21 June 2017

Paolo Soleri - architect

Italian greatly influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright

Paolo Soleri envisaged buildings in  harmony with their environment
Paolo Soleri envisaged buildings in
harmony with their environment
The groundbreaking architect and ecologist Paolo Soleri was born on this day in 1919 in Turin.

Soleri is largely remembered for the Arcosanti project, an experiment in urban design in the Arizona desert that was like no other town on the planet, a unique fusion of architecture and ecology.

Originally conceived as providing a completely self-sufficient urban living space for 5,000 people when it began in 1970, only about five per cent of the proposed development was ever completed.

At its peak, Arcosanti’s population barely exceeded 200 yet the buildings Soleri erected in accordance with his vision are still there, rising from the desert as an assortment of concrete blocks, domes and soaring vaults, resembling a cross between the remains of some ancient civilisation and a set from Star Wars.

It has never been abandoned, however, and although Soleri died in 2013 the project is still home to between 50 and 100 of his most ardent disciples, still seeking to live as Soleri envisaged.

Although Soleri grew up in Italy and acquired his formal training in architecture and design at the Politecnico di Torino, where he obtained his master’s degree, it was a visit to the United States in 1946 that had the most profound influence on his life.

It was there that he met Frank Lloyd Wright, whose views on what he called organic architecture, in which buildings were designed in harmony with their environment, would form the basis of Soleri’s philosophy.

Soleri's ceramics factory in Vietri sul Mare
Soleri's ceramics factory in Vietri sul Mare
He returned to Italy, where in 1954 he built an extraordinary factory for a producer of ceramics in Vietri sul Mare, of which the exterior interspersed conical shapes covered with multi-coloured ceramic tiles and inverted triangles of glass.  Among many wonders of Campania’s spectacular Amalfi coast, the Ceramica Artistica Solimene is a tourist attraction in its own right.

It was not long, however, before he returned to the United States and to Scottsdale, Arizona, close to Wright’s concept home, Taliesen West, which on a smaller scale in that it was home also to a commune of Wright’s disciples could be seen as a forerunner of Arcosanti.

Soleri’s admiration for Wright waned over the latter’s Broadacre City project, an essentially low-rise development that went against the Italian’s belief that the urban sprawls that proliferated across America were a wasteful and inefficient use of land.  Soleri believed that in future man needed to build upwards rather than outwards.

In 1956, he settled in Scottsdale with his American-born wife Colly and established the Cosanti Foundation.  He built trial dwellings using a process he called "earthcasting", in which mounds of earth were built, concrete was poured over the top to create a shell, and the earth then dug away from beneath.

Soleri in Arizona in the early days of the Arcosanti project
Soleri in Arizona in the early days of the Arcosanti project
In Arcosanti, which he began in 1970, one of his favoured methods was to dig out troughs in the ground in order to create buildings that appeared to be semi-submerged in the earth as if they were a natural phenomenon in the landscape.  Every building in the town was carefully oriented to maximise the use of solar energy, which Soleri harnassed for heat and power.

In Vietri he had learned the techniques of ceramics and bronze casting, which he put to use in Arconsanti by setting up a small factory producing wind bells, which were sold to provide the town with an income.  

Soleri blamed himself for Arconsanti’s failure to grow much beyond its conceptual beginnings, admitting that he did not do enough to promote his work and persuade others to believe in the wisdom of his vision for urban living.

Nonetheless, through the Cosanti Foundation he and Colly devoted themselves to research and experimentation in urban planning and the support of innovative architectural ideas. Arconsanti may not have achieved its goals of becoming a cost-effective infrastructure, conserving water, minimizing the use of energy, raw materials and land, reducing waste and pollution, yet it remains an active project in which more than 6,000 people have had an input since it began.

Soleri died in Paradise Valley, Arizona, at the age of 93.

The distinctive dome of the Chiesa di San Giovanni  Battista in Vietri sul Mare
The distinctive dome of the Chiesa di San Giovanni
Battista in Vietri sul Mare
Travel tip:

The town of Vietri sul Mare is considered to be the southern gateway to the Amalfi coast. The town is best known for the production of ceramics, which goes back to the 15th century. The church of St John the Baptist is notable for its dome, which is decorated with blue and white ceramic tiles. Vietri borders the historic town of Cava dei Tirreni and is separated from the port of Salerno by nothing more than a sea wall.

Travel tip:

The historical base of the Politechnic University of Turin, as it is now, is the Castle of Valentino, a 17th-century House of Savoy on the River Po that houses the main teaching campus. The main campus of engineering is in Corso Duca degli Abruzzi in central Turin. Other facilities can be found close to the Mirafiori Motor Village and the Lingotto Building, which were both once car production centres for FIAT.

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