A Great Tree Has Fallen

Steven Bingler remembers Paolo Soleri, architectural iconoclast and wonderful mentor

For some, Paolo Soleri was the perfect iconoclast. For me, in 1975, as a young intern architect, he was an ideal mentor. My arrival at his home in suburban Scottsdale, Arizona, for the beginning of a summer workshop at Arcosanti was the start of a mesmerizing experience. On a suburban street lined otherwise with ranch style houses his home, which he called Cosanti, loomed behind large earth-formed concrete apses. Inside a massive concrete shade canopy hung over an azure pool, and the sound of homemade bronze bells tingling in the breeze provided a comforting oasis from the searing desert heat. It was like nothing I had ever seen before: Not classical, but certainly not modern. Something somewhere in between.  Soleri’s drum had a distinctly different beat—one that was more connected to the movement of the sun than to blind historic precedents or the sleek abstractions of ocean liners. My six weeks of hard labor at Arcosanti were infused with lessons about sustainable design principles long before they ever graced the pages of swank architectural magazines or directives from green building councils. And there were those vast decorative concrete panels, formed with colors and textures that came directly from the native soil. More than a hundred volunteer workers from all walks of life, and from most corners of the globe, slept, ate, and dreamed together in a sparse “plywood city” at the bottom of the mesa.

Lunchtime and evening talk sessions with Paolo ignited conversations that usually carried late into the night. The conversations spanned from the writings of French philosopher Taillard de Chardin to the life of bees. Above all there was a palpable spirit of meaningful inquiry and camaraderie all around. Walking the site again a few months ago brought back fond memories, along with some puzzling questions. The staff today predicts that with the current rate of progress it will take about five hundred years for Soleri’s desert oasis for five thousand residents to be fully realized. Meanwhile, conventional projects this size can be completed in less than five years. But Arcosanti is a different kind of place, a creator’s laboratory, replete with shards of broken artifacts and rusting rebar. And between the rubble there are some bold ideas that beg for further invention. Solari dedicated his life to an uncompromising search for that special sweet spot, where seemingly different ideas morph elegantly into a single, systemic whole. Many people will remember his clever merger of architecture and ecology to create a new form that he coined as the arcology.  Others of us will admire his commitment to seeking a radical middle ground between the extremes of classical and contemporary design thinking. Finally, in this moment of Paolo’s passing, we can turn with some comfort to the words of one of his own mentors, Taillard de Chardin, who reminds us that “The bridge between matter and spirit—is matter becoming spirit.”

Steven Bingler is the founder and president of Concordia, a New Orleans based firm that focuses on the planning and design of a wide range of community-based environments for living and learning. Concordia’s research alliances include the MIT Media Lab, Harvard University’s Project Zero, the University of New Mexico, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Thornburg Institute, the Appalachian Education Lab, and the West Ed Lab.

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