Interviewsand Articles

 

Looking for Paolo Soleri

by Richard Whittaker, Jul 18, 2020


 

 










A Mythic Figure
In 1965, I was living on a three-acre site in a small handmade stone house of quietly eccentric character in southern California. Most of the materials used in the construction would not have been available at the local lumber yard or building supply. And further, the construction probably hadn’t been encumbered by the usual constraints of the permit process, engineering calculations, and so on. The house had been built by its owners rather than by contractors and sub-contractors. For these reasons I described the house as eccentric, but this word probably conveys a wrong impression. The house had a distinct quality, felt immediately, some quiet way that drew one’s attention to it.
     It had been put together with mortar and the plentiful local stone—granite—that having washed down from the San Gabriel Mountains only a few miles to the north, had been softened and rounded. Mt. Baldy, Mt. San Antonio and Cucamonga Peak, the closest peaks in the range, formed part of the northern boundary of the Pomona Valley running east to west.
     There were five houses on this site. The one I lived in was the smallest, and must have been the third or fourth one built. It consisted of one room downstairs, the main room, with two windows, a heavy wood plank door and stuccoed interior walls. The walls were thick, with the windows set in. In one corner was a fireplace. Across the ceiling ran rough-hewn timbers supporting the floor of the room above. The immediate impression, from inside, was reminiscent of adobe houses typical of New Mexico. To go upstairs one was obliged to step outside and walk up an exterior stairway. Reaching the top floor one entered a small kitchen with a wall of windows looking north to the mountains that could be glimpsed through the sycamore and palo verde trees that were plentiful on the property. Stepping down one small step from the kitchen one entered a little bedroom with a ceiling sloping to a low wall on the south side of the building. There were two windows in this room, one facing east and one west, and one opened to allow access to a small balcony with its own fountain, which no longer functioned. This little balcony overlooked the natural landscaping to the south side of the house. Completing the inventory of rooms was a little stone-walled bathroom which stood outside at the foot of the stairs all by itself.
     The houses, all of them, were well made and showed an obvious evolution in design. Two were conventional in layout, but the other three showed a progressive departure from convention as if the builder had gradually given more and more of himself over to the promptings of creative impulse. Walls began to curve, and along these walls alcoves appeared; unexpected windows opened upon a hidden garden, and once fountains had flowed from second stories down sculptured walls, as had been the case with my own little balcony.
     It was hard to know how these stone houses and grounds had looked originally. The grounds, by the time I arrived, had become overgrown and had taken on some of the characteristics of the local chaparral. In addition to sycamore, there were mulberry, oak, sage, manzanita, poison oak, scotch broom and acacia. Many of the original outdoor decorative structures—a pyramid, a circular wall of stone forming an open enclosure maybe 20 feet across, outdoor fireplaces, and other things—had fallen into various states of disrepair. There was evidence of a certain amount of vandalism that had taken place as the property must have been vacant at some point.
     In my landlord, Paul Osborne’s, house one wall had partially collapsed sometime before he had taken possession, and he chose not to rebuild it, the climate being mostly hot and dry. With minor adaptations—the construction of a trellis roof and provisions for temporary closure in case of rain and cold—he ended up with a living space opening to yucca, palo verde, prickly pear and other native species planted by the original builder’s wife, a Native American woman, who had landscaped the entire site.
     With a little gardening and stone work, an extended living space of no small magic had appeared. It abutted an outdoor studio which lay open to the sky, and where Osborne and his wife made architectural, sand-cast, stained glass panels and windows, among other things. Osborne drove a dilapidated Citroen 2CV around town and, in his local travels, always kept an eye open for unsecured building materials he might appropriate. On late night sorties, Osborne and a character I remember mostly for his brawn and manic energy, managed to secure materials for various home improvement projects. A typical example that comes to mind was a load of telephone poles that showed up one morning outside Osborne’s studio. These he transformed—with handsaw, chisel, hammer, thousands of rusty nails and assorted metal scraps—into a series of rustic animal sculptures of surprising charm. Some were sold and others kept around as garden ornaments adding to the overall atmosphere. One felt at home in a way difficult to name. An air of benign neglect prevailed, but something in the air seemed to favor the possibility of connection with experience that, in the usual noise of living, eludes notice.
