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Lessons in Arcology: An Interview with Paolo Soleri

Categories: Articles

By Susan Piedmont-Palladino

The wide use of the term “green,” referring to sustainable design, is a relatively recent trend, but the idea that environmental concerns should be an integral and conscious aspect of the design process is by no means new. In the 1960s, for example, Italian-born architect Paolo Soleri articulated a philosophy he called “arcology,” a portmanteau word combining “architecture” and “ecology.” The fundamental precept of arcology is that extremely compact communities offer great environmental and social advantages, and for decades, Soleri has been putting this theory into practice by building a community known as Arcosanti, located about 70 miles north of Phoenix.

National Building Museum Curator Susan Piedmont-Palladino interviewed Paolo Soleri before his Spotlight on Design lecture at the National Building Museum on October 23, 2006.

Susan Piedmont-Palladino: The design community’s vocabulary is full of words like “sustainability,” “green building,” and “smart growth.” Although you may not have called them by those names, these are things you’ve been talking about for 30 to 40 years. I’m curious about your perspective on this rising and falling interest.

Paolo Soleri: The interest is very important; evidently we are making many steps, which are the positive steps to do at this point. My initiative—and it has been part of my [philosophical] makeup—was to try to work in a somehow passive way in making use of the climate. I’m still very much attached to that. And one reason is that when we develop a very elaborate technology to [create a] green building, somehow we are trying to take away some of the beauty of the organism—of the human being—and consign it to technology. Things that we can do—that the human organism has been doing for millions of years—we tend now to believe that we can serve them better with technology. So we are developing what you might call a very artificial condition.

Piedmont-Palladino: There’s a wing of the green community that thinks we can engineer ourselves out of our environmental problems. You’re arguing that some of the fundamentals, and the beauty, of building sustainably are in older ways of building, and in passive technologies.

Soleri: Well, yes, because our biotechnology has the wisdom of about a few million years. This new technology has the wisdom of about 10, 15, 20 years, so we should be a little cautious about coming out with all such ideal solutions— in practice or in reality some might turn out to be problematic, besides [there’s] the humbling of the greatness of our physiology and the organic nature of our systems. That’s the point I’m making.

Piedmont-Palladino: What about the impact of the internet and communications technology on how we build and use land? Some people think it will drive us to sprawl more and others think that we’ll begin to live together out of desire instead of need.

Soleri: Certainly we are aware that communication is fundamental, and a good network of communication is one of the best things that can happen to us, but I think we [miss] the target when we do not realize that as humans—as organisms—we are very dependent on one another physically, not just intellectually. So a website is a tremendous asset, but it lacks the, let’s say, the three-dimensionality of coming together of people and what develops when you engage in activities which are not just your own personal world—but that they develop in terms of society and possibly humanity.

Piedmont-Palladino: That’s some of the basis of the life of Arcosanti—the stimulation of human contact.

Soleri: Yes, in very elementary ways and sometimes very crude ways, but part of that is the limitation—our brain limitation—the consequence of the number of people involved and the financial difficulties that we have.

Piedmont-Palladino: I noticed you have a weekly gathering for questions and discussion at Arcosanti that you call “School of Thought”—“SOFT.” That is a face-to-face gathering, right? It’s not a webcast or a podcast?

Soleri: Not yet, but we wouldn’t mind to enlarge the idea. There is some interest developin now in people outside of Arcosanti, that that should be pursued, but again we are very limited by affordability and the time that it takes, and the knowledge that it takes. We would like to have some, let’s say, professionals in terms of thinking and technology and philosophy and so on.

Piedmont-Palladino: This question of communications brings up how we educate people to think about their environment differently. There will be people reading this, for example, besides just architects and planners; there will be members of the general public, policy makers, and politicians. What leadership roles might these different groups play in addressing environmental issues?

 

Soleri: I think all of them are very critical. I mean evidently they are necessary. But I think that the main problem is that we are trying to run away from ourselves, and that’s what suburban exurbias are expressing very well. So this running away doesn’t have only psychological consequences, it has also physical problems, and that’s exemplified by our moving around. We selected the automobile and we are paying the price now that is becoming enormous. There’s a movie, Who Killed the Electric Car, a very interesting movie to watch. I think that most of us come out of the movie, say, “Oh, my God, what are we doing to our baby?” Because the automobile is an icon that we cannot even imagine to eliminate. So what has been done to the [electric] car? It’s shown as a victim of the technocrats of oil and energy, etc. The mistake there is very self-evident, and the problem is not what they do to the car, the problem is that the car is pollution by itself, and that’s because it tends to separate the life of individuals to the extremes of hermitage, as I put it.

Piedmont-Palladino: The car pollutes on two levels. Hybrids can solve some of that, but you’re really talking about a kind of social and cultural pollution.

Soleri: Yes, it’s physical also because of the enormity of the car network that we do not consider, I mean from mining the material to this gigantic network of highways, and then the large size of the machines themselves, where you need 300 horsepower to move one horsepower like us. You know the horse was a very good example of something that was too big for our well-being, but the horse served a purpose which was very simple logistics. But now we need 200 or more horsepower, and we begin to face the consequences.

