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Studio Visit: Paolo Soleri

Studio Visit: Paolo Soleri

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    Timothy Hursley

    Soleri at Arcosanti, in a garden area dedicated to the memory of his wife, Colly Soleri. Last month, Scottsdale, Ariz., dedicated a bridge and plaza that Soleri designed for the Arizona Canal. The festivities included talks by Will Bruder, AIA, and Alan Hess and an exhibit at the city’s contemporary art museum.

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    Timothy Hursley

    The Arcosanti complex exemplifies Soleri’s concept of Arcology, or the fusion of architecture and ecology. It sits on an 860-acre property, adjacent to the 71,000-acre Agua Fria National Monument. Many of Arcosanti’s 50 or so employees and volunteers live on site full-time, giving tours and workshops, constructing new buildings, and fabricating sculptural bronze and ceramic bells that are a major source of revenue.

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    Soleri eats lunch in the café on the second floor of the mixed-use Crafts III building. Crafts III was constructed from 1972–77 to serve as a visitors center. It incorporates a gallery on the fourth floor, a bakery on the third, and housing on the first.

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    The south-facing Foundry Apse was completed in 1974. A fabric screen provides additional shade, while exhaust heat from the furnace warms adjacent living quarters on cold winter nights. Further up the hillside is a second apse for making ceramics.

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    Soleri spent 1947–50 as an apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright at both Taliesin East in Wisconsin and Taliesin West in Arizona. During that time, he met his late wife, Colly; her father was one of Soleri’s first clients. After a brief stint back in Italy, the Soleris returned to Arizona for good in 1955 and began to build the Cosanti complex. The Ceramics Studio dates to 1958. Its earth-cast concrete shell incorporates a skylight with Wrightian geometry.

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    The below-grade, skylit Cosanti Gallery was constructed in 1961 by pouring concrete over a sculpted mound of earth, then excavating the soil once the concrete had hardened.

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    Inside the Barrel Vaults & Pumpkin Apse (1968-69) at Cosanti. A Plexiglas model of Arcosanti, built for a 1970 exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., is in the right foreground.

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    The Ceramics Apse at Arcosanti, finished in 1973. Ceramic bells and tiles are produced here.

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    Interior of east residence above Arcosanti foundry, constructed 1973. Waste heat from foundry furnaces below is channeled through the interior bench to help radiantly heat the apartments during the cold season. (Thanks to Roger Tomalty and Mary Hoadley of Arcosanti for caption information.)

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    The Crafts III building, Arcosanti.

Paolo Soleri, the architect who refined his vision for ecologically responsive architecture in a utopian development in the desert of Arizona, died today at 93.

Soleri is best known for Arcosanti, the experimental city he founded some 70 miles north of Phoenix as a laboratory for exploring concepts in sustainability and design. He coined his own term for those ideas in "arcology," a system for understanding how architecture and ecology could coexist in the context of the city. Now such a pressing concern in building design and construction, sustainability—or Soleri's vision of sustainability—has drawn thousands of adherents and admirers to Arcosanti over the years.

Soleri's work has garnered some of the most prestigious accolades in architecture. In 2006, he was awarded the National Design Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum in New York. He received the AIA Gold Medal for Craftsmanship in 1963 and the Venice Architecture Biennale's Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement in 2000. Soleri was named an honorary fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1996.

Soleri, an Italian architect, worked with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West in Arizona during the late 1940s before permanently moving to Scottsdale, Ariz., in 1955. There, he began planning Mesa City, a vertical desert city for 2 million people, a scheme that would eventually inform the plan for Arcosanti. Soleri's passing today comes 54 years to the date of Wright's death.

The New York Times visited Arcosanti in February of 2012, following Soleri's retirement in fall 2011 from the Cosanti Foundation, the nonprofit that he established with his late wife Colly in 1965 to pursue his research in urban planning. (Jeff Stein, AIA, left his post as dean of the Boston Architectural College to take Soleri's place at the helm of the nonprofit.) The Times found just 56 residents living in Arcosanti, which the report describes as "part Mos Eisley, part Ozymandias." While it's a number far fewer than Soleri dreamed, these residents enjoy much the same lifestyle that the original "Arconauts" established when they followed Soleri there in the 1970s.

"It might turn out that the human habitat has to be realigned with the logistical grids serving it," Soleri told ARCHITECT in 2008. "That would require urban ribbons of modest width incorporating parallel road, pedestrian, and bicycle pathways, and stations for local, regional, and continental transit."

Soleri's work is the subject of an ongoing series of exhibits at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art. "Paolo Soleri: Mesa City to Arcosanti," the second of three exhibits on his designs, is on view through April 28. The exhibit includes Soleri's first models for Arcosanti, which were originally displayed at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in 1970 in an exhibit that traveled to the Whitney Museum of American Art. Soleri's life and works are also the subject of a new documentary, The Vision of Paolo Soleri: Prophet in the Desert, featuring interviews with architecture critic Paul Goldberger, 60 Minutes journalist Morley Safer, and architect Steven Holl, FAIA, among others.

Eco-Structure examined the 12 mixed-use buildings and car-free compound of Arcosanti in 2009. ARCHITECT explored Soleri's work in the context of alternative place-making in 2006 and visited Soleri's studio in 2011.

Soleri is survived by two daughters, Kristine Soleri Timm and Daniela Soleri, and two grandchildren. A memorial service is being planned at Arcosanti for later this year.