     In the desert climate, only the swimming pool was maintained with care, and in any case, the native plants seemed to take care of themselves. The pool, built of the same stone as the houses, was enclosed on two sides by a grove of lemon trees, typical of the citrus that at one time had virtually filled the Pomona Valley, at least along the San Gabriel foothills. With each irrigation cycle, the pool would be re-filled with the San Antonio Water District’s cool, pure water. A wild grape vine finished the enclosure—behind which railroad tracks carried trains to and from Los Angeles thirty-five miles to the west.
     The original builder, whose name I never did learn, was said to have left the place years before I found my way there in 1965. He and his wife had fled southeast into the desert to an area near Hemet. Eventually Hemet itself became just another nondescript desert suburb of Los Angeles. But these were not matters of concern to me. I was a student at a nearby Pomona College, thrilled at my fortune in finding such a place. Rent: $75 a month. My preoccupations were focused on the promise and confusion of wherever my own life was headed.
     It was while living in this place that I first heard of Paolo Soleri. As I was eventually to believe, in this lay a hidden congruence, perhaps an example of how little one understands the real forces active in one’s life, although that’s another question. It was from my landlord, Paul Osborne, that I first heard the visionary architect’s name. He must have been as pleased as I was to find these stone houses. He’d arrived there, by way of Chicago, New York, New Mexico and Hollywood. In tow were his two beautiful children and his wife Judy, a former Hollywood model. By turns Osborne was actor, artisan, raconteur, party animal, brawler and occasional madman capable of clearing a party in under a minute. I was witness to one such occasion. Well into an evening of high spirits, loud music and controlled substances—Osborne had grabbed his Winchester 30-30 off the wall and fired a couple of rounds through the ceiling. I recall my urgent scan of the crowded room to locate the source of the gunfire. I spotted Osborne across the room whose eyes in that moment seemed to convey a besotted satisfaction. I feared, however, that the look rested on the thinnest veneer of predictability and at that moment, I desired above all, not to be any place in his line of sight.
     Such transformations in Osborne’s character would have come as a shock to a casual acquaintance. A handsome man, he possessed a natural eloquence. His manner was quiet and restrained, his speech precise. But once engaged, he would fix his listener with his intense, pale blue, slightly bulging eyes and should a good ear be found, in minutes he would be on his feet. His arms would come into play and the entertainer would appear. There was something of the New Yorker in his style that always lent a note of incongruity to his persona as a southwest bohemian.
     Sometimes I worked for Osborne as his studio assistant helping to make his stained glass panels, and was often entertained by his many stories. Osborne had spent some time at Cosanti, Soleri’s original site in the desert east of Phoenix. He spoke of working in the desert heat, piling earth into huge mounds. At a certain point, concrete would be poured directly over the surface of these mounds and after it had set, Osborne and the other young idealists who had been attracted to Soleri’s desert project would dig the earth out. What remained would be the shell of a new building—all curves and hand-made pattern, utterly unlike any other building in Phoenix. It was exhausting work for very little money, but obviously there had been something transcending these issues. Paolo Soleri.
     Whenever Osborne said the name, he straightened himself, slowed and looked off into the distance. The gesture conveyed more than his stories. Who was this Paolo Soleri, I’d wondered.
     Upon graduation a year later, I moved to San Francisco. From time to time I’d run across an article about Soleri. I was struck by his drawings of the fantastic cities he envisioned, sometimes rising to a mile in height. I looked at them with interest, but had trouble relating these images to anything Osborne’s stories had evoked during my time living in the stone house. The next time I visited the site of the five stone houses ten years had passed. They were gone. In their place stood a small strip mall, heat waves shimmering in the air rising from an asphalt parking area. As I looked for even one familiar stone or edge that might have confirmed the former existence of the stone houses, any thought of Paolo Soleri was furthest from my mind.

