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Paolo Soleri, Biographical Sketch

Paolo Soleri

By Rick Hendricks*

Paolo Soleri was born in Turin, Italy, on 21 June 1919.[1] His father was a small-appliance manufacturer who struggled in business during the 1930s, and the family moved back and forth across the Alps between Italy and France. [2] At sixteen, Soleri opted for a career in architecture, one of only two choices at the secondary school he attended, the other being engineering.  Because he was the oldest son, Soleri's studies were frequently interrupted so that he could help support his family, but in 1941 he began advanced studies in architecture at the Polytechnic University of Turin (Politecnico di Torino). The following year he was drafted into the camouflage corps of the Italian army engineers. As Soleri recalled his military career was singularly undistinguished. After twenty-two months, often in the brig for being absent without leave, his unit ceased to exist as a fighting force. He returned to school and in 1946 was awarded a Ph.D. with highest honors.

Soleri wrote to famed architect Frank Lloyd Wright asking to be accepted as an apprentice. Wright agreed, and on 9 December 1946 Soleri arrived at the Port of New York on the Marine Perch out of Genoa.[3] After being detained for thirty-five days by authorities at Ellis Island and posting a $500-bond, Soleri went to study with Wright at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona. He remained for a year and a half, but did not enjoy his apprenticeship because Wright was occupied with work on the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge. Soleri was asked to leave Taliesin when it became known that he intended to establish a similar school in Italy and that several of Wright's apprentices were planning to accompany Soleri.

Mrs. Leonora Woods, a Pennsylvania socialite, hired Soleri and a fellow Wright apprentice named Mark Mills to design a home for her in Cave Creek, Arizona. The design won the architects national recognition because of its glass-domed roof, which opened, closed, and rotated to an opaque side with the movements of the sun. Mrs. Woods's daughter, Carolyn, came out west after graduating from college to help with the construction of the house. Colly and Paolo were married before the house was completed.

Soleri took Colly to Italy in 1950. Their daughter, Kristine, was born there. While in Italy he studied the ceramist's craft and was asked to design a ceramics factory. The resulting structure earned Soleri professional recognition. In 1953, while Soleri was still in Europe, the Soleri and Mills designed home was one example of contemporary design in a show at the Museum Art in New York City.[4] Soleri again considered starting a Taliesin-like school in Italy but eventually decided to return to Arizona following a flood that destroyed his home in Salerno.[5] He arrived in New York on 28 May 1955 on the Cristofo Colombo out of Naples. The manifest listed Soleri's home as Cave Creek, Arizona.[6]

On a visit to Santa Fe, Soleri chanced upon a store selling ceramic bells. The Korean maker had recently died, and the shop owner asked Soleri, who had mentioned that he was a ceramist, if he could take over the manufacture of the bells. He has been making earth-cast bells ever since, and they have provided a steady stream of income to support his grander projects. In the early 1960s Soleri also began making bronze bells. Today the bells sell for as little as $29 for a simple bell and as much as $6,000 for a unique bell signed by Soleri.[7]

In 1956 Soleri built "Earth House," a home for Colly, Kristine, and himself at Cosanti, Arizona, using a similar earth-casting technique. Another daughter, Daniela, was born in Arizona.[8] Soleri coined "Cosanti" from the Italian cosa (thing) and anti (before), which for him is an antimaterialistic statement.[9] At Cosanti Soleri dug forms in the local silt, filled them with concrete to create a structural network, and excavated beneath the structure. Through this process he stood conventional house-building on his head; he built the roof first and excavated the house from under it. Over the years since the construction of "Earth House," Soleri has experimented with his basic concept at Cosanti, creating an architectural laboratory out of the living desert.

In 1961 Soleri incorporated his architectural pursuits, bell-making, and educational activities in the non-profit Cosanti Foundation. The foundation makes it possible for Soleri to hire and lodge apprentices at Cosanti, teach summer classes sponsored by Arizona State University School of Architecture, and sell wind chimes to support the program.

In 1964 the Santa Fe Indian School commissioned Soleri to design a theater. Soleri had first conceived the design of what would eventually become the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater in 1955 and enlarged the planned structure after he received his commission.[10] The result was an earth-cast concrete amphitheater, one of only a few Soleri designs ever constructed.

Built using student labor from the school, the structure was designed to “frame the sun and the moon,” and operate like an Elizabethan theater with bridges and ramps that allow performers to access various levels above, below, and behind the stage. A dramatically arched form over the stage covers the principal performance area, and according to Soleri was created of “trenched earth that captures the shape and consistency of the earth itself.”[11]

Since its completion the "Soleri," as it is usually called, has been used for graduation ceremonies, concerts, and other special events.

