With a bowl of soup, a piece of bread and many friends Paolo Soleri celebrated his 92nd birthday last week.
While reaching 92 is unusual, what makes this event even more interesting is where it was celebrated – at Arcosanti, the city Paolo started building in the Arizona desert 41 years ago.
The unfinished Arcosanti is a visionary glimpse at the possibilities of Arcology, a planning concept developed by Paolo in the 1960s. Combining ecology and architecture (in other words “ecotecture” another term invented by Soleri) Arcological cities are efficient mega-cities built to have a reduced impact on the surrounding environment. The car-free cities not only cut out or reduce the negative elements of urban sprawl, but also maximize the benefits of city life, such as accessibility and human interaction.
Born and raised in Turin, Paolo originally came to Arizona in 1947 at the age of 28 to work with Frank Lloyd Wright who was then 80 years old. While he absorbed the famous architect’s knowledge like a sponge, when Paolo talked of returning to Italy, an idea that caught on with the other apprentices, the Wrights asked him to leave. He then moved on to a more bohemian lifestyle that led to his innovative philosophy.
In the mid-1950s he built his earth-house, Cosanti. However, when the growing suburbs of Phoenix began to approach his once-rural home, Paolo moved on.
Arcology and the book “The City in the Image of Man” fit right in with the trend of architectural humanism and increased environmental awareness in the 1970s. Photos from that time show the architect as fit despite his age, tanned, and frequently shirtless.
In the Me decade of the 80s, less weight was given to Soleri and his project. However, the current concern with climate change has drawn a lot of attention back to Soleri’s sustainable vision of the eco-city. He even appeared in Leonardo Di Caprio’s global warming documentary The 11th Hour.
Citing Arcosanti’s architectural beauty, but lack of completion, many call him a “utopian planner” or a “utopian architect,” to which Paolo replies “utopia is a pretty stupid notion.” Either way, as Paolo turns 92 it is clear he has reached what any young architect would consider dream accomplishments: the publication of six books, his work exhibited at MoMA, a Guggenheim Award, a silver medal from the Academie d’architecture in Paris, recognition from leading contemporary architect Renzo Piano as an influence who has inspired young architects, and most importantly the distinction of having revolutionized the relationship between sustainability and architecture.