Soleri

soleri

Paolo Soleri died yesterday at 93. I first heard of him when I was a college student. A classmate, Ray Catchpole, had spent the summer at Soleri’s desert compound in Arizona (he had several sand-cast bronze wind bells in his room), and he encouraged me to go if I had the chance. That year—1964—I was editor-in-chief of Asterisk, a student magazine, and it must have been through Ray that we got Soleri to send us an article: “Computer, Craft, and Art Architecture.” I admired Soleri’s work, several bridge designs, as well as a desert house with a retractable dome roof. A few years later, I almost made it to Arizona but an opportunity to do graduate work intervened. At that time, Soleri (born in Italy, apprenticed with Wright) was already a mythical if somewhat elusive figure. In 1978, Stewart Brand invited me to the Whole Earth Jamboree; the deal was that you could speak to the assembled crowd (8,000 people) on any subject at all—but only for five minutes. Irresistible. The jamboree took place on a rifle range in a military reservation on the Marin headland, and accommodations were army pup tents. My wife and I struggled to put up the tent, and like most people made a botch of it. I looked over to the next tent and recognized Soleri; his tent was perfectly pitched, taut as a sheet of plywood. I can’t recall what he spoke about (I do remember Peter Coyote’s talk), most of the day was spent waiting for Marlon Brando—who never showed up. By then, Soleri had shifted to his guru mode. I was never much convinced by his “city,” Arcosanti, neither architecturally, nor urbanistically. It seemed a hand-crafted version of the misguided megastructure ideas of the time. But I still wish I had gone to the desert and learned how to cast bells.

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