The Sketchbooks of Paolo Soleri - Paolo Soleri

I first heard of Paolo Soleri when we made a trip to Arizona and got some information about Arcosanti, described as an "urban laboratory" and being an example of "arcology," some mixture of architecture and ecology. I had skimmed the site a little bit and thought it sounded promising (though maybe a little hokey), so when we were in the area (north of Phoenix) we stopped by to see it. Alas, we were too late for the tour, so we just got to look around a little and wonder what it was all about.

I decided to check out some books about Soleri to learn a little more, particularly because some of the designs we saw at Arcosanti were pretty fascinating structures and we didn't have time to really look at them at the time. This book collects pages of his sketchbooks from 1959 to 1964, and cover mostly ideas for his Mesa City concept, with some at the end about Arcosanti. Each section has notes which he made in 1960 about the ideas, as well as futher thoughts in 1970 at the time of publication. The sketchbook pages themselves are covered in his not-always-legible writing which, he warns, is "not only sketchy and unrevised" but also "grammatically wanting" and riddled with bad spelling.

I have to admit that I didn't attempt to read most of his handwriting, but I did at least look over all of the printed notes and the drawings, and I wanted to include a post about it because it's so entirely different and there may be some folks who'd enjoy taking a look. I don't know a whole lot about Soleri as a person, but his ideas are wild and unconventional and bit insane.

I had to keep in mind that this book was published in 1970, and that most of the original sketches and ideas were from even earlier. It's interesting that although he felt that cars were bad ("an insularity of action represented by the busts of men and women visible inside their own moving and mystical cages," among other things), he wasn't sure if they would be obsolete soon and built speedways, highways, and enormous parking garages into most of his cities. He did, however, also suggest car silos, of the sort that I've seen in Taiwan though not in the States; he also proposed putting roads underground, and consigned the car dealerships to the "River of Waste" section of the city.

There were other things that were intriguing, like the concept of building a city into a dam, so that the electricity and water were used right at the source. Or funnels with turbines at the top meant to generate electricity from the movement of hot air in the desert. At the same time, reading his philosophies and the concepts behind the designs is often unintentionally amusing, or seems quaint by today's standards. His initial design for Mesa City included a huge theological center with all the major theological institutions housed in "bowls," and "primitive cults" in a shelter under 400-meter "angel's wings." His notes from 1970 explain that he had reached the "realization of the physical impossibility" of God's existence, which he explains in a two-sentence footnote, but that he still likes the idea of the monastic life despite its pointlessness.

And just for a last taste of absurdity, I'll give you the section about "Bullion man," the end result of the rational:

A first but essential step is the transformation of our morphological structure. As the senses are rationally unreliable, and as the lack of rationality is a source of anguish, scientific devices might be substituted. Because the motor apparatus, though versatile, is fragile and energy hungry, efficient packaging and transportation must be given top consideration. ... Bullion man would be a slightly spherical cube of flesh and nerves, metabolism, and gray matter, a cube demonstrating reduction and simplification of feeding apparatus, elimination of the brittle and now-useless skeletal structure, absense of limbs: total compactness, transportability, optimum storability ..."

He goes on, but you get the idea.

I definitely need to read something about Soleri the person to get a better idea of where all this came from and why there are people attempting to build Arcosanti out in Arizona. His drawings are beautiful, though these sketches are a little harder to make out and I'd be more interested in some cleaned-up versions. It's certainly not a book I'd urge you to go out and purchase, but for a unique vision of the future from the 1970s, check it out.

Fed to jonathan's brain | July 03, 2005 | Comments (0)


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