Paolo Soleri at 100: A Visionary Lost in a Desert of His Own Making

Paolo Soleri's concepts and work were never more relevant than they are today, and his legacy has never been more toxic.

Paolo Soleri's concepts and work were never more relevant than they are today, and his legacy has never been more toxic.

The phrase “male architect” conjures up images of a megalomaniacal egotist, devoting his life to a single vision sprouted from his brain, expecting legions of aspiring architects to want to join him in that quest basically for free, imposing his will on clients who maybe wanted something else, and generally believing that his ideas are going to change the world just by virtue of being good.

Like any stereotype, that image doesn’t neatly map onto every male architect, or even most of them. When it does, it’s usually only partial. Le Corbusier drafted utopian plans for Paris that would never happen, but at least he also designed public housing that’s still used today. Figures like Corb—Mies van der Rohe, Frank Gehry, Philip Johnson, Jean Nouvel—are far from the maverick geniuses they’re often made out to be. Still, they’ve left behind complex legacies that historians, architects and students of architecture will have to question and deconstruct.

For his part, Paolo Soleri—who would have turned 100 years old today—has such a legacy. A student of Frank Lloyd Wright in the 1940s, Soleri moved to Arizona with his wife and eldest daughter in the 50s and founded Cosanti, a studio complex where he worked until he died. A few years after arriving in Arizona, and his wife had a second daughter, Daniela. In the late 60s, he developed the concept of “arcology,” a portmanteau of architecture and ecology meant to evoke an idea of a built environment that worked with, instead of against, nature. In the 70s, he founded Arcosanti, an experimental city where he put that utopian, highly attractive concept to the test with the help of the kind of students and acolytes that always seem to surround such figures. It was also where and when he alledgely sexually abused and eventually attempted to rape Daniela.

Following Daniela’s 2017 allegations against her late father, Patrick Whorton, the president of the Cosanti Foundation, which manages Arcosanti’s contemporary operations, encouraged the public to separate Soleri’s apparent atrocities from his work, so that the world may learn from the architectural legacy he has left behind.

But it’s not so simple, is it? Part of Soleri’s “legacy” will always be his allegedly horrific behavior—good enough reason for us to just get our lessons on environmentally-friendly architecture from literally anyone else.

But I’ll humor Whorton.

Arcosanti was meant to be a testing ground for Soleri’s concept of “urban implosion,” a counter to the sprawl produced by cars and suburban development that even at that point was known to be causing damage to the earth’s natural ecosystems. Residents of Arcosanti were meant to be able to lead their whole lives in the complex, obviating the need for automobiles and their pollution, and creating an example of the ideal city.

In truth, Arcosanti—designed to house 5,000 people—has never been home to more than a couple hundred. Once populated by Soleri’s students, it’s now mostly occupied by Arcosanti and Cosanti staff.

Arcosanti was one of many counter-cultural architectural projects in the 60s and 70s that sought to address the need for architects to be responsible stewards of the environment. But while environmental artist-activists such as Stewart Brand managed to at least get their ideas turned into permanent policy in the state of California, the architects of Sea Ranch put forward an enduring vision for making an environmentally responsive, lasting architecture with local materials. And while the work of architects like Sim van der Ryn helped to create the pedagogical principles that still guide UC Berkeley’s College of Environmental Design, Arcosanti’s operations now primarily include making and selling cast metal and clay bells, hosting tourists and fashion photoshoots, and serving as the site for a music festival marketed to rich millennials. What does it say about Soleri’s legacy that his only major work has been co-opted with his supposedly central environmental goals barely discernible behind Arcosanti’s retro-futuristic, concrete aesthetic?

Yes, work is visually impressive, and full of promise—but what did it really deliver?

If Soleri’s goal was to develop a vision for architecture that would permanently change cities—something relevant in this moment of searching for guidance and precedent to help us curb potential climate catastrophe—then the legacy that we have to grapple with is that of a painfully unachieved aim paired with sexual violence. But there is a lesson to be found here.

Through Soleri’s corrupted example, we may learn that if architects want to change the world, they can’t do so by retreating into the desert. At some point they have to come out and actually apply the lessons from their experiments in less barren, more human contexts. Of course, may not want to, for fear that people may see who they really are in the light.

Photos by Cody Raskin,  Carwil Bjork-JamesCodyRKalaharCreative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

All Stories