On the Road: Exploring the World of Paolo Soleri

text and photos by Lynne Rostochil.  Vintage photos from the Wright Foundation and Cosanti Foundation, respectively.

For years, I’ve been more than a little obsessed with architect Paolo Soleri, his philosophy about what the urban environment should look like, and, of course, his charming bells, so I was especially excited to hear about a new exhibition of his work at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary of Art.  That gave me the perfect excuse I’ve been looking for to head to Arizona and soak up all things Soleri!

Soleri was born and went to school in Turin, Italy and discovered the wild, arid beauty of Arizona when he arrived at Taliesin West to study with Frank Lloyd Wright in 1946.   The two men didn’t see eye to eye on a lot of things.  For one, Wright’s ideas about urban planning contrasted sharply with his apprentice’s.  Wright foresaw the car-reliant, urban sprawl of the 21st century city with his plan for Broadacre City, in which the architect would be the master planner in creating open, verdant urban areas free of densely packed central districts in which the car reigned supreme.  Soleri took the complete opposite view of urban development that he called “Arcology” (architecture and ecology), which called for vertical urban areas that were densely packed with multi-use buildings where people could easily walk from home to work to just about everywhere.  Unlike Broadacre City, Soleri’s vision would use less land, reduce the strain on natural resources, and eliminate the need for a complicated, spread out infrastructure all while maximizing walkability and enhancing a sense of community.

The two men also had very different ideas about appropriate dress.  Wright was very formal and always wore a three-piece suit, even in the heat of summer:

In contrast, Soleri was much more comfortable roaming around wearing just a pair of shorts or a makeshift sarong:

At Taliesin West, all apprentices spent a considerable amount of time doing such non-architecture-related duties as cleaning, cooking, and serving the very imperious Wright and his equally formal wife, Olgivanna.  One story goes that Soleri had the audacity to serve dinner to the haughty Wrights while wearing his skimpy sarong, and that sent Mrs. Wright over the edge.  The Wrights knew that Soleri was planning to set up a school similar to theirs in Italy and wanted him out, anyway, and this was the last straw.  I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it makes a great story!

Through his connections, Soleri met his first real client, Nora Woods, and soon had a commission for her desert house north of Phoenix.  The glorious and amazingly original Dome House was the result, and along with the commission, Soleri scored a wife when he met and married Woods’ lovely daughter, Colley.  The pair, along with some of their friends, constructed the home — check out a short video about the place here.  Soon after the home was completed, the couple moved to Italy, where Paolo designed the dramatic Solimene Ceramics Factory, which is still in use today.

The Soleris returned to Arizona in 1956 and began construction on Cosanti, their home and first compound.  To help support themselves, Soleri began designing and producing his iconic wind bells.  Today, you can tour most of Cosanti (except for the living quarters) and, if you’re lucky, watch workers make the bells.  The foundry was closed the day we were there, but the place is truly magical and a must see if you’re in the Phoenix area — and it’s free!  Check out this skeletal structure:

And here are several examples of Soleri’s ceramic bells:

There are bells, bells, bells everywhere!  And don’t even get me started on how powerful the primitive-looking concrete architecture is.  I think that the creators of The Flintstones used Soleri’s buildings as inspiration when they were drawing Fred and Wilma’s world, I really do.

The foundry is pretty impressive, too…

… and take a look at some of the living quarters that overlook the work area:

Perhaps the most popular sight at Cosanti is the fabulous Bell Tree:

On a breezy day, which we fortunately had, the gently jangling of the bells creates a delightful aural backdrop for the jaw dropping architecture.

About 70 miles north of Phoenix is Soleri’s greatest achievement, Arcosanti.

This was the place where the architect and visionary urban planner was finally able to put his philosophies about architecture and ecology into practice.  The aptly named Arcosanti — which means “against materialism” — got off the ground when Soleri purchased 25 acres of desert land out in the middle of nowhere … and I mean NOWHERE … near Mayer, Arizona.  In 1970, the building began, and over 7,000 people have worked to construct Soleri’s “urban laboratory” in the ensuing years.

Soleri’s plan called for 25-story towers that would house 5,000 people and contain both work and recreational space, but to date, just 5% of his dream has been completed.  Even though it is modest in size, Arcosanti is as magical and mystical as its sister in the Phoenix area.  Brutalist buildings with giant circular windows are surrounded by towering cypress and honest-to-goodness olive trees that overlook a rocky desert valley and a red-rocked butte beyond.  It’s a powerful place, indeed.  The Crafts III building contains Arcosanti’s impressive gallery, the cafe, and housing for workshop students, who come from all over the world to learn about Soleri and what he accomplished here.

The cafe is especially impressive at dinnertime as the sun sets in the west:

There’s also a recreational area in the cafe that includes a piano and a chess set with bronze pieces forged at Arcosanti — these buggers were HEAVY!

The Ceramics Apse was completed in 1973.  All of the pottery bells and pots are made here:

Nearby is the Foundry Apse, where Soleri’s iconic bronze bells are produced.  We were lucky to crash a tour of the foundry being given to some guys from Canada who were visiting for a one-week workshop.  It’s quite an impressive operation, from the making of the molds using packed sand…

to the pouring of the bronze into molds…

Here, recently cast bells are awaiting assembly:

Here are more photos of the foundry and its work rooms:

Look at all of the molds that have been made for the bells:

Here’s a box of fins ready to be acid washed to create a lovely green patina:

And another kind of fin:

There’s also an arched workspace where the ceramic tiles and switchplates are made:

The first structure to be completed at Arcosanti was the South Vault, which was built in 1971 and offered a shaded area for outdoor activities and work.  The North Vault was completed four years later:

The amphitheater is surrounded by apartments and a lounge area for Arcosanti’s workshop visitors and residents:

There’s also a fantastic pool overlooking the valley if you want to cool off on a hot summer day … or, in Arizona, any day.

Underneath the pool is what will one day (hopefully) be greenhouses, along with one that they are using now:

Even before Soleri’s death at the ripe old age of 93 in 2013, construction at Arcosanti had pretty much ground to a halt due to financial restrictions, and his vision will likely never be fully realized.  But, for the 100 or so people who work here and call this communal experiment home, it remains viable and well loved.  Here are a couple more photos of Arcosanti (yes, that is a manhole cover that was made onsite) — this is really such a photogenic place that I could post 100 photos and still have more that I’d want to share with you.

My husband and I stayed the night in the guesthouse, which provides modest but clean rooms with a shared bath for a meager $40 a night/including breakfast.  The rooms don’t have air conditioning, but there is a screened door that you can open to let in cool breezes at night — it was more than comfortable for us.  And, if you want TV, you won’t find it here, but you will find plenty of other interesting guests sitting out on the front porch of the guesthouse to chat with, and that’s much better than anything the tube can offer.  Also, if you want to eat dinner at Arcosanti, it’s a whopping $10 per person/all you can eat.  There’s a bar that is sometimes open in the cafe, so if you want to be assured a drink or two, bring your own.

(You can also rent a private apartment at Arcosanti for just $95 a night from Airbnb or stay in the Sky Suite for $100 a night.)

Sunrise at Arcosanti is pretty incredible and definitely put us in a happy mood for the entire day:

The final stop on our Soleri adventure was an exhibition devoted to the architect that recently began at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary ArtRepositioning Paolo Soleri: The City is Nature runs through January 28, 2018, and includes original drawings and models, some of Soleri’s more intricate bells, and models of bridges he designed.

So, if you have a long weekend in the near future, I highly suggest taking in the exhibition and both Cosanti and Arcosanti.  You may decide, like I did, that a workshop is definitely in your future.