Arcosanti
     It was really one of those accidental things that led me a step closer to Paolo Soleri. My wife and I had been returning home from a trip to New Orleans when we happened across a road sign in Arizona that read, Arcosanti. As we were in no hurry, we decided to take a little detour and suddenly I found myself full of anticipation. All the Solerian images that had ever entered my imagination seemed to compete with each other. In the confusion I knew only one thing, it would have to be extraordinary. So when Arcosanti’s outline first came into focus across the desert scrub, my first experience was disappointment. Arcosanti bears little resemblance to the fantastic images of what a full-scale Solerian city might look like. Nevertheless, it’s a complex of substantial buildings with more being built all the time, and my wife and I spent a pleasant hour or two there. We visited the bell foundry and the ceramics studio, and lingered in the gift gallery where we bought a couple of Soleri’s bronze windbells. Before leaving we had a bite to eat in the cafe and gazed out through one of the large, round windows across the desert.
     Construction has been continuous at Arcosanti beginning in 1970. Ten years later when I arrived a second time, new buildings had been completed and two more were underway. A year-round population of some 50 people was living there. In spite of this, my impression was that not much had changed in the ten-year period between visits. As it stands, Arcosanti is a small fragment of what Soleri envisions—a dense complex housing a population of 6000. Completed, it would serve to test—or better yet, to demonstrate—a core idea of his thought, “the urban effect"—a synergistic boost in social energy and quality of life that results when a certain level of population density is reached in an urban, mixed-use context. One can see this tendency already in some of the biggest and most densely populated cities—Tokyo and New York, for instance. But in spite of the degree to which Arcosanti has fallen short of Soleri’s vision, one has to admit that, as the idiosyncratic vision of one man, it’s a remarkable achievement in that it exists at all.


