The Paolo Soleri

Paolo Soleri, now 91, was born in Turin and studied architecture there. He came to the US in the 1940s to work with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West. (He recounts amusingly (The Urban Ideal, 23-4) that with the little English he commanded at the time, he found himself on a bus to Tolleson, Arizona before being set right.) After a few years back in Italy, he returned to Arizona, setting up an architectural center of his own, Arcosanti. Much of its income came from handcraft projects, such as cast metal bells; but it has also been a laboratory for his architectural ideas.

He’s a visionary, who has seen certain ecological issues very clearly — notably, that the most sustainable mode of living for billions of humans on this planet of ours is to cluster together in cities, leaving as much as possible of nature to nature. Check out the wide-ranging interview with Jerry Brown (1, 2), from back when Brown was doing his radio program We The People. There’s a paradox in Soleri’s choice of a non-urban site for the project — a spot that began as wilderness but has been swamped by the development of Scottsdale and greater Phoenix. (Brown, introducing Part 2: “a place called Arcosanti, an urban, well it isn’t an urban laboratory, but it is a desert laboratory about a type of urban space and the people are there, what I would say a very elegant, frugal and dense, and complex way of being.”)

Along with his years of advocacy and charismatic projection of green architecture, though, he has built a few very interesting practical projects outside Arcosanti. During the Italian interim, for example, he designed the Solimene ceramic factory at Vietri on the Amalfi coast. Its fluted exterior alternates between glass and columns covered with tiles and plates from the factory’s own production.

And in 1965, at the Santa Fe Indian School, he designed and built an amphitheater, known for decades as “the Paolo Soleri”. By his account, it was conceived for Native American theatrical performance, but it is also well known for graduations, community functions, and music. The school has lately been demolishing a number of its older buildings, including several of real historical interest — check out the murals in the old photo of the dining room. And now they plan to take down the amphitheater as well (the title of my post is from a report by a local TV station).

There’s a petition to urge the head of SFIS to reconsider the demolition. Please sign if you’re interested. Senators Bingaman and Udall have expressed support for the preservation of the amphitheater, if not yet promised funds. And here’s Lyle Lovett speaking on the issue.

(Via Conrad Skinner. Updated after comments.)