Paolo Soleri
from: ARCOLGY The City in the Image of Man
Paolo Soleri - 1969
Thesis Criticism
As with all the criticisms in my Thesis, I will focus on one work per individual with references to other their works and I will follow both Barzon [future link] and Elliot [future link] in my approach to critique. Also, I will add criticisms from other sourses which seem relavant, some points from which I will comment on.
Soleri redefined the role of the architect [link] and the definition of the city although there are presidents of his approach in history [link]. I had sketched my first megacity concept before becoming aware of his work but did not develop the idea, seriously, until after exposure to his ideas in the mid 60s. Soleri turned his back on conventional building and started a journey most likely impossible to accomplish in his lifetime. He went out into the desert to build a city from nothing - not a conventional city, an ARCOLOGY [link]. He created many ways of supporting himself and the project from making highly original hand crafted bells [link], to teaching promoting his community-scale environment for many uses. A basin of attraction has been created. Time will tell if it can sustain itself and live beyond its founder. When I moved to Phoenix in the mid 60s, I moved there after buying several hundred acres to do the same kind of thing. I was surprised and delighted when I saw an article on Soleri who had recently won the AIA Gold Medal and published two books [link]. I was disappointed, however, in reading about his ideas in regards economics and ownership. I believed that they would cause him to fail. I still believe he had - and still does as far as I know - an inadequate philosophy in regards these matters. Given the way our economy has developed, and the political distortion of the free-enterprise concept, it may turn out, however, that he executed the right tactics. His way may have been the only way to protect the project through the incubation stage. Time will tell. There remains the questions: what will happen after Soleri; how will the project scale, how will ownership and governance work - can a diverse city evolve from a project? Also, now that the traditional suburban pattern is encroaching on the desert context surrounding Arcosonty, how does this alter future design and growth of this specific experiment [link]?
I have said that an architect should integrate and practice Design/Build/Use - Soleri has done this. I have said the architect is wise to develop revenue sources other than just fee-for-service - he has done this. I have said that an architect should focus on work and design concepts that are relevant to the times - he has done this. I have said that an architect should build based on a concept of life and work as an integrated process - Soleri has done this. I have said that an architect should be able to relate every project from a room to a city to GAIA [link: gaia project] as a system, and a work of art and a Garden for all life - he has advocated this to a greater degree than any architect I am aware of except, perhaps, than myself. I have said that cites following Greene's [link: herb green architect] concepts, should have an Armature that allows diverse development within a context and ties to amd preserves history - Soleri has done this in the vast majority of his designs, and, as new as his Acology concept is, it is amazing how much of Tuscany you can find in it.
Also, I have said that architects have to build a variety of types, in a variety of places, circumstances and contexts in order to demonstrate, broadly, their philosophy and methods [link] (soleri has not); that the architect’s primary role - with built work - is to advance the state-of-the art in key projects (soleri has) and to transfer this knowledge (he has), and, develop means that are scaleable - here I have serious questions [link]. These questions in no way detract from Paolo Soleri’s significance and achievement. I do not know, from direct experience, what his thinking is on these issues nor what he considers a professional life well lived. I believe, however, it would be a better world, and that Arcology would be more advanced (in concept, form, practice and influence), if Soleri had built more outside of Arcosonti (even if many of these projects were of far more modest scale). If he has not because of intent and policy or because a world has refused to play - I do not know. For myself, I do not wish to retreat to a sanctuary, nor do I want to “fight the world,” either. I have chosen to create a new practice model [link: bay area studio] of architecture with the intent to create Authentic Architecture [link] at a scale sufficient to bring real alternatives to society.
I turn now to HEXAHEDRON. Even though there has been a considerable amount of building at Arcosonti, to me Hexahedron represents one of the most pure expressions of Paolo’s ideas. The design has always moved me. This is a habitat for a 100 thousand people. The structure is about 3,000 feet high - a human made mountain. It is composed of two offset, inverted, pyramids - simple forms that, because of their relationship to one another, create an amazing Armature [link:herb greene arcmature concept] that frames a great variety of spaces. This Armature - this mountain - would be encrusted with landscaping and inside and outside “lots” where “buildings” for various purposes would be built. The building would never end with the Armature providing services, context and unity, the encrustation of landscape and specific structures a rich, always changing diversity. I would love to build Hexahedron. I think that it would be one of the great works of all time.
It is important to IMAGINE - to think through - what amenities a structure like this would provide that are nearly impossible to accomplish any other way. For one, the ability to walk to and have access, within a few minutes, to any one (or grouping) of 100,000 people. And, to be able to have this connectivity in an environment which can be much more spacious than a typical city (a point which is almost totally overlooked). The traditional “flat” city cannot provide this and it fails to do so at great expense. Because of the shape, configuration and size of the structure, it creates both landscape and micro climate. A layered approach to the exposure to this weather can provide an almost endless variety of landscape contexts with a minimal amount of mechanical tempering. The design is essentially a cube on a bias configured with an offset that creates a large open park about 1,500 feet into the air. This is a way to get the best of the Medieval city [rbtfBook], combine it with the best of modern technology and create a new