     One of the key principles Soleri talks about is frugality. One might mention—only ironically—the problems that could follow were frugality to catch on. At any rate, while Arcosanti is not an arcology, a full scale Solerian city, it stands as the visible result of one man’s effort to awaken a culture to practices that cannot continue without the eventual arrival at a crisis of depletion and collapse.
     It would be difficult to quantify the impact Soleri’s ideas have had over the years. Thousands of visitors come to Arcosanti and Cosanti, and year in and year out hundreds of students pass through workshops there. To one degree or another they carry away Soleri’s vision as well as his critique of urban sprawl, the destructive impact of the automobile, the need for ecological mindfulness, better designs and practices for energy efficiency and the responsibility each of us has to live more consciously in regard to these matters.
     On my second visit to Arcosanti, a group of architecture students from Japan—as well as other young architects and students from the U.S., Mexico and Argentina—were attending a work/study program. Soleri, now in his eighties, meets with such groups at least twice a week to discuss his ideas with them. This has been going on for decades.
     I was curious to learn what brought them to Arcosanti. Jeffrey Rawlins, a young architect from Louisville, after eight years of practice felt the need to take a break for some self-examination: “What am I really doing?” he asked. “Am I propagating what is already out of control? Could I actually make a difference?” He spoke first of how he liked the sense of community he found at Arcosanti, but admitted he had trouble relating to the grander aspects of Soleri’s ideas. On the other hand, he was convinced that many of Soleri’s principles could be applied on a small scale to much advantage—mixed-use zoning, higher density housing, the creation of community gardens, an emphasis on green use as much as possible, etc. On this scale, the possibility of implementation felt within reach. It seemed Rawlins would return to Louisville with a clearer sense of direction and a refreshed sense of purpose.
     Another young man, Paul Bagley, left a good position in corporate culture in Chicago because, like Rawlins, he’d found himself asking where it was all headed. For Bagley, concerns about the environment were central. He’d lived at Arcosanti for three years and presumably would return to mainstream culture advocating for the environment with some new understandings about what might be helpful. At a certain point, I realized that in my own incidental contacts with the architecture school at the University of California at Berkeley, I’d absorbed the strong impression that the entire department was on fire with these and related concerns. Yet, Soleri saw these problems long ago, and his work at Arcosanti has been a significant factor in helping raise the level of awareness around these issues.
     My second visit there was preceded by a written request for an interview. Although Mr. Soleri made no response, eventually I got a message from Mary Hoadley, the coordinator at Arcosanti. She suggested I might find it interesting to visit for a few days and that, if I timed it right, I could sit in on some seminars at which Mr. Soleri would be present. She added that he was no longer giving interviews. A few weeks later I left for Arizona figuring no matter what happened, the visit would be worthwhile.
     From Arcosanti the view across the northern Arizona desert is superb. The sharp boundary between Arcosanti and the natural environment demonstrates one of the principles Soleri advocates: a clean division between the city and nature. Also demonstrated at Arcosanti is Soleri’s idea that the city should be built on poor land for farming in order to leave the good land available for growing crops. The buildings at Arcosanti stand along the edge of a rocky desert mesa overlooking a valley in which there is good bottomland. A small river runs through it, and the community uses the land to grow most of its vegetables. A number of other simple and practical principles are also demonstrated in the buildings and layout of Arcosanti. I was struck by the use of the apse as an architectural shape ideally suited for efficiency in dealing with the sun’s energy. Take a sphere, cut it in half and then cut that in half again. One is left with a quarter sphere. Set it down with the open part aligned with the sun’s path across the sky on the summer solstice. When the sun is high overhead, one is shaded by the arching roof, but as the sun’s passage through the sky declines toward the south and winter approaches, the sunlight comes in under the curving roof to heat the interior of the sphere. The shape creates shade during the summer and catches the sun’s heat during the winter in an elegantly simple way.
     During my few days there, I heard Mr. Soleri speak at some length and was surprised to discover a quiet man, not the charismatic extrovert I’d half expected. In his speech, he seemed to embody the principle of frugality, and only when drawn out by persistent questioning did this impression change. As he elaborated, one began to see a deeply passionate nature. Why had an arcological city never been built? he was asked. Because so many of his principles went against the grain of our consumer culture, he replied. Pressed for clarification, he began to detail some of the frustrations suffered at the small-mindedness and self-interest of bureaucrats, politicians, and a society increasingly being reduced to numbing mediocrity.
     I began to sense the intensity of his feelings. He cited an example. A plan was submitted to the Havasupai County building department for the construction of a greenhouse apron along the southern face of the mesa below Arcosanti. What was needed was a light structural support for a visquine membrane roof stretched at a height of nine or ten feet above ground to capture the heat from the winter sun. In this way vegetables and flowers could be grown in the enclosed space along the south side of the mesa during the winter months. At the same time, through this simple device, the heated air, rising naturally, could be directed into the buildings above to save heating costs.
     The officials at the building department insisted on interpreting the needed structure—a minimal greenhouse enclosure—as a standard building. It would then become subject to all the constraints and requirements specified for buildings designed as habitations. Because of the increased costs associated with this interpretation, a simple, feasible plan was made impossible to implement for lack of sufficient funds.
     The more I listened to Mr. Soleri, in spite of all the fantastic images associated with him—drawings of communities in space or floating on the ocean, for instance, and in spite of the many fantastic things he’d committed to writing—the more I was reminded of something Henry Miller wrote about the sculptor Beniamino Bufano, another Italian who had difficulties with bureaucrats, and who also had a vision of a better world: “The man who talks common sense, the man who advocates simple direct methods of procedure, the man who demands truth and honesty, the man who acts as if these ways of proceeding were right and natural, brings about a disturbance. Of such a man it is certain to be said, he is a crackpot, that he knows nothing of practical affairs, that he is just a poet…”
     Listening to Mr. Soleri as he responded to the questions of students, I was struck by the simple persuasiveness of his replies. The Utopian dreamer was nowhere in sight. How to reconcile such conflicting pictures?
     As Mr. Soleri was finishing up at one of the seminar meetings, Mary Hoadley took me over and introduced me. As we shook hands I explained myself briefly, and overcoming my reservations about putting him on the spot, I asked if he might grant an interview. After some hesitation he said that if I would drive down to Cosanti in Phoenix, he would meet with me in two days. I was elated.

