In Memoriam: Paolo Soleri

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Visionary architect Paolo Soleri passed away. He was the last living architect trained directly by Frank Lloyd Wright. Soleri constructed Arcosanti, north of Phoenix, a compact experimental community designed to efficiently house a small city on a small parcel of land. Local architects Vern Swaback and Roger Tomalty, who lived at Arcosanti and worked directly with Soleri, will talk about the famed architect’s life, work, and a new film on Soleri debuting April 20th.

Ted Simons: Good evening, and welcome to "Arizona Horizon," I'm Ted Simons. Famed architect Paolo Soleri died last week at the age of 93. He was perhaps best known for "Arcosanti," an experimental community north of Phoenix designed to house a small city on a small parcel of land. Tonight we discuss the life and legacy of Paolo Soleri. Joining us is local architect Vern Swaback, and also with us is husband and wife team Roger Tomalty and Mary Hoadley, who worked directly with Soleri now joining us tonight on "Arizona Horizon." Vern, I'll start with you, who was Paolo Soleri?

Vern Swaback: He was a one-of-a-kind individual who charted a course that influenced much of the world. Far more so in other countries than our own.

Ted Simons: Interesting.

Vern Swaback: But he planted seeds that were very much unlike what anyone else was doing, in that it was almost like he worked backwards. In other words, what could this earth support. And no matter how good your ideas were, if you went beyond that capacity, you should be thinking differently. So this was something very divorced from today's marketplace. It's amazing how long he sustained that and how much interest that he achieved in the lives of others.

Ted Simons: Roger, talk about his vision, what he wanted to accomplish. You worked directly with him. What did he talk about? What did he dream about?

Roger Tomalty: You know, Paolo, I never saw Paolo as an architect. I see him more as an urban theorist. He was almost driven about how to demonstrate with a living demonstration of how the built environment impacts society. He saw the built environment, if it's done well, as architecture if it's done well, it can uplift the human condition. He sees how again the built environment impacts the individual and society.

Ted Simons: When you worked with him, Mary, did he talk along those lines? Did he speak directly about this?

Mary Hoadley: Constantly. And he was a driven man. He was a guy with perseverance. It was his personal conviction that was able to draw tens of thousands of people to "Arcosanti," over 8,000 people who helped put the concrete in place. It was his conviction that he developed, he grew up in Torino, Italy, as an urban guy. He came out to the beautiful open spaces and always stayed an urban advocate for his whole life. That's his whole point, we need to build better urban systems to house the seven billion of us equitably, so we can keep the planet for all of us.

Ted Simons: How did he wind up in Arizona? And how did "Arcosanti" wind up here in Cordes Junction of all places?

Vern Swaback: I'd like to comment on not being an architect. He demonstrated early in his life that he could design extraordinary buildings. But he had a broader vision. I define architecture as the understanding of what all the pieces add up to becomeing. His vision was so broad I don't think he wanted to be sidetracked with building buildings. My understanding is he came out here to be apprenticed to Frank Lloyd Wright. He found a piece of land that he could control, a large piece of land, 600 acres?

Roger Tomalty: 800 acres.

Mary Hoadley: He searched for a number of years, going out with apprentices on weekends looking for land. He has his five acres in Paradise Valley he acquired that he built all of these experimental buildings, trying to make shelter in the desert with minimal means. It was during those years of building he developed his urban theory of architecture and ecology working together. He knew he needed to build a larger facility to accommodate the students coming, and also to actually try to physically test and demonstrate the concept he was developing, that urban systems should be bounded, density come together, compact, dense and save the open space for all of us.

Ted Simons: And you wanted to add to that?

Roger Tomalty: His studios were really an extended family scale. He had Paolo and his wife, 10 or 15 or 30 apprentices that were there. It was during the process. When I talked about not being an architect, I meant in the standard mold of having a client. Paolo was an artist, a craftsman, but an architect, a philosopher. But during his journey building "Cosanti," he really started this idea of arcology. He was hoping to demonstrate on a very, very small scale, a humble scale, a prototype of the logistics of an urban system. You can't do that with an extended family group of or 15 or 20 . You need a hundred, 200, a thousand.

Ted Simons: Did he see "Arcosanti" as a perpetual work in progress? Did it change over time? People grew up there and some folks expect X and see Y, and others expect Y and see X.

Vern Swaback: It did constantly change over time. I'd say it was a perpetual project. I think it's extremely valuable if it just keeps being on construction forever. It's a teaching place. I see that almost as being more profound than if you could get a whole lot of money and finish it up and try to occupy it. I hope it gets a whole lot of money to support what its work is. But it's a living -- on his 90th birthday, people lamented it was only 2% or 3% completed. Does somebody worry that the child is only 2% complete? It's complete in Day One, especially in the clarity of his ideas.

