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What to do with Paolo Soleri (1919–2013)? For the last half-century, the work of the Italian-born architect has seemingly refused to conform to the stylistic and theoretical concerns of the times. That is, until recently, when Cosanti, the foundation he established, began making efforts to transform the general perception of his work from one of an arts-and-crafts practice to that of visionary sustainable design. For the discipline of art history, however, Soleri’s legacy is important, not for his attempts to create efficient urban structures, but for his refusal to deny the significance of the aesthetic component of any human environment. This is the aspect of his work underlined by the modest but impactful show mounted by the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMoCA), entitled Paolo Soleri: Mesa City to Arcosanti. Though not intended as such, it was transformed into something of a memorial exhibition for the architect, who passed away near the end of its run.
Concisely and effectively curated by Claire Carter, this monographic show functions on a number of different levels. For residents of the Phoenix area, it serves to highlight the contributions of a local, internationally recognized architect and student of another famous (part-time) resident: Frank Lloyd Wright. It also provides a bit of context for a recent reurbanization initiative: a monumental pedestrian bridge designed by Soleri for the canal that runs through town. Taken together, the bridge and the exhibition symbolize an end to the city’s neglect of its local utopian. But the show is not purely eulogistic. It is also a subtle rebuke to local planning policies (pedestrian bridges and bike paths notwithstanding) in that Soleri’s philosophy of compact, high-density design forms a startling contrast to the surrounding endlessly expanding exurban sprawl.
At the same time, this exhibition goes far beyond provincial concerns. Its spare presentation of drawings, models, and posters (along with the compulsory touchscreen multimedia displays) from the most fecund fifteen-year period of Soleri’s career is ample demonstration of his two greatest talents: architectural drafting and public outreach. The centerpieces of the show are two drawings and a model. The drawings (1959–64)—literally rough around the edges and water-stained—are elevations of Mesa City, a dense agglomeration of organic skyscrapers connected by terraces and walkways. The forms grow up and across creating an urban megastructure. The model (1969) is for another project, Arcosanti, which is clearly indebted to the Mesa City megastructural concept, but is very different in formal tone (see below). Images of these drawings and models (the Arcosanti model is one of several constructed at the time) have been widely published since their creation, and any student of 1960s utopian urban design will approach them as old friends. Seeing them in person, however, is nothing short of a revelation.
The drawings prove that Soleri was one of the great modern draftspersons. They were drawn largely freehand at a 1:500 scale on massive sheets of butcher paper, pulled directly from the spool, and rerolled as sections were completed. One can sense, therefore, motion in the elevations—structures seem to grow vertically, and horizontal connections among them appear to twist and bend as the viewer walks the length of the scroll. They are expressionistic, with tectonic details and the specifics of program left largely to the imagination. Yet they convey Soleri’s fusion of the organic and the technological in everything he produces. The buildings respond to the imaginary topography, yet also assert their plastic autonomy. The shapes are evocative—of sinews and other organic tissues, of cells and plants—but not mimetic. These designs are infused with the spirit of Soleri’s forerunners—Antoni Gaudí, Frederick Kiesler, Antonio Sant’Elia, Wright, Le Corbusier—but also seem perfectly adapted to the cultural milieu of the 1960s.
Another drawing, a proper axonometric rendering in this case, presents Arcosanti. The massive urban megastructure is shown interfacing with—almost growing out of—the smaller (but real) Cosanti site, Soleri’s home in Scottsdale. This image was also frequently reproduced, and in the exhibition the original is presented alongside a reproduction. This is a remarkable juxtaposition, allowing the viewer to examine the drawing free of the obtrusive labels that usually accompanied its reproduction. I was able to discern details of the design that I had previously overlooked when seeing the same image reproduced.
In the middle of the gallery is the model of Arcosanti, built for a landmark exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in 1969. It was constructed from small uniform translucent tiles of Plexiglas (some of which are colored). These give a geometric regularity to the design for the experimental urban structure lacking in the drawings. Indeed, one sees here that Soleri was a modular thinker, always planning for prefabrication, mass production, ease of assembly, and flexibility of use—qualities rarely acknowledged in the critical literature on his work. Like the drawings, though, the model is a bit worse for wear, having been stored in a semi-open-air structure for the last forty-five years or so. The SMoCA show is the first time it has been taken out for display during that entire time. Sadly, this is one of many such models that still reside in similarly poor condition at the nearby Cosanti Foundation. This show is hopefully a first step to a larger preservation effort.
The other remarkable thing about the Arcosanti model is that it was not made for a speculative project. Almost as soon as the model was completed for the Corcoran, Soleri began construction of the urban complex on a desert mesa north of Phoenix. Work still continues on Arcosanti, both a relic of late 1960s utopianism and a paragon of contemporary sustainable design. The attempt to build this project provides the impetus for other materials in the show, the most interesting of which are promotional posters mailed to subscribers or posted on bulletin boards at Arizona State University in the early 1970s. Utilizing beautiful renderings and provocative texts, the brightly colored posters exhort students to join the construction efforts. One poster has an added sticker that pleads in Soleri’s distinctive prose: “I am trying to communicate with all you students. Please do not take the poster.” Another promotional image includes a funky color-coded floor plan of the project, listing among its various functional spaces areas for the practical, and less so, activities of “living, maintaining, contemplating, cooking, producing, promenading, and bathing (group).” All of these functions are remarkably integrated in the plan itself, indicating that Arcosanti was to be a highly cosmopolitan city, even if realized via basic means.
This apparent paradox was always a problem for Soleri, who was happy to take advantage of the grassroots goodwill of the counterculture, but who also rejected many of its fundamental premises. As much as he was an advocate for ecological design, this never meant for him a return to a more “natural” existence. Indeed, he wanted to intensify humanity’s intervention in the natural world, making it more concentrated and conscious. And he, like so many other modernist visionaries, felt that this intervention should occur according to his plan alone. Thus, anecdotes abound about hippies moving to Arcosanti, only to leave disillusioned by its overt social hierarchies. But even though Soleri denied any association with the counterculture, his projects were indelibly tied to it. Therefore, the SMoCA exhibition can be seen as an addendum to another recent show, the excellent West of Center: Art and the Counterculture Experiment in America, 1965–1977 that originated at the Denver Art Museum and traveled to Scottsdale in 2012.
Soleri’s ideas are often confounding, his writing famously obtuse, and his design sensibilities willfully out of step with the mainstream. All of this falls away, however, thanks to the exhibition’s spare presentation of its objects, which manage to call forth a powerful architectural vision while also maintaining a bit of aesthetic autonomy in their folded, stained, and dusty glory.
Associate Professor, School of Art, University of Arizona
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