Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Paulo Soleri's Vision

A  long time ago when I was in my twenties I first heard about Paulo Soleri, an Italian architect who was creating something innovative out in the Arizona desert.  He was designing a city built out of formed cement using sustainable practices based on the newly fashionable concept of ecology.  He called his concept “arcology” and worked with volunteers to create a demonstration city for sustainable living. My girlfriend and I were so intrigued that we thought about going down to Arcosanti in the summer to work on the site. We never actually did it though; life intervened as it so often does. And I had kind of forgotten about Paulo Soleri until our road buddies, Ches and Allison, mentioned that they were going there.

Soleri was not only a visionary, he was an artist as well and created molds for cast bronze bells and sculptures, which he sold to raise funds for the Arcosanti project.  There are actually two sites to view Soleri’s work in Arizona. There’s Arcosanti out in the desert and Cosanti near Phoenix, where the Soleri bells are made in a workshop built with his arcology techniques.  This is also where Soleri lives now, at age 90 with his wife.  The workshop and studio there is open to visitors so that’s where we ended up going.

I think when Cosanti was built there was nothing around it but open desert, however now it sits amid a very upscale subdivision in Scottsdale.  You pull off a residential street into a little parking lot and walk up into another world.  The buildings are very desert-like, made of formed cement with intriguing shapes and textures that do amazing things with the light and shadows. The beautiful cast sculptures and bells are everywhere, gently ringing in the gentle breeze. 
The whole area is built in different levels with cement pathways going up and down and around almost like a maze.  It’s really very lovely.
These next two photos are of the workshops where some of the bells are made.  Some are ceramic and some are cast bronze.  You can see that it's designed to be very practical for working in the Arizona heat.
The bells and sculptures were gorgeous.  Some of them were in the 3,000 dollar and up range, but the smaller ones were quite affordable. We bought a nice one for $85.
Soleri  has published and created all his life and he has many followers still working at Arcosanti. Cosanti as well seems to be a thriving business.  While we didn’t get to meet Soleri while we were there (he carefully guards his privacy), we did see a notice inviting young  women to model for him.  Apparently he’ll draw three poses and give one to the model.  It's clear that he is still a vital and creative man.   

It was fascinating to see the workshop and buildings at Cosanti and learn a bit more about Soleri's work. I’m sure it was ground breaking at the time but to me it felt like stepping back in time to the 1970s.  Some of the structures reminded me of the sets from futuristic movies of the time.  We might have been on the set of the city of Tatouine in the original Star Wars movie.  I almost expected to see Princess Leah or R2D2 come around a corner.   
That’s not to take away from his work and his vision, which is still being created at Arcosanti.
For a recent description of what's going on at Arcosanti, head over to Ches's alt build blog.  We'll be hanging our Soleri bell on our arbour up on Haliburton Hill as a memory of our visit to this special place.


  1. joanna - breathtaking - i read the last whole earth catalogue over and over and of course soleri's thinking and work was nascent but present in that huge book. i too dreamed of working there and still wonder what stopped me. fear i suppose. fear of not knowing. but i see this man now as a visionary who set the terms for a apossibility that will become even more prescient and necessary in the coming times. thanks so much for these excellent photographs and the rich text that accompanies them. steven

  2. Hi Steven, Soleri's vision sustains to this day. Who knows why our lives take on the directions they do. The road not taken. Yup!

  3. Wow, thank you for showing his work -the amount of his work is impressive -I love the first sculpture -which is a real tricky one, because of the balance!


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