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Lisa Scafuro on Paolo Soleri

Paolo Soleri, a disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright, was considered among the 20th-centuries most visionary architectural thinkers. He died in April 2013.
By Corinna Amendola
Published: 2013-09-23

n the vivid prose that accompanied his 1970 "Sketchbooks," Italian-born architect Paolo Soleri offered a poetic and pragmatic view of humanism. In describing bridge design, he called manmade crossings "a symbol of confidence and trust ... a communications medium as much as a connector." Bridges, he explained, linked "people, software and hardware" that together formed part of a "a vast network of stresses..."

Soleri, who died in April 2013 at age 93, spent a lifetime speculating on ways and means of relieving humankind from its "network of stresses" by designing communities and cities he hoped would be in greater harmony with the environment, eventually developing an ecological view of urban planning that he dubbed "arcology."

Born in Turin in 1919, Soleri spent most of his formative years in northern Italy, watching as Benito Mussolini and his coterie of architects worked on creating a triumphalist Italy. They envisioned a new Roman Empire founded on wide boulevards, concrete structures, and whole new neighborhoods, all them intended to exalt the priorities of the ill-fated Fascist regime.

Just after World War II, his Italian doctorate in hand, Soleri left Turin behind to attend American architect Frank Lloyd Wright's apprenticeship program at Taliesin West in Arizona's Paradise Valley. Taliesin West was both Wright's winter home and a high-level school. On a mesa north of Phoenix, he and his acolytes sought to integrate architecture into its surrounding landscape and wildlife. It was a self-sufficient approach to urban design that Soleri would later formally adopt and promote for the rest of his life.

Original sketch of Soleri's "Hyper Building," a self-contained city.

Soleri returned to Italy in 1950, where he was asked to design a vast ceramics factory, Ceramic Artistica Solimene, in the city of Vietri on the Amalfi Coast. He soon became fascinated by the potential of ceramics, using it extensively in the factory's design. He created wind-bells from ceramics and bronze that would later feature in all his buildings. Italian newspaper critics compared aspects of Soleri's Ceramica Artistica headquarters to the work of unconventional Catalan Antoni Gaudí.

But Soleri's sweeping vision did not fit the conservative tone of Italy's 1950s boom. In 1956, he settled in Arizona, where he designed and built a gallery-studio near Scottsdale that he named "Cosanti." The visionary desert complex, where he lived with his wife Colly, included terraces and subterranean chambers. He used a combination of earth and concrete and incorporated solar power. Even the name "Cosanti" reflected Soleri's non-conformity. In Italian, cosa means thing, and anti against. Later, in 1970, while lecturing at Arizona State University, Soleri began building Arcosanti, an experimental community north of Phoenix that would be based entirely on arcology — an attempt to build prototype urban living spaces that would do the least possible harm to the land of its site and incorporate what the land and environment had to offer "A central tenet of arcology," he wrote, "is that the city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of humankind."

Soleri sought to reverse commonplace urban trends, in which cities "literally transform the earth, turn farms into parking lots, and waste enormous amounts of time and energy transporting people, goods and services over their expanses." His idea, he said, was "urban implosion rather than explosion."

Long before solar panels were widespread, Soleri created sunlight-friendly structures as well as greenhouses and earthen amphitheaters. Arcosanti over the years developed a community in which hundreds of people interested in Soleri's theories were able to see them operate up close.

Among them was Lisa Scafuro, a New Jersey-raised student of architecture who first encountered Soleri, who was a guest lecturer, as a student in the 1970s while attending Arizona State University's College of Architecture. At the time, Scafuro also visited Wright's Taliesin West and Cosanti, "which left a profound impression on me." After 17 years of working in architecture and construction on the East Coast, Scafuro finally returned to Arizona, forging a close friendship with Soleri. With her interest in writing and filmmaking — Scafuro decided to make a documentary based on Soleri's life and work called "The Vision Of Paolo Soleri."

From the start, she was fascinated by Soleri's "sustainability concepts — complexity, frugality, and miniaturization," and the Italian-born architect's "impressive futuristic renderings of what cities could evolve to be."

Scafuro began the project in 1998, after meeting veteran documentary filmmaker Ken Burns at Taliesin when he unveiled his film "Frank Lloyd Wright." Encouraged by Burns, and after years of research (and occasional setbacks), Scafuro's self-funded film project has finally come to fruition. "The Vision of Paolo Soleri: Prophet in the Desert," released by her own Mona Lisa Film Productions, made its world premiere at the New Hope Film Festival in July, and will make its New York City debut in October. Corinna Amendola chatted with Scafuro about Soleri and her project. These are excerpts from their conversation.

What most struck you about Soleri at a human level?

His soft spoken and insular nature. He was a largely humble man who lived what he'd embraced, a non-materialist life dedicated to simplicity and respect for nature.

Did you still feel "the Italian" in him, even though he'd left his native land long ago, married an American, and raised a family in Arizona?

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