Piedmont-Palladino: In that sense the development of the clean automobile only solves one problem, because people can continue to sprawl but with a little bit of their guilt assuaged.

Soleri: Exactly. We are improving something to make it worse. Because when we have a very clean car, instead of having one car to every family we might have four cars per family. So all the other problems are there and they are not going to go away, they’re getting worse.

Piedmont-Palladino: Let’s talk about your neighboring city, Phoenix, which now covers 517 square miles, bigger than Los Angeles. If in a hundred years the city contracts, can that infrastructure be redeemed, like a second-growth forest, or does it become just a ruin? What happens to cities like Los Angeles and Phoenix?

Soleri: If it was in another country I would say it would be a question mark. Here it seems to be that the one thing that we love is to explode buildings; we demolish residential structures, sports stadiums, etc. We demolish just about everything just because they’re older or because they are in the way of something else and so on. One could imagine a systematic dynamiting of all the city, and that sounds horrendous, but that’s what might happen. The thing is to find a way of guiding the transportation with a better knowledge or wisdom than the guidance we’re offering now, instead of doing the same thing a little better, which is the wrong way to go about it.

Piedmont-Palladino: Even as things look bleak from many perspectives, your work is inspiring on many levels, including the provocative publications and vivid drawings and models you produce to convey your ideas. Can drawings change how people think about their environment? 

 

Soleri: Yes, but, you know one question is, people ask “who does he believe himself to be to tell me what to do?” But that’s the task of the designer: somehow try to tell the client what might be worth doing.

Piedmont-Palladino: You are publishing a series called Quaderni—“notebooks”—titled “What if…” You talk about it as posing an antidote to certainty.

Soleri: The “What if” comes about because I am definitely against dogmatism. So, I said let’s talk about hypothesis because that’s the most we can do. We don’t really know what we are and where we come from, and what reality itself is. So it’s always a question mark even when we think we come up with the best answer. “What if” is that position of dealing with hypothesis, not dealing with the truth which doesn’t exist as far as I know, and it doesn’t exist because of the simple reason that reality is self-creating. And that self-creation means that there is not a truth, but there is the trueness of the process of self-creation.

Piedmont-Palladino: I’m curious about how your own architecture, the project of Arcosanti itself, is possibly a built version of the question of “What if.” Do you think that architects should be engaged in providing questions, “What if’s,” through their architecture, or providing answers?

Soleri: Architects are in many ways arrogant individuals in the sense that they know the answers and they want to develop what I call orchids out of those answers. So the idea of all the architects in general is to build a beautiful house or whatever, that almost cuts the architect away from reality because the reality is not just orchids, it’s forest—it’s the whole substance of the organic world. But this tendency to be very self-centered is not giving the architect the right initial impulse, which is the impulse of serving about six billions of individuals and not just serving an elite.

We, as architects, tend to be individuals, which is good, but we forget the fact that if I’m a painter I might become idiosyncratic, but as a painter I’m not going to transform the lives of people. But as an architect I am doing that—I am a transformer. We are visionaries, which means that we would like to live our vision, but it happens to be the wrong vision because it’s marred by and married to this endless proposition of materialism. There’s a dilemma there, about the very nature of intellect and knowledge—that is, of human life.

Piedmont-Palladino: What advice might you have for today’s architecture students who may be burdened by the thought of the world they’re about to inherit?

Soleri: The future doesn’t exist so don’t get stuck with that. We only create the past; we never create the future because the future is nonsense. It doesn’t exist, period. But it’s difficult because we are not inviting the young child today to think in terms of generosity or friendship or love or passion, and so on. You start with the dollar bill and go on from there, and you’ll be successful. And unfortunately that’s what we are doing now. The achievements of technology are miraculous, but they are also a killer when they become the reason and not the means for something.

Piedmont-Palladino: Well, if we are really constructing a past, ideally we would construct a past that we all value. How do we go about that? Will we return to the fundamentals you spoke of before, like passive technologies?

 

Soleri: Consider a village, a medieval village in Europe, for instance, where the people were starving, people had plagues and all sorts of things to cope with, and they would willingly get engaged in building a cathedral. That’s a commitment that’s inconceivable to us, and it’s rightly inconceivable because there is something more important than building a beautiful building. But there was a part of that kind of humanity that was willing to give up so much for something that they felt was so much greater. The greatness is escaping us; it’s a dilemma, which comes naturally to us—that’s why it is so difficult to cope with.

Piedmont-Palladino: Is there anything else you’d like to talk about that I haven’t mentioned?

Soleri: There are two words—“reformation” and “reformulation”—that I’ve been using. I think what we need now is not reformation, which is a stale mantra after all. So we need to reformulate our position vis-à-vis reality and vis-à-vis all the people and animals and so on, in order to give a new dimension to individual and collective responsibilities. We need the reformulation of the reformation. So I’m pushing the distinction. •