I am saddened to learn that Paolo Soleri, a true visionary of 20th century urban planning, has passed away. You can read his obituary and history in other places, but for me this is a bit of a personal loss. While most people have never head of him, his name was synonymous in my childhood home with the word “visionary.”
When my family took a trip to Tempe, Arizona as part of a family reunion in the summer of 1994(?), my father made sure that we include in our itinerary a trip to Arcosanti in the Arizona desert. Arcosanti is Soleri’s “urban laboratory,” a very small town in the middle of nowhere where Soleri and a small community of architects, designers, craftsmen, and artists were putting his architectural philosophy to work. It is designed in Soleri’s trademark organic modernist style, and constructed not as a city but as an Arcology, a man-made environment that works with its natural surroundings. I was 15 and impressionable at the time, and the trip had a lasting effect on how I look at architecture and the cities we build around ourselves.
You can see a lot more images in Flickr’s Arcosanti pool.
Later, In the summer of 2000, I created an art book addressing the impact of the near-sterile suburban environment on the human condition. I travelled the US doing research and shooting photos and had the good fortune to land an interview with Paolo Soleri as part of that effort. During our discussion, he described the impact that the marketplace has had on our relationship with nature and architecture:
You live in the illusion of being in nature, but it is just an illusion because the furst thing we do is degrade nature–that is a fact…We go out, in general, and we do not build our habitat, we are buying it, and we are buying it on the market. And the market is not the most clever, the most design-wise place to go, so we are getting mediocre results, and mediocrity is a killer.
It’s devastatingly simple: an architectural marketplace driven by commoditization has a lasting negative impact on the human condition.
I hope his passing causes a spike in interest in Soleri and his architectural philosophies, even if it’s just for a day. He crossed the border between living a life and defining how to live. Take a moment to appreciate one of the many facets that make Arcosanti an incredible place, but moreover, consider deeply the idea that our cities, our man-made environment, is a designed and fabricated thing, and that there is flexibility and choice in how we approach the world. Take a moment to appreciate the fact that Paolo Soleri as someone who committed his own life and resources to living his philosophy, pushing the edges of what we think of as a city and directly challenging our assumed relationship with nature. Take a moment to consider the level of entrepreneurship needed to construct not only a building or series of buildings in a certain style, but a living, breathing community that rests on a deep philosophical foundation.