Cosanti
   The morning of the interview I got up as the sun’s first light was raking across the rocky cliffs of the mesas to the south. The air was cool and clear. As I drove toward Phoenix I imagined the interview to come, the different places it could go. All along, I’d imagined a lengthy interview. The depth and breadth of material, the complexity of it all begged for sufficient time for its unfolding. How do you see architecture? That question alone could easily fill the interview, but it was only a beginning.
     Arriving, the first thing I noticed about Cosanti was how different it felt in comparison to Arcosanti. Everything was smaller, more intimate. I found my way to the gift gallery where a call to Mr. Soleri’s office brought the message that, if possible, he would come out in a little while. Back outside, I saw that the entire place was a work of handmade sculpture. This, I suddenly realized, was the place of Osborne’s stories, the place he’d helped to build. In a stroke, a new perspective on the place I’d lived 30 years earlier opened. The recognition set off a surge of feelings.
     The man from the gallery shop interrupted my thoughts to tell me Mr. Soleri was on his way out. Moments later we were shaking hands and Mr. Soleri said, “I can give you ten minutes.”
     My heart sunk. And looking into Mr. Soleri’s composed visage, I saw there was no time to waste on protest.
     As it turned out, we talked for 25 or 30 minutes. At a certain point I began to worry that I might not get to ask about something that troubled me: Mr. Soleri’s apparent embrace of the idea of silicon mind—the idea that computers would become conscious beings and the next step forward in evolution. It seemed impossible to reconcile this idea with so much of what he’d written before, and which I’d heard him say only a couple of days earlier. I was afraid that a challenge on this topic would cut the interview short. On the other hand, he could invoke the time limit at any moment, and I’d miss the chance altogether. Finally I broached the subject and, although he made a response, it did indeed bring the interview to a close. We were suddenly standing and shaking hands good-bye.
     However, just as Mr. Soleri was turning to leave, a young man spotted him and made a hasty approach. Suddenly upon us, he began breathlessly to relate how, on a high school field trip to Cosanti, he’d first encountered Soleri’s work. It had changed his life. As the young man went on, Mr. Soleri edged backwards not wishing to be frankly rude, but clearly distressed at having already—by extending his time with me—made himself absent to whatever was requiring his presence somewhere else.
     The young man, thoroughly ingenuous, seeing Mr. Soleri’s uncertain retreat, pressed forward even more emphatically. After seeing Cosanti, he hadn’t gone on to college. Instead, he’d enrolled in classes for welding and building. Already he’d built his own cement house, in fact! And that was eight years ago.
     All this while Mr. Soleri had continued edging away from both of us, unable, for some reason, to take the situation in hand. Finally he simply turned his back and walked away.

