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Soleri's futuristic designs recognized needs of the Earth

| Saturday, April 20, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Philip G. Pavely | Tribune-Review
Soleri bells hang inside the main entrance of UPMC Mercy Hospital in Uptown Wednesday, April 17, 2013
Architect Paolo Soleri visits his dream city of Arcosanti near Cordes Junction, Ariz., several times a week to oversee the work at the site and plan the future, March 28, 1985. But, compared to a decade ago, there is little work to oversee and the future looks dimmer for his project. (AP Photo/Kent Sievers)
Paolo Soleri's Arcology - The City in the Image of Man.
Hexahedron - From Paolo Soleri's Arcology - The City in the Image of Man.
Arcology - The City in the Image of Man
Babel - From Paolo Soleri's 'Arcology - The City in the Image of Man.'

It's hard to know what to make of architecture's dreamers.

Famous turn-of-the-century futurist architects like Tony Garnier and Antonio Sant'elia designed cities of the future, but rarely built anything themselves. Yet they are studied by city planners, architects and students even up to today.

It will probably be that way with architect Paolo Soleri, the dreamer in the desert, who died at his home in Arizona on April 9 at age 93. Soleri was the guy whom Buckminster Fuller — who ought to have known — once called “one of the greatest of the dreaming strategists.”

Soleri only built about a half-dozen structures for others in his life, but he became famous in architectural and planning circles in the 1960s and '70s for his elaborate drawings of what he called “arcologies,” compact one-structure cities that might house anywhere from 5,000 people to a million or more. Some were floating mega-cities, some were bridges across canyons, some just rose in his imagination from a plain.

He was pictured in an architectural magazine of the era, a slim and wiry man, sitting in just shorts and sandals in his own earth-sculptured house outside of Phoenix, drawing out these cities on vast rolls of butcher paper.

These were renderings that Ada Louise Huxtable, the late architecture critic of the New York Times, later described as “some of the most spectacularly sensitive and superbly visionary drawings that any century has known.”

He is most often mentioned today for a 40-year-long effort to build a micro-arcology called Arcosanti out of earth-formed concrete in the Arizona desert about 70 miles north of Phoenix. Working with students and apprentices in a sort of hippie-camp atmosphere, he completed only about three percent of the planned mega-structure over four decades. But he was rarely troubled by the slow pace of the work. He seemed more concerned to call attention to the idea than to worry about completion.

Soleri was born in Italy and came to the United States in 1947 to study with Frank Lloyd Wright. He eventually created his own desert home in Paradise Valley, outside of Phoenix, across from Wright's home and studios at Taliesin West.

He had a significant connection to Pittsburgh. His wife, who died in 1982, was Corolyn (Colly) Woods of Sewickley, daughter of a prominent Pittsburgh insurance executive, Lawrence C. Woods Jr., who as a member of the Allegheny Conference was one of the leaders of the first Pittsburgh Renaissance. Soleri and Colly met when he designed — and he and she worked together to build — a retreat in the Arizona desert for Colly's mother, Lenora.

There's not much money in being an architectural dreamer, so Soleri supported himself, his family and apprentices by making and selling sets of bronze and ceramic wind chimes and bells that are today prized possessions for many. Two large examples of his bells are at UPMC Mercy Hospital here in Pittsburgh. One huge set is suspended above the main staircase in the entrance lobby, the second set is hung outside the chapel.

Behind all of Soleri's futuristic work were two main ideas, and what forward-thinking ideas these were! First, he saw his cities as miniaturizing humanity's demands on the Earth and its resources by their compactness. All living, social interaction and manufacturing would go on inside these one-structure cities. The land between would be retained for farming, conservation and recreation.

This was the root of his term “arcology” — which had suggestive meanings of both architecture and ecology and of an ark.

He was well ahead of most others in his worries about the environment. It's useful to remember that the first large exhibition of his ideas, which were developed for the most part in the previous 15 years, was in 1970 at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. That was also the year of the first Earth Day — which will be marked for the 43rd time April 22.

In later years, Soleri expanded his concepts to include what he called “Lean Linear Cities” — narrow structures that would similarly reduce the need for resources, but which would extend for miles, possibly connecting the arcologies.

Still, Soleri had a second thing in mind that went well beyond just conservation of energy and resources. He believed that at some future point in the evolution of humans, they would want to concentrate in dense cities to enhance the products of the human mind through intense intellectual collaborations. He drew some of this thinking — and it can be found throughout his writings — from the French Jesuit philosopher and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.

So, in a sense, he felt he was designing cities for a next stage in the evolution of man.

Will Soleri's legacy be as meaningful as that of others who are in the history books today? It's a good guess to say yes. But you might want to check back with this column in, oh, say 50 or 100 years just to be sure!

John Conti is a former news reporter who has written extensively over the years about architecture, planning and historic-preservation issues.

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