Interviewsand Articles


Paolo Soleri: Architecture as Salvation

by Richard Whittaker, May 12, 2001



Before leaving for Arcosanti, it was explained that Paolo Soleri no longer gave interviews. I decided to take my chances, confident the trip would be worth it, no matter how it turned out. Before leaving, I read Soleri's books Arcology, The Omega Seed and The Urban Ideal among other things.
     I spent a couple of days at Arcosanti taking the place in and chatting with residents and guests. While there I attended Soleri's weekly talk, a regular practice of his over many years. On this occasion a group of young architects were visiting from Japan and there were other young architects from around the world. After the talk we all partook in the weekly "frugal soup" lunch. Over a small bowl of soup each is invited to ponder the situation in the world where so many go hungry - just one example of the values integral to Soleri's vision. In The Omega Seed he lists 46 principles. One is a belief in mankind's quasi-infinite journey into the uncreated. Another is the belief in an eventual grace far beyond our time. Our task, as humans, is the indefatigable effort toward such grace.
     Paolo Soleri is complex—a man of religious sensibility emphatically unwilling to associate himself with any religion. Labeled as a visionary, he has struggled to escape being dismissed as a dreamer. 
     I sometimes wonder why Soleri's name is not invoked more often in the context of new urbanism. He's a pioneer in many of the ways of thinking now being embraced among city planners and schools of architecture.
     As it turned out, a way did open for an interview. But I had to drive down to Soleri's first center, Cosanti. When first built, Cosanti lay in the desert east of Phoenix; now it's surrounded by suburban sprawl.   
     As I made the drive, I was full of anticipation and hoped for an extended interview. When I got there Soleri explained he was waiting for a call and could give me only fifteen minutes. We went a bit past that…

Richard Whittaker:  Visiting Cosanti for the first time, my feelings were touched by the architecture here, and by the atmosphere of this place—even more so than at Arcosanti—and I wonder what your thoughts are in regard to feeling as an element of architectural meaning.

Paolo Soleri:  Well I guess it’s important, but what we’re doing at Arcosanti is more important because it attempts to face reality more. That’s what I was saying the last two days in regard to the importance of urban intensity.

RW:  This is a really fundamental question, but because you have such interesting things to say about it, I want to ask, What is architecture?

PS:  Are you an architect? (No) Well, I think you can take it from both ends. One end is the expression of some minds in terms of organizing space. But then I think there is one which is more fundamental, which is that we know that we need shelter. So shelter is one of the two fundamental needs. One is food and the other is shelter. If we fail in either one we’re in trouble. So culturally we don’t know yet if we are succeeding. In habitat we are really failing in this country.

RW:  Your concern is for an architecture that is ecologically sustainable.

PS:  Yes. For a type of organization of buildings, of spaces that are serving people and not dis-serving the biosphere.

RW:  The matter of serving people is a deep question.

PS:  Very deep, and it has been a battle from the very beginning, but it seems that a positive side is on the side of the urban container, not on the size of the individual domain.

RW:  Could you say how you view the place of the aesthetic?

PS:  Well the aesthetic is what you would hope to achieve, but before that comes the function—function, not just in terms of details, but in terms of the totality of the system. And since we are very numerous—moving towards ten billions of people, and because we are consumers by definition—unless we choose the right pathway we are going to fail. The pathway is suggested by the nature of life—come together, don’t dissipate. Come together. Culture has been developed by this coming together. Tribal culture is a very minimal culture.

RW:  You have a term, the urban effect which on one level is about a density of living, a density of habitat, and the results that can flow from that.

PS:  Yes—an intensity of communication and connection and conviviality. And not only the person, but the institutions that the person needs develop through that intensity. That goes from health to business to culture to technology—to everything. Singularly we are not made for survival.

RW:  In the density and mixed-use concepts you have experienced and which you advocate, there is the hope that something can evolve which can withstand this overwhelming emphasis on consumerism.

PS:  At this point in this country I think we are facing the dilemma of consumerism taking center stage and saying, "we are succeeding because we are wealthy and are good producers and good consumers. In a way it’s a survival technology. "Survival" now means "Have a good time and be a wonderful consumer!" We have to go beyond that.

RW:  I’m sure there are many questions directed to you on the matter of scale and density and you have some very interesting responses to those issues.

PS:  Yes. "scale" is a misnomer. I mean we make mistakes since we judge things visually. If it’s large, we say, "It’s a big system." But, on the other hand, if you walk along in a suburban neighborhood you don’t see anything very big. But if one considers these all together, all the small buildings take up a thousand square miles. That’s bigness! And that scale is not human.

RW:  The guidelines by which you would measure the matter of scale would be to look at what is sheltered, what is fostered, and the quality of life within the structure being considered.

PS:  Yes, and its ability, as you were saying, to serve with a minimum of matter, of material. So we see very quickly that the suburban and exurban sprawl is demanding the maximum of material. The very maximum.

RW:  You’ve been influenced by the ideas of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, isn’t that right?

PS:  Yes, but that was forty years ago. I haven’t been just sitting there for forty years.

RW:  But you envision levels of development. There is a survivalist level which is the expression of our evolutionary past, but then there is the appearance of mind which makes it possible for new values to appear. This line of thinking is related in your thinking about architecture.