On the Way Home
   Palm Springs marks, more or less, the eastern point of the urban sprawl which also extends north and south from Los Angeles in a triangular territory thousands of square miles in size. Housing developments, apartment buildings, strip malls, multiplexes, chain restaurants, fast-food joints, gas stations, warehouses, office complexes, industrial parks, parking lots and freeways seem to spread out endlessly. Municipalities are simply areas marked out by lines in this expanse of low-rise, relatively low-density development. The area is so large it swallows a constellation of municipalities; San Bernardino, Riverside, Redlands, Pomona, Ontario, Upland, Cucamonga and several others jointly designate themselves as “The Inland Empire,” in a futile attempt to acquire a separate identity in the midst of the sprawl.
     I’d been on the road for only a few hours after leaving Cosanti by the time I’d reached this eastern desert edge of Los Angeles. From the freeway I spotted one of those chain restaurants of which it can be said it’s most prominent quality is a lack of the human touch. It was about 4 p.m. and I wanted to stop and think a little about all I’d just been through. A young Hispanic woman seated me at a booth and handed me a menu with the familiar high-gloss, four-color photographs of food seemingly running for office.
     “Can I just get a coffee?”
     She didn’t seem to mind, and I sat there wondering if any clarity would come into focus. The place was nearly empty. Two retirees in khaki shorts made their way leisurely past me toward the cashier. Both sported hefty midriffs and had their white hair trimmed in a military cut. I couldn’t help watching them with a certain detached curiosity.
     Just short of the cash register, their attention was suddenly captivated by an assortment of flashy pastries in a display case where they came to a sudden halt.
      “I bet you want something in there!” chirped the woman cashier in that cheery voice reserved for children and senior citizens.
     Watching all this, I remembered Mr. Soleri—also an old man, 81 in fact—hurrying by me just three days before on his way to the pool at Arcosanti. The contrast could hardly have been greater. Mr. Soleri’s face had worn an expression of preoccupation, perhaps of worry—the face of someone engaged in the world. The day had been sunny and in his swimming briefs, he still looked quite fit.
      I nursed my cup of coffee and doodled in a notebook, waiting for the caffeine to kick in and perhaps bring a visit from the muse. But nothing of the sort happened. Instead, I found myself noticing the familiar earmarks of a culture that, in the sixties, we’d described as “plastic.” I wasn’t surprised by such observations, but the way they pressed in upon me seemed to have something to do with my experiences of the preceding few days.
     When I left the place I found myself behind an older couple at the cashier’s counter and the cheery voice was back. I studied the young woman’s face at the cash register. The cheeriness didn’t seem to fit.

