more information on Paolo Soleri and arcology, click on the links below:
The trailer from the film Paolo Soleri: Beyond Form
The trailer from the film Vision of Paolo Soleri by producer Lisa Scafuro
To read more about the Pilot Fish Trailblazers Award and the first nominee, Dr. Fred Sanger, click on the embedded links.
Categories: Pilot Fish Trailblazer Awards
Thank you for introducing me to this trailblazer, Patti. He was certainly ahead of his time, advocating for self-sustaining communities that share resources at a time when most people were focused on “bigger is better.”
I’m enjoying this series!
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Hi Jackie. I’m delighted that you’re enjoying these posts about truly amazing people. I am finding them so inspiring. So glad you are too!
I always found it interesting how Soleri drew from Wright’s vision of an organic architecture and his own vision of community to create Arcosanti- hopefully as you suggest we are more open to these kind of communities that encourage interaction rather than isolation- terrific post!!
Hi Littledogs. Yes, it is fascinating how he drew from and adapted Wright’s vision to create his own. I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. I love learning more about these fascinating people. I hope you get the chance to visit Arcosanti–if you haven’t already.
This post reminds me of my dad who battles with dementia now and was an architect too. I definitely love Soleri’s work and think it was a good choice.