PS:  We have to find some kind of common element that keeps a certain coherence in what we are doing. The coherence found in human development could be that we have reached the point where we understand the appearance of self-awareness is one of the most incredible things that’s happened in the universe. So slowly we are developing some kind of responsibility to do in the universe what it has allowed us to do.

RW:  That makes me think of the idea of service.

PS:  Yes. Service, number one, to ourselves. Number two to the biosphere. Number three to reality. Reality, as far as I know, is dumb and fierce and mindless. We seem to be the one tiny speck of reality that has become mindful.

RW:  And yet you have a philosophy of eschatology, a teleological idea, that there is ultimately direction in the universe.

PS:  Yes, we need the notion of an end in order to make sense of ourselves and to make sense of suffering. Without an end, suffering becomes irrelevant, very ugly, a tragic situation.

RW:  There is the Greek term, metanoia— change of mind. In our consumer culture if I buy the message of advertising that happiness can be found through the consumption of products and the indulgence of my appetites, it doesn’t bode well for many reasons. It seems there has to be some sort of metanoia, a change of mind, a different outlook.

PS:  I tend to use the term, transcendence. To go beyond. To perforate the bubble in which one lives, to find out there is something else out there that may be more important. But I see this other thing as very much physical, very much like we are.

RW:  I know you’re not attracted to a certain kind of wishful thinking.

PS:  Because it’s cruel. It doesn’t deliver what it is promising. And naturally all those things are constructions of our brain. It’s not that there’s something there that rejects us. No, there’s nothing there. We have to make it. We have to create it.

RW:  Do you find it interesting that you are viewed as a dreamer— perhaps even though you take a sort of hard line in a way, in your realism.

PS:  Well yes. I think that’s because the mind that thinks I am a dreamer is not connected with reality. I think I am realistic, but I may not be a practical individual. The practical is very often almost the opposite of the real.

RW:  There’s a short-sighted version of the practical of which I think you’re speaking. Then there’s something we might call "enlightened self-interest" in which a larger view is taken.

PS:  Yes. I hope we can become better at it— develop more knowledge, more tolerance, more wisdom, and become aware of what we call love or compassion.

RW:  I know one of the main principles of your thought is the relevance of miniaturization, particularly as it’s a principle basic to the increasing complexity found in organic life. Now we’re seeing a tremendous increase in miniaturization via the digital revolution.

PS:  Almost a quantum jump. Yes.

RW:  And that has positive and negative aspects to it. I know that is something you have thought about.

PS:  And I’ve written about it. And through the Paradox program we are trying to make people aware of that. We are swimming or drowning in a sea of data—information—and we don’t seem to be able to find the time to transform it into knowledge.

RW:  In one of the workshop sessions I attended you proposed a model around this. First comes the information, then next, digestion, and finally assimilation. It would be easy enough to say that we’re full of information…

PS:  Our belly’s are full, let’s say—in a very abstract way. But in order to go from this belly full to nourishment, we have to assimilate and eventually become wiser.

RW:  It seems to me that as one goes through these three steps: information to digestion to assimilation there’s also the requirement of more time at each new step.

PS:  Our make-up is a consequence of billions of years of work, and so there is the question of how tight the sequence is that allows us to transform data or information into knowledge. We seem to be in a hurry, so we tend to put aside the last stage which is the important stage. But that may be just a consequence of the "magic" of the new technology which we have invented. It might be temporary phase of gearing up to a new speed, let’s say, and possibly to a better knowledge of things.

RW:  How do you envision this gearing up to a new speed?

PS:  Through the internet, for instance we communicate in an instant. That makes for almost a frenzy—not of doing perhaps—but of thinking of doing. That has changed the pace of life. That might be positive still. We don’t know.

RW:  But life takes a little time, don’t you think?

PS:  That’s right.

RW:  It terms of transportation anyway, it occurs to me from my own experience, that consciousness is inversely related to speed. The faster I go the less contact I have with the world. So I’ve come to regard walking as being at the top of the transportation scale.

PS:  That’s why I organize (city structure) in that way. There is so much in these spaces, so much to do, so much to learn, so much to tell. Keep in mind that in my model, space is reality. Only space.

RW:  I must say that there is one thing in your thought I’m not comfortable with, and that is the apparent willingness to embrace the idea of silicon based mind. Is that a recent direction?

PS:  Well I’m ignorant in this field. So I have to listen to other people in this area who know more. Some say that in ten years there may be a tiny speck of matter that would become more intelligent than me, you, and everybody else. A microchip becoming almost disembodied and somehow very intelligent.

RW:  Somehow that seems to be a concept you wouldn’t feel comfortable with.

PS:  Personally, if I was very young I’d be very uncomfortable. But at my age that might be the way in which intelligence becomes universal, in which case, it would be welcome. So the planet could become a zoo, a museum of the gap between the dumb universe and the universe which would be becoming intelligent. And in order to get to that point the flesh had to come about and guide matter to that threshold where matter would become intelligent. That would be the silicon intelligence we are inventing.

RW:  This is, in a way, very abstract thinking.

PS:  Not really. Because those people are very serious when they say it is not going to take a generation before this intelligence is superior to our intelligence.

RW:  You believe that?

PS:  I don’t believe. I have to accept these projections and then try to think what might happen.


About the Author

Richard Whittaker is the founding editor of works & conversations and West Coast editor of Parabola magazine     


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