Questions
      The man I found was not anything like what I’d expected, but, for all that, more intriguing. If the impressions of sadness I’d sensed in Mr. Soleri were not just figments of my imagination, perhaps it had something to do with the fact that our time is one in which it’s not easy to be a prophet.
      Who is Paolo Soleri? Certainly he’s a complex man deeply divided. As he himself notes, “As a has-been Catholic, I cannot separate the Catholic Church from nostalgia for the events of childhood and youth.… There is, then, an emotional block to rationalization… One is then rationalizing a posteriori under the a priori constraint of psycho-emotional nature.”1 How does a man of deeply religious sensibility who could say, “The divine notion is the most encompassing of all concepts and the most forceful of all hypotheses.”2 salvage religious meaning in this era?
     Soleri realized, as Neitzsche had observed a hundred years before, that science had replaced the church as gatekeeper to the what-and-how-of-the-Real. Values would necessarily have to be grounded in this world, not the next world. As Soleri says in our interview, “Reality, as far as I know, is dumb and fierce and mindless.” At the same time—ultimately—how could social and personal values be supported on a ground of pure accident and impersonal forces?
     Teilhard de Chardin’s theology with its principle of convergence provided a model for Soleri’s thinking about this question, although other influences are evident as well. And in his attempt to work out a theology consistent with twentieth century secular thought, one feels the intensity of his struggle to reconcile the world of his childhood Roman Catholicism with that of Western science. He focuses on the appearance of organic life in the world of inorganic matter— the “transformation of mineral into flesh.” Out of this he distills the two principles of complexification and miniaturization that become the explanatory axis of his “Eschatological Hypothesis.” Matter-become-life—protoplasm, chromosomes, DNA—is far more complex than the simple matter of the mineral world. The human brain is perhaps more complex than the solar system, for example. The mineral world, transformed, is vivified, charged. Describing this, Soleri, at times, gets carried away: “Organisms have such power charged and stored away in their limitless lust for the absolute. Theoretically it would only take a few hours or days for an unleashed reproductive force of organism to transform the whole cosmos into flesh!!”3  Here is the man of passion.
      In any case, the two principles of complexification and miniaturization are asked to accomplish a great deal. A third principle, that of endurance through time, is added [somehow] to these two. One arrives then at his “complexity, miniaturization, duration paradigm [which] epitomizes interdependence, cooperation, and synergy. At a higher level it epitomizes reflection, anticipation, compassion, love, grace, transfiguration, mind. It is the urban effect.…”4 It is this urban effect upon which Soleri’s reconciliation is based—this along with the principle of evolution. Life shows an evolution toward increasing complexity, and according to Soleri, increasing miniaturization. Given an evolution toward ever-increasing complexity, miniaturization, duration—and therefore ever-greater synergy and mind—one can make the poetic leap to an end point of total unity, total complexity, zero space and eternity: Omega God.  
      However it will be up to man—the only being in which such ideas have appeared—to make it happen. If man can find the will, the frugality, the excellence, the self-sacrifice—man may succeed in his role—perhaps his responsibility—of being a catalyst in the creation of Omega God. Truly, the vision is grandiose. Perhaps Soleri himself has misgivings at the scope of such proposals. Certainly, one reads with interest his own insight that “The splendor of the spirit is not made of reductionist mechanisms.”5
      This insight, typical of similar ones to be found in his writings, reflects something of the contradictory thrusts that tend to show up in his thinking. As Soleri himself makes clear, his experience struggling with the question of meaning in the modern age is one of anguish, “…our destiny is like the destiny of an assembly-line worker condemned to make a bolt, condemned to know nothing more than what he makes is no part of any mechanism he knows of. He has only the anguished feeling that a monster is developing from his bolt-making, an immensely strange and frightful robot-god beyond his grasp and, more distressing, beyond his desire.”6 The conflict is most clearly expressed in his relationship with technology, about which he seems to switch back and forth.
      A phrase one hears often nowadays, “spiritual technology,” can appear in his writing as if it pointed somewhere promising. But to enter into relation with what is, as a technologist, is to place oneself apart in a particular way, that is, in a relationship whereby what-is exists as something standing available for my use. Such a view places the viewer apart and outside of what is. Along these lines, one finds his contention that, “The hope of the species, godliness, resides in the refinement of the exobiological servosystem. The computer is theoretically at the demarcation line.”7
     On the other hand, one can just as easily find doubts: “Somewhere, in its future, the flesh will be discarded in favor of non-physiological structures. What of the soul when the flesh is dead? Will the desires of such a machine have a superior capacity for creation, or will its desire, its longings, be bent toward the utter tranquility of a dead universe?”8
      Such examples can be multiplied should one wish to read through Soleri’s writings to collect more. But although his writing often tends toward the crypto-polemic and to puzzling contradictions, in my experiences of listening to Mr. Soleri himself, limited as they were, none of this was in evidence. Instead I found a man who spoke quietly, simply and with unexpected restraint. And listening to him, one wondered why anyone would consider him anything less than a wise man with some profoundly important things to say.

Money
      As of yet, no Solerian city has been built. Arcosanti is far from completion. What is needed is money for its completion, a lot of money. At Arcosanti, for the past three years Soleri has hosted what he calls “The Paradox Project.” This is a conference designed to attract cyberians to Arcosanti. About this, Soleri quite openly says, “The Paradox Project has two complementary purposes: one, to explore the fundamental issues raised at the intersection of arcology and cyberspace; and two, to support new Arcosanti funding initiatives targeted at the affluent members of the cyberspace community. It would be unkind to call this jumping on the bandwagon. However in all likelihood, no arcology will be built in Mr. Soleri’s lifetime, no matter what he does.