Ted Simons: Was he ever frustrated personally? That is wasn't advancing as fast as it was.

Roger Tomalty: Well, he was a realist. He understood what he was proposing goes against the status quo, the way architecture is taught today. And the standard architecture schools. I think he was always frustrated that people didn't fully recognize the importance of how the city does impact everything.

Ted Simons: In working with him, what did frustrate him? What challenged him? We know the vision and the optimism was there. It had to be a couple of cloudy days there, as well.

Mary Hoadley: He often said if he knew it was going to be such a long and hard effort, he might never have started. And that's the testament to him, that he had that optimism to just secure a piece of land, 860 acres, and he paid for it in three years. He wasn't going to have a mortgage hanging over his head. He had a huge exhibit at the Corcoran museum in Washington, D.C. It attracted the attention of the world and that exhibit went to the Whitney in New York, it went to Canada, Chicago, Florida, Berkeley. It traveled around. Paolo traveled around, he was trying to get together $300,000 to pay off the land. Students signed up to come to five- and six-week programs and that's how construction started. That's what he learned from Frank Lloyd wright. How to get people to come and pay to work, but be inspired, learning by doing, being grounded, the hand, those were so critical to Paolo.

Roger Tomalty: It's the process of becoming, the teaching and learning, it is the backbone of the "Arcosanti" project. To me it's not important that you built the infrastructure for 5,000 people, let the experiment begin. That's irrelevant. It's the constant flow of young minds being touched and they are experiencing something that's quite unusual.

Vern Swaback: He had to really almost take for granted that people would not be flocking to his aid, because really, he wasn't exactly trying to bridge out to local builders and whatever. He wasn't trying hard to fit in. He was basically blazing a trail that was rooted in a deep belief that was totally contrary to the market forces. So you don't expect somebody to knock on your door saying, hey, I think this is just ducky.

Roger Tomalty: And we are a nonprofit educational foundation for architectural research. And in this environment, all of our funds are basically self-generated. To accumulate the funds, enough funds to actually build this structure for, say2,000 people, 5,000 people, 7,000 people, it's quite a challenge.

Ted Simons: What is the view of Paolo? How do other architects and artists and others see his work?

Vern Swaback: It's a very good question, because, you know, for most of the architectural world you could look at each other kind of incrementally. That's a good building, that person did better here. Paolo was in a class by himself. The "New York Times" says he is the prophet in the desert and we have not been listening. They are not saying that about any other architect. A lot of the prophets haven't fared to well in history, as you know. You either have to take him in his own world and appreciate him and be inspired by that. And what other architects can get from that, is find a way that they can apply in some fashion something they have been inspired to do because of his work. It simply wasn't his task, I don't believe it was his task to make it happen in the here and now, although his drawings are so incredible, one of his most recent projects, the lean linear city I think is almost ready to be built just as it is. That is really very much in keeping with forces going on.

Mary Hoadley: And the lean linear city is the evolution of his arcology idea. It went from dense urban conditions. He started to add large scale greenhouses to solve the local energy issue. Then he started to think about how we move ourselves around the planet. He's always been against the automobile and the highway system that needs to get people around. And it was through that process that he ended up with a lean linear city, urban ribbons through the landscape to, bring the city to the country. Save farmland, but bring those urban amenities that are so important for a rich individual and social life.

Vern Swaback: I see in "Arcosanti" an amazing example. If you take a five-acre site and you have one little house in the middle that's empty most of the time. And you go to Arcosanti, you see a foundry, a gift shop, galleries, where people are living. This is really a teeming kind of enterprise in which you can eliminate the back-and-forth commute, reduce the number of cars and energy you use. It is a living example all by itself.

Ted Simons: Before we go, I know there's a film. Talk to us quickly about where we can see it and what it's all about.

Roger Tomalty: The film is called "Beyond Form," Paolo Soleri. It's going to be screened in Scottsdale on the 20th, Saturday. I understand it's sold out. We have a website which the FaceBook site would be again, Paolo Soleribeyondform, people can go there to find out where the next screening will be. It's a four-year effort. The director is just incredibly talented and had this really exceptional access to Paolo that no one really has had before. We had no footage. I had been with Paolo 43 years and we have no film of him, his hand, the master, carving a bell, carving concrete. Snapshots, but no film.

Ted Simons: Congratulations on the film and the success there, and on an interesting life with Paolo Soleri. Thank you all for joining us to help illuminate his life and achievements. Thank you for joining us.

Mary Hoadley: Roger Tomalty: Vern Swaback: Thank you. Thank you.

Vern Swaback:Architect; Roger Tomalty:Architect;

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