form. The STREET [rbtfBook], particularly, can find an expression here that we have not see in centuries. A great deal of the food required by the population would be grown in/on the building, as well as, upon the immediate ground landscape below the structure and that surrounding the structure. Major services and transportation are provided in the vertical supporting columns of Hexahedron with the heavy technology below ground under it. Access to the natural surrounding landscape is a matter of a few minutes for each citizen - a maximum of 700 steps and a vertical drop. The size of the population equals a comfortable political unit - a small “city-state” capable of diversity, “replacement” [rbtfBook] and self-rule. One could imagine how a city like this, with some kind of theme and basin-of-attraction would play out over a couple of hundred years. Imagine Florence with true Enlightenment principles, true democracy, a replacement economy and modern electronics set in a cybernetic forest [link: cybernetc forest].
One of the great barriers to this kind of solution is that it is extremely front-end capital intensive. It is far less capital and costly in maintenance for infrastructure on the back end of the project because of the inherent efficiencies of this kind of configuration. This is against the grain of how development is done today which is based on tax law and extreme capital leverage and land exploitation [future link]. UpSideDownEconomics does not see the advantage here [future link]. Another barrier is how cities are thought of - and built. They are not conceived of as a system. At the same time, they are over designed in many critical aspects and do not emerge, organically, over a long period of time - as the great cities of the past did. The wrong things are controlled. And, the wrong things are left to random chance. It is almost perfectly backwards. A systematic method that facilitates both design (intent) and emergence (learning and feedback) is required. And, as a further barrier, a city like this would require an unique approach to public/private collaboration. These aspects of economics, life and governance cannot be seen to be in conflict as they are today. Individual wealth and commonwealth have to be in balance. This is the opposite of what happens in our contemporary over-hyped, thoughtless, spin-based approach to the creation and facilitation of the body politic and the sprawl we call cities. I do not think that Soleri has grappled with these barriers, beyond the philosophical level, and approached them with a transferable, scaleable method engineered to overcome them. I have the same criticism of Oneal’s Space Colonies [l-5 interview] - the social architecture is the most critical aspect of these new city designs on the planet or off of it. Soleri has evolved a community over nearly half a century and perhaps that is his plan. The results are still ambiguous. What is certain is that today we have the worst of both worlds between the traditions city [rbtfBook] and the possible future city - Arcologies remain one of the best concepts for exploring a viable, sustainable and socially exciting alternative to the existing city schema which has reached its point of absurdity.
Designing Hexahedron will not be easy - there are many habits to break. The mechanical engineering will be challenging. The structural and physical building aspects, while massive in scale, do not, in themselves, present huge challenges except for one aspect. Remote Arcologies will present transportation challenges (during the construction phase, which can take decades) while those close to existing cities will offer political and transitional (social as well as technological) challenges. However, if you look at the annual expansion of a city like Calgary or Los Vegas is can be seen that the scale of localized Urban/suburban building is not inadequate to that necessary for the making of Hexahedron. It is just that these are two opposed design strategies and the existing system-in-place (from zoning, politics, economics, infrastructure, ownership, social conventions, and power-bases) is tuned to the creation of horizontal spread.
Soleri deserves to be considered to be more than a personality on the fringe of alternative architecture. He should be seen as a primary form giver and his concepts should be tested at various scales of recursion [future link]. The traditional city will not gracefully evolve from what it is today to something that will work in the future. And even if it can - and in some places does - there needs to exist the pure expression of an anti-thesis to challenge and stimulate it. Hexahedron is, in concept and potential, is far closer to the great cities of the past and far more capable of accomplishing a full expression of Pattern Language [rbtfBook] than the so-called modern city. Hexahedron is not impossible to build today and, if properly done, could be a worthy project - and, if the proper governance and social memes were employed as both an experiment in architecture and living.
Paolo Soleri as a life lived, and as an architect, has added much to Humanity and to the language of a future sustainable city. He is first, among contemporary architects to think and speak out strongly for the city in an ecological context and offering a fundamentally different alternative to existing habits. He has pursued his vision. He has employed prototyping which is rare in architecture. He has lived in and placed his business in his own prototype designs. He has invested a lifetime to his work. However, it seems to me he has trapped himself in too narrow a world of his own making. I do not know if this is true or to what extent nor how this aspect of his life and work has played out in relationship to his intent. I leave this question for the future to answer.
June 6, 2009 Update:
Click on the model of Hexahedron to read an interesting and important BLOG critic of Arcologies. Serious questions are being asked here in an open and intellectually honest way. My response follows.
I agree with many of the points made in this writing as well as made in papers which it links to. I think it stands as an important warning to the entire field of mega-structures. There are two points where I diverge; first, the same things can be said about most modern cities and virtually all “signature” works by “great” architects; secondly, the problems cited are the consequence both of the larger societies’ values and the way architecture is generally practiced today. My conclusion is that the deficiencies and risks cited are not intrinsic to Arcologies they are intrinsic to our culture. If I am correct, this is an important distinction.
Here is what I posted to the BLOG:

