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Paolo Soleri dies at 93; architect of innovative city Arcosanti

Paolo Soleri, a former apprentice of Frank Lloyd Wright, brought his vision of ecologically sensitive urban living to the Arizona desert four decades ago. Arcosanti never exactly flourished, but Soleri's emphasis on denser, vertical settlements is echoed in today's green architecture.

April 10, 2013|By Christopher Hawthorne, Los Angeles Times Architecture Critic
  • Architect Paolo Soleri in Arcosanti on his 80th birthday.
Architect Paolo Soleri in Arcosanti on his 80th birthday. (Suzanne Starr / Arizona…)

Paolo Soleri, an Italian-born architect who created a visionary prototype for a new kind of ecologically sensitive city in the remote Arizona desert four decades ago, only to watch the suburban sprawl he detested begin to creep near it in recent years, has died. He was 93.

Soleri died of natural causes Tuesday at his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., according to an official with the architect's foundation.

PHOTOS: Paolo Soleri | 1919-2013

A onetime apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West compound on the edge of Scottsdale, Ariz., Soleri founded his own desert settlement, called Arcosanti, in 1970 at a site roughly 70 miles north of downtown Phoenix.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the Agua Fria River, it drew inspiration from the utopian villages of religious exiles and the fledgling environmental movement of the 1960s. Like Wright, Soleri was energized by the extremes of the desert landscape and relied on young, earnest followers to carry out a good deal of the construction work.

But he also broke philosophically with Wright, whose influential Broadacre City plan of the 1930s imagined a string of lush suburban communities connected by car traffic. In a series of feverishly detailed drawings, Soleri instead proposed denser, vertical settlements that would leave more land untouched at ground level. He called this approach "arcology," a term combining architecture and ecology.

PHOTOS: Notable deaths of 2013

Planned as a community of more than 5,000, Arcosanti was never home to more than 100 or so people. Most of the residents were apprentices to Soleri who, like Wright's followers at Taliesin West, paid for the privilege of studying his work at close range.

As Soleri aged, progress on the desert compound went from deliberate to grindingly slow. Even some of his followers said his approach was autocratic, or called the philosophy underpinning the architecture opaque.

One journalist visiting Arcosanti in 1999 described it as "a beautiful ruin." A suburban subdivision, Cordes Lakes, was built just two miles to the south.

But it would be too simple to say that Soleri lost and the McMansions won, or that the architect's impassioned ideas about the relationship between architecture and the natural world have grown irrelevant. Increasingly, the leaders of the green architecture movement see the kind of density and vertical architecture he championed as crucial to energy-efficient living.

Paolo Soleri was born on June 21, 1919, in Turin, Italy. (His acolytes would later make much of the fact that he was born on the summer solstice.) After earning a doctorate in architecture from the Polytechnic University of Turin, he moved to Arizona in 1947 to study at Taliesin West.

He also traveled to Wright's original Taliesin compound in Spring Green, Wis., spending 18 months altogether as an apprentice.

"I was there to be a sponge, really," he said in an interview for a new documentary on his career, "The Vision of Paolo Soleri: Prophet in the Desert."

He left Wright in 1949 to pursue his own work. "Three of my friends in the fellowship went to him and said they would like to come with me," Soleri said in that interview. "Mr. Wright was very upset by that. So we were fired."

Soleri's first solo project was the Dome House in Cave Creek, Ariz. Sunk partially into the desert, the house is topped with a retractable glass dome and suggests a cross between Wright's work and the futuristic Los Angeles architecture of John Lautner, another Wright disciple.

While working on the Dome House, Soleri met Corolyn Woods, the daughter of the client, who would become his wife.

He and Woods, known as Colly, spent the next six years in Italy. Soleri accepted a commission to design a building for a ceramics company on the Amalfi Coast. The knowledge he picked up working on that project would later help him set up a side business at Arcosanti designing and selling small ceramic and bronze bells.

After returning to Arizona in 1956, Soleri founded a small studio on five acres of land near Scottsdale and named it Cosanti. It was a prelude for the grander ambitions of Arcosanti, which began when Soleri purchased more than 800 acres near Cordes Junction in the late 1960s.

There he set to work creating what he called a "lean alternative" to consumerism and cities designed around the automobile. Ultimately Arcosanti was to include towers 25 stories high.

Slightly more than a dozen structures have been built over the years, including a foundry and a music center. There is also a swimming pool. Soleri estimated near the end of his life that the compound was perhaps 5% complete.

It barely attracted enough permanent residents to make the transition from commune to small town, let alone achieve an urban character. Among the followers of Soleri's who stayed on and started families, many found themselves driving long distances each day to take their children to school, undermining Arcosanti's commitment to walkability and car-free living.

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