Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Paolo Soleri

I picked up a used book from the dollar rack at my local branch library. It was an oddly shaped book, 9 inches by 16 inches. Some sort of coffee table book, I thought. On the front cover was a a draftsman's sketch of an imaginary city shown in cross section. The sketch resembled a cross-sectional view of an aircraft carrier. The keel was labeled Automated Production. The broad landing deck area was labeled Factories and Utilities. And there was a superstructure of three stacked upper decks labeled, bottom to top, as City Center, Neighborhood, and Residential. The book, published in 1969, was written by an Italian architect named Paolo Soleri and was entitled Arcology: The City in the Image of Man. "Arcology" was Soleri's coinage to describe a combination of architecture and ecology.

I leafed through the book to determine if I wanted to invest a dollar. The first half of the book consisted of tortured schematics of twisting arrows and geometric shapes accompanied by puzzling little essays with peculiar names, such as The Map of Despair, The Condition of Man, The Bulb of Reality, and Residual Anguish. An exercise in 1960s existential foofaraw, I thought. Much of the prose was impenetrable, rivaling Kierkegaard at his most abstruse:

"That which lives wants to become three-dimensional for the sake of complexity and intensity. But it has to keep itself two-dimensional in the whole so as to deploy itself and feed on the sun (less so in the seas). Nature harvests extensively so as to be able to become intensive by man's presence and evolution. In the cosmic context the massive statistical, just, and logical mass of the earth becomes sensitized and, groping with its surface, vectorial and aesthetocompassionate in its nodular focuses, the society of man."

Okay, I thought, it might be fun to wade through the bog of Soleri's philosophy, even though my first impression was that he was following a faulty syllogism:

Geniuses employ concepts that are difficult to understand.
I employ concepts that are difficult to understand.
Therefore, I am a genius.

This reasoning is no better than that of an analogous syllogism:

A banana cannot fly.
I cannot fly.
Therefore, I am a banana.

The second half of the book consisted of wonderful architectural sketches of prototype cities, each an ornate geometric shape whose height was comparable to its width. Some were cubical; some were cylindrical; others resembled a cluster of mushrooms. The draftsmanship was exquisite. Of course, the book was published in 1969, before the computer bled all of the beauty out of engineering.

Back when I was in high school, all aspiring engineers were required to take drafting. I had no aptitude for it. My lines lacked crispness and uniformity. My printing was childish and erratic. And my drafting assignments were frequently marred by smudges where my sleeve brushed the paper. In spite of these discouragements, I persevered, even going to the trouble of setting up a makeshift drafting table in the basement to permit extra practice. At the end of the term I received the grade of B and was prouder of that B than of the A that I had received in English for negligible effort. Ever since, I have held the highest regard for the draftsman's handiwork.

And so, I judged the book to be worth a dollar. I paid the librarian and took Soleri's book home with me. As I began reading, I found that Soleri's philosophy, when taken in small doses, was intelligible, at times even persuasive. His main thesis is that civilization works best when people live close together but still have ready access to open spaces and nature. And the only way to have high population density without the bad effects of urban sprawl is to build vertically. He maintained that "the city must be a solid not a surface."

Soleri summarized his view of the city in a set of propositions:
1. The liveliness of man's world is hindered by the physical extension of his shelter and the spatial dilution of his institutions.
2. The city must then be predicated on compactness. Lack of compactness is lack of efficiency. A functionally weak system is the worst foundation for a complex society.
3. In the three-dimensional city, man defines a human ecology. In it he is a country dweller and metropolitan man in one. By it the inner and the outer are at "skin" distance. He has made the city in his own image.

I have some sympathy with Soleri's notions. As a weekend walker, I sometimes regret that I can walk for ten or twenty miles and still be nowhere near the countryside. The scale of the modern city demands automobile transport. Cities are too spread out for humans. Soleri inveighed against the waste and sprawl of the modern city:

"Meaningless. Sterile life. The asphalt percentage in geometric function of the degree of proliferation. Proto-human coherence. No scale. Destruction of ecology. The Detroit perpetuum [auto]mobile: Whenever distance increases more cars are needed. More cars demand more space. Thus distances must increase, etc."

This was all written by Soleri forty years ago. I did an Internet search for his biography or obituary and was surprised to discover that Soleri was still actively promoting his philosophy of architecture. He turns 90 this June. Over the years, he attracted volunteer workers and hustled grant money to establish the architectural research community of Arcosanti, where he has implemented some of his Arcology ideas. Arcosanti is located 70 miles north of Phoenix.

The Arcosanti website ( portrays the site as part futuristic architectural laboratory and part artist colony. It looks like a fascinating place to visit.