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The story of the Paolo Soleri exhibit of his archived materials, entitled “Repositioning Palo Soleri: The City is Nature,” improbably starts with the construction of a bridge.
In 2010, the Soleri Bridge and Plaza in Scottsdale, a commissioned design, completed construction over a long gestation period dating back to the 1980s. In response, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMOCA) dedicated an exhibit to the architect’s varied bridge drawings over the course of his career.
When Claire Carter, the exhibit’s curator, dove into the Soleri archive for related conceptuals, she was shocked by the abundance of materials. Prior to Soleri’s passing in 2013, these riches produced two exhibits: one on the aforementioned bridges and the other on the evolution of designs of his city experiments, at Mesa City and Arcosanti.
The purpose of this final exhibition in the series is to interrogate an entire career of arcology-based designs, where the goal was fusing man-made architecture and ecological creations into one vessel. As it turns out, the “Repositioning Palo Soleri” subtitle itself is an important theme for the gallery.
“[In the past,] he was at the forefront of popular conversation, and now, even in Arizona, he’s thought of this wacky guy in the desert who built a city that didn’t work and it’s an extraordinary underestimation [of his work],” Carter said.
Much of the curated archive centers on Soleri’s unique design perspective, from the custom bells he made to the early models using the desert ground as a form, and eventually including melted flip flops for splashes of color.
Then there’s the piece de resistance: the more than 44ft of butcher paper that contain his vision of a pedestrian-friendly city at Macro-Cosanti.
A portion of the scroll on display, which takes up a majority of the exhibit, is massive, for lack of a better word. Soleri, using little red human figures for scale, created a lush city of ethereal styled structures connected by their practical connection to nature. From 12ft sheet to 12ft sheet, these scrolls were done without benefit of physical plans, yet they still flow together.
The scroll faces one side of a long free-standing wall in the middle — and there’s a noticeable aesthetic shift in styles when a visitor moves to the other side. For instance, a sketch of the Solimene Ceramic Factory, in Italy, a realized design from his early days, demonstrates his vision in action, where a ceramics ramp takes pottery to the gift shop below, but still fits a residential space into this hive-like structure.
In the first half of the exhibit, Soleri is “a maker” of his designs, yet, on the other side, this freewheeling, experimental concept becomes diluted when he acquired students to translate his vision of futuristic communities and cities into something practical.
“Part of what’s happening is he’s turning over the work to apprentices and they’re all in architecture and engineering programs; they’re not drawing like how Soleri draws” Carter explained. “And so the translation for Soleri, which was a thought experiment, became a set plan.”
This concept of a set grand-scale architectural plan, with specific data estimates for his experiments confounded his critics, especially since the details didn’t interest Soleri so much as what the concept meant. This is where the perception of Soleri, the architect, diverges with Soleri, the maker, according to Carter.
“A lot of people were very suspicious of them. There were a lot of comments like, ‘I would never live in that beehive.’ And some people dismissed him because they viewed the large communities and mega-structures as authoritarian.”
The degree of materials on display at SMOCA makes this the largest exhibition in the United States of Soleri’s work since his collective works went on tour across the country in 1971. Most exhibits since have mainly took place in Soleri’s birthplace of Italy.
Because the models had been out of circulation for almost half a century, some were thought to be missing, either accidentally discarded or vanishing from the returning transport truck. Eventually, Carter found the rumors to be unfounded, when she discovered the three “missing” bridge models in the model room at Cosanti where they were placed and promptly forgotten following their tour across the country.
Much of Soleri’s approach to design came long before the green building practices of today became mainstream for their allocation of resources, using the minimalist of carbon footprints. Yet, when probed if Soleri, were he alive today, would be satisfied with the eco-friendly strides embraced by the likes of corporations and the average citizen, the curator’s hypothesis indicates otherwise.
“He’s not saying, ‘Lemme make a house that’s environmentally friendly,’” Carter said. “We’re ignoring the major problems, not dealing with things on a structural difference, that’s why he’s such a radical. That’s a paradigm shift.”
“Repositioning Paolo Soleri: The City is Nature” is on display to visitors at the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art (SMOCA) from Saturday, October 14, 2017, to Sunday, January 28, 2018. Admission is $10 for adults and $7 for children.