Down in the Valley: Paolo Soleri

Tuesday, May 29th, 2012


Cosanti, Paradise Valley, Arizona

Many people think of the Phoenix area as tiled and stuccoed urban sprawl spreading endlessly across a sun-baked valley—and, well, they’re right of course. However, closer examination reveals a surprisingly interesting mix of architecture and design.  Thanks in part to the new availability of air conditioning, Phoenix boomed after World War II and the result is an abundance of mid-century modern buildings and neighborhoods.  Contemporary architects such as Will Bruder continue the tradition with new buildings that reflect the rugged character of the Sonoran Desert.  We’ve been spending some time in the Valley of the Sun recently and we’ve come to appreciate this city that too often is lazily written off as ‘Los Angeles without the Pacific’.

Cosanti, architect Paolo Soleri’s residence and studio, is incongruously set amidst posh, suburban Paradise Valley, supposedly Arizona’s wealthiest zip code. A rusty sign directs you in from Doubletree Ranch Road to this Arizona Historic Site. The buildings and grounds certainly look like absolutely nothing else around. The buildings are carefully sited, with some partially underground, to take advantage of the abundant natural light and the insulating properties of the earth. Included among the buildings are Soleri’s own residence, a performance space, work studios, a foundry, and a swimming pool we would gladly take a dip in.

Soleri’s architecture projects are partially funded by the sale of the bronze bells that are his own designs and cast on site—weekday mornings are the best time to catch the pouring. The bells themselves range from diminutive single bells to massive multi-bell sculptures that weigh hundreds of pounds.  Also produced are terra cotta bells with rounded forms that recall pueblo architecture and Navajo pottery.

For the full-immersion experience, take the drive an hour and half north to the high desert where Arcosanti, an experimental community based on Soleri’s architectural principles, is slowly being built. Founded in the 1970s, Arcosanti was the focus of a recent New York Times article that described the challenges that face the ongoing project. A bit closer is the recently completed Soleri-designed pedestrian bridge in nearby downtown Scottsdale, the only one of Soleri’s many bridge designs that actually got built.  Elsewhere, the architect’s legacy is less secure: an amphitheatre designed in 1970 in Santa Fe is currently slated for demolition.

We plan to share more good stuff from the Phoenix/Scottsdale environs in future posts.