Friday, April 19, 2013

Remembering Paolo Soleri, Rochester, And My Dad

Soleri's design for Babel IID,
with Empire State Building for scale

First some general background; then, a personal story.

Thanks to Porky's recent blog post, I learned that on April 9, 2013, Paolo Soleri passed away at the age of 93. He was the inventor of the term arcology, a term which combines architecture and ecology. A city that is a single
building. A city-building that creates its own environment.

Fans of Gibson's cyberpunk novels, and of the Shadowrun RPG, are very familiar with this term. It is usually used for the SFnal city-buildings of proximate cyberfutures. All too often, such environments appear in stories as the nexus-enclaves of extremely exploitative corporations and their employees.

This wasn't Soleri's vision at all.

Vision for Arcosanti, Arcosanti, AZ

His idea of arcology wasn't to isolate groups of humans from each other in separate city-buildings or even Metropolis-like city-tiers, reproducing on a whole new level the ever-increasing racial and social stratification of capitalist society.

Instead, Soleri's arcology pointed toward another way for humans to live in harmony with the non-built environment: build cities that don't spread horizontally to consume and destroy nature. Live in harmony with it. Make it easier to leave the city and experience nature.

Bridge it. Blend with it. Build under it. Think and feel it.

As someone influenced by Teilhard de Chardin, Soleri believed that changing the built environment in this way would change human awareness, consciousness, and behavior.

Arcosanti civic space, Arcosanti, AZ

It is a vision of the future that we still need. That's why his Guardian obituary begins:
"If you are truly concerned about the problems of pollution, waste, energy depletion, land, water, air and biological conservation, poverty, segregation, intolerance, population containment, fear and disillusionment," reads the sign at the entrance to Arcosanti, "join us." Beyond the placard lies the proposed solution to this list of ills: an otherworldly landscape of concrete domes and soaring vaults rising out of the Arizona desert, like a cross between an ancient Mayan ruin complex and the Star Wars cities of Tatooine. This is the experimental eco-town of Arcosanti, the lifetime's work of the visionary Italian-born architect Paolo Soleri, who has died aged 93.

So now to the personal.  I grew up in Rochester, New York. That city is best known for Kodak, but when I was a kid Rochester had an entire cluster of world-leading industries dealing with the image. When I was 15, my Dad took me to Soleri's exhibition "Two Suns Arcology, A Concept for Future Cities/Cities Energized by the Sun" which opened at Xerox Square in Rochester. The exhibition space was filled with scale models and drawings of Soleri's arcologies, including the one that is under construction: Arcosanti in Arizona. It had a profound affect on my sense of what is possible in the world, of what dreams can be given form.

It is one of the most important memories of doing something with my Dad.

Arcosanti 5000 Master Plan


  1. Very interesting - as well as sad to discover Soleri has passed away. I purchased a copy of "The City in the Image of Man" a VERY long time ago, and was fascinated with what Soleri envisioned as a different way to live. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Victor! My dad bought that book for me when we went to the exhibit, and I still have it 40+ years later. It has seen good use at the gaming table.

  2. I first found Soleri in the immensity that is known as Powell's Books in Portland, Oregon. Amazingly 'City in the Image of Man' was the only book I left with that day after sifting through that city block worth of a store. It still forms in my mind the clearest ideas I can point people to when I want them to understand my ideas of furthering city density and an alternate less stratified metropolis.

    1. Thanks for stopping by Jason. Soleri's vision definitely changes one's sense of what is possible, which as far as I am concerned is really critical these days. People need to see visions of possible alternatives.

  3. Beautiful. I think we'll be channelling this for a good long while. I agree we need more possible alternatives, for the process of taking action and for more of a choice. That's great place to grow up too.