(Anonymous) wrote:
Jun. 5th, 2009 05:09 pm (UTC)
Yes and No

All of the comments are well taken, however...

It does not have to be so. A structure like the one shown can function as a Armature (areas, volumes, infrastructure) not unlike the “flat” city as it has been for hundreds of years. The individual buildings within this can actually be more varied and individual than any urban environment we have today.

The principle values to be gained are:
1) volume and space, much more of it than the “peanut butter spread” of a typical city.
2) reduction of transportation and utility runs.
3) efficient prefabricated structure.
4) better energy management (volume to skin ratios), etc.
5) dense urban experience with a few minutes “drop” to farming, recreational and authentic wilderness areas.

And so on.

I believe that Palo’s concept is weakest in terms of the governance and social systems aspects yet I point out that traditional cities are not immune to the darker aspects of Human misconduct. There is not reason that an Arcology or mega-city has to be such. NYC and many other urban spaces are mega-cities - just poorly designed ones - mostly.

It is certainly true that the last 25 years of architecture is not encouraging as human scale has all but been obliterated. It is true that a better result will not be accomplished by a top-down, dictatorial result. This is a process issue much broader than architecture itself, however.

I urge that the concept is not thrown out with the bath water. In a world of growing population, weather change, resource competition, this approach may have a place. If done properly and if not promoted as THE solution as there is no such thing.