Love of the City
      After a while it occurred to me that everything in Soleri’s thinking begins and ends with the city. What else could have prompted him to name the central tenet of his faith, the Urban Effect? Then there is the title of his major book Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. He also favors using the Latin civitas dei, the city of God, in his writings. Something basic can be understood just from the role this word holds in his writings. In notes taken while listening to him at Arcosanti, I find the following, “The city is a non-material phenomenon,” “The city is the true concern of architecture,” and “The care of the citizen is the sap of the city—one can care only for what one loves.”
      Pondering this, it occurred to me that the thought, “I love cities,” has never passed through my mind. On the other hand,  “I love this city,” is not unfamiliar, and leads me to recall my own first experiences of San Francisco, some of the most memorable of my life. The magic of those days seem to be beyond repetition. Who can not recall some perfect moment in a city—which was, after all, only possible at the intersection of many complex strands of culture—perhaps something so seemingly trivial as an afternoon in a coffee shop, or a park, or simply walking down a street and taking in everything around one. One may recognize, even, that architecture—in some cases—really does open a portal to the divine. Do not certain memories come back at the thought?
      In and around San Francisco, to be honest, for me such moments have sometimes been almost a daily experience. But to be fair, how many cities are so blessed? My visits to Manhattan—fewer than I’d like—have provided their share of such moments. But it would be overlooking a great deal to think such moments were limited to the glamorous cities alone. Not at all. One naturally turns then to Paolo Soleri with the question, where does your love of the city come from? The answer, one has to imagine, must lie in Turin.
      What was the city of his childhood like? In one of the seminar sessions at Arcosanti, I recall him saying that going downstairs and out onto the street was to enter his own front yard, his playground. One imagines a city in which the church was relatively intact, where extended families were the norm and where life was rooted in a sense of place. One imagines a city in which it was safe for a child to play, where an atmosphere prevailed which, in our cities at least, has long since disappeared.
      Not long ago I was in Italy for the first time, not in Turin, but I did visit Firenze, Assissi, Roma, Venezia and a few hill towns—Volpaia, Volterra and Rada. Just thinking about these towns and cities fills me with a yearning for something I felt there. Perhaps it was an echo still present in the stonework, or the quality of life I sometimes felt among people talking in front of stores or sitting together on benches in a little park. I was reminded of something I’d felt before—certainly, to some degree, during the year I lived in the stone house in1965 in southern California. In this, I could not help imagining myself a little closer to understanding something of Mr. Soleri’s love for the city.

The Bells
      But after all, I’m left with the sense of not having got very far in my attempt to meet this unique man. As I thought about this, one more thing came up, something that seems almost trivial in relation to the grand scope of his thought—his bells. By now, they must be all over the world.
     In one of the seminars I was sitting in on, I recall him saying that after dinner, most nights of the week, he sits and carves styrofoam for new designs for his bells. Making the bells had come about as an accident. He was asked if he wished to take over a bell-making project for someone else. At first he was not interested, but then agreed to take it on. That was many years ago, and it has become an activity to which he turns at the end of the day.
     I imagine him retiring from the dinner table to a welcome spot, and turning to this simple work—simple, but one in which the hand, eye and feeling are brought together in the ancient way. In this moment I imagine him able to rest, and to feel himself whole again.
      The sale of bells has been a major source of income, helping to fund Soleri’s work at Arcosanti, but it’s not this that strikes me. The bells stand at one end of a spectrum where, far off at the other end, are visions of arcologies and cosmologies. The work of making bells, the places they go to in people’s homes, the sounds called out of them by the wind—these are things that lie close to us. In their closeness, perhaps they can serve to remind us of something standing even closer, something always hidden. ∆

1. The Omega Seed, An Eschatological Hypothesis, Anchor Press/Doubleday Garden City, New York, 1981 p. 83-84
2. ibid., p, 48
3. Arcosanti, An Urban Laboratory? Cosanti Press Scottsdale AZ, 1993 p. 92
4. ibid., p. 94
5. The Omega Seed, An Eschatological Hypothesis, Anchor Press/Doubleday Garden City, New York, 1981 p. 83-84
6. ibid., p. 85
7. ibid., p. 34
8. ibid., p. 57  
 

About the Author

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

 

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