Soleri was one of the artists and scientists featured in a special produced in association with ABC-TV in 1965. The special was called "The Way Out Men" and was based on the premise of introducing the stories of little-known men of science and the arts. As the title suggests, the individuals profiled were considered to be working on the frontiers of scientific understanding.[12]

In July 1970, Soleri and some of students began Arcosanti, which he referred to as the first arcology, a term he coined to mean the fusion of architecture and ecology. Acrology, according to Soleri, "is a method that recognizes the necessity for radical reorganization of the sprawling urban landscape into dense integrated, three-dimensional towns and cities."[13] An arcology is a single structure capable of housing thousands of people and have been likened to beehives and earthbound spaceships. Arcologies would be communities so well designed that cars would not be required on a daily basis and only rarely needed at all. Arcosanti is sited on a basaltic mesa overlooking the Agua Fría River, some seventy miles north of Cosanti. The original plan called for a structure rising twenty stories with housing for 2,500. The New York Times reported in February 1987 that after sixteen years of construction at a cost of seven million dollars, Arcosanti was no more than 3 per cent complete.[14] Soleri had already given up on the idea of completing Arcosanti, settling instead for what he considered the critical mass, about 10 per cent of the proposed system, or about five hundred people. With a population of that size, Soleri reckoned that the community would be self-sustaining and "quite interesting."[15]

Architecture professor Jeffery Cook of Arizona State University told a story to illustrate the difficulty of defining Soleri, who built very little but widely published his ideas and designs.

An architect says, "He's a fine man with good ideas, but he's really an artist." An artist says, "He's a fine man with good images, but really a theologian. A theologian says, He's a fine man with interesting positions, but he's really an architect.[16]

In the summer of 2010 Arcosanti was home to eighty-two people, and it was said to be no more than 3 to 4 per cent complete.[17] Included among the fourteen primary buildings are housing units, a foundry, a music center, a drafting-studio complex, and a swimming pool. Meanwhile, the Santa Fe Indian School confirmed rumors that the Soleri-designed amphitheater on the school campus was slated for demolition.[18] These plans led to the expression of broad support for saving the structure.        

Soleri's first major design was for a bridge that was never built. Other bridge designs met the same in fate. In 2010 construction was underway on a pedestrian bridge and plaza in Scottsdale that Soleri designed with the firm of Douglas Architects.

The bridge will cross a canal in the downtown area, connecting stores and condominiums on the north to a cluster of shops and restaurants on the south. Two brushed-steel pylons that will shoot up 64 feet will act as a sundial, creating a light dagger on the bridge deck that will mark solar events such as the equinox.

The project also includes a 22,000-square-foot plaza that will feature a hitching post and Soleri-designed bells hanging from 22-foot pylons. Benches will line a shallow circular stream.[19]

At the age of ninety-one, Paolo Soleri will finally see one of his bridges erected not far from his long-time home in Paradise Valley, Arizona.

*Research assistance was provided by Max Brown, a summer 2010 intern in the Office of the State Historian funded by the Yale University Bulldogs Across America intern program.

[1]"Paolo Soleri Biography, (accessed 30 August 2010).

[2] Sherwood Davidson Kohn, "Soleri thinks very big," New York Times Magazine, 26 July 1970.

[3] New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, [database on-line], (accessed 31 August 2010).

[4] "California Home in Current Exhibit, New York Times, 21 January 1953.

[5] Mary Leonhard, "Buildings Below Ground," The Arizona Republic, 20 October 1968.

[6] New York Passenger Lists, 1820-1957, [database on-line], (accessed 31 August 2010).

[7] John Faherty, "Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri still inspire architecture," (accessed 23 August 2010).

[8] Leonhard, "Buildings Below Ground."

[9] "Paolo Soleri, Man of Vision," Tucson Daily Citizen, 30 January 1965.

[10] "SFIS Amphitheater Architect to Look Back on His Life, Work, "New Mexican, 25 August 2007.

[11]William Menking, "Save the Soleri Santa Fe Theater!" (accessed 31 August 2010).

[12] Edgar Penton, "Way Out Series About Way Out Men," Oxnard Press.Courier, 30 January 1965.

[13] Ralph Blumenthal, "Futuristic Visions in the Desert," New York Times, 1 February 1987.

[14] Blumenthal, "Futuristic Visions in the Desert."

[15] John Barbour, "Architect tries to keep dream of self-contained, vertical city alive," Kokomo (Indiana) Tribune, 18 April 1985.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Faherty, "Arcosanti, Paolo Soleri still inspire architecture."

[18] Steve Terrell, “Pressure Builds to Save Paolo Soleri” New Mexican, 11 June 2010; and Julie Ann Grimm, “City Urges Indian School to Share Plans, Save Amphitheater,” New Mexican, 9 June 2010.

[19] Noble Sprayberry, "Scottsdale Bridge Marks Milestone for Paolo Soleri," (accessed 31 August 2010).