You may find the following interesting:

In any schema for making habitat there are inherent opportunities and risks. The trick is to get the good aspects and eliminate the bad. This is a design process issue. In complex projects (almost everything) this requires an authentic collaborative design process not just among professionals - among all members of a community and society. We do not have this today.

Matt Taylor

I think that the main points typically missed about this kind of concept are three: The first is the reality of volume in distinction to horizontal spread. There can be much more space in a true three dimensional building. The default image of a huge apartment building of halls and crowed apartments has to give way to the idea of a human made mountain with many different kinds of landscapes to build within. The second is abandoning the notion of a rigid, low variety, flat space full of prescribed units and realizing that the actual structure will be encrusted with a constantly changing composition of living/working units, gardens, public spaces, production facilities, pathways - an organic, evolving variety not seen since the Mediaeval city. This can be arranged in vertical and horizontal belts of similar zones of building types which intersect at “hot” mixed use clusters which provide the benefits of both mixed use and single type zoning without the drawbacks of either [link: mega cities zones]. Third, it is logical to associate Arcologies and mega-city concepts with totalitarian motives (be it the fascist, communist or the “shock” Capitalism variety) because our recent history of large developments certainly have exhibited these attributes. This is a matter, architecturally, of bad design and totally inadequate design processes. In the political, economic, social realm, these work are faithfully reflective of our present situation. There is a lot of chatter about the individual and community yet little practice of it particularly when big dollars (and big egos - actually, the lack of true self awareness and identity) are involved.
A link from the BLOG to a paper well worth reading is “Chapter 11 The Trouble With Autocratic Architecture: A Critical and Cocreative Look at Palo Soleri’s Arcosonti.” This is from the experience of someone who was there - an experience which I do not have. In this paper the issue of gender equality, participation and balance is raised. In the leading BLOG piece, the issue of Soreri’s childhood in a Fascist state is raised. Both address the extent that Arcosanti reflects this background and question the extent that Arcologies inherently embed facets of these experiences and philosopies in the intrinsic nature of the concept. No question these are aspects of the making of the man and his work. No questions these issues are systemic to our society and reflective throughout it and can be clearly seen in our architecture. No question that some aspects found in the speific practice of Arconsanti reflect this background. No question (no matter how much the subject may annoy many) these are critical issues in the contemplation of building such structures.
Again, however, I offer caution. Something can be true enough yet not complete. We humans are complex and far from single faceted. It is too easy to over generalize. Having just completed three projects in Italy and thereby gaining some experience with the country and its architecture, including the major architects from the 30s on, I have come to realize how the entire Fascist experience and the dominate sexual set of Italy effected this generation of architects which Soleri - despite his long residency in the U.S. - is certainly a member. The experience cannot be denied yet the individual responses to it are quite varied and full of nuance. I will leave the judgment of good and bad to you the reader - from my standpoint some of the responses were toward creative and healthy and other less so.
I think the following book, click on the cover image for information, offers a good overview of Soleri’s ideas and work as well as one viewpoint of how he evolved out of his background. I over it as another aspect of a complex and not yet fully told story.
I have not been to Arcosonti and regret this. As I write this Soleri’s 90th birthday is about to be celebrated. Whatever may be in error; whatever, may be missing; whatever may be left undone; whatever opportunities may have been missed; this is an extraordinary man and life well lived. It is a body of work full of potential - a potential which should be explored, developed and built in the most positive and healthy way possible.
Go to Thesis Introduction and Overview Part Three
Go to Thesis Introduction and Overview Part One
Return to Thesis Index
Return to INDEX
Architectural Projects 1952 - 2004
Mega Cities

Matt Taylor
October 30, 2004


SolutionBox voice of this document:


posted October 30, 2004

revised November 5, 2004
• • •

note: this document is about 45% finished

615 720 7390

Copyright© Matt Taylor 2004, 2009



Search For:
Match:  Any word All words Exact phrase
Sound-alike matching
From: ,
To: ,
Show:   results   summaries
Sort by: