R.I.P. Paolo Soleri: Anti-Eichler Architect

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Courtesy of Arcosanti / Facebook

When the architect Paolo Soleri died on Tuesday at the age of 93 in his home in Paradise Valley, Arizona, his masterwork was only 5 percent complete. And yet the one-time disciple of Frank Lloyd Wright left an outsize impression on the world of architecture for his community-building approach that valued ecology and efficiency over sprawl. He called it “arcology,” a portmanteau of archaeology and ecology. In a way, Soleri was the anti-Eichler.

Soleri’s work centered on a project called Arcosanti, which he founded in Arizona in 1970 as an “urban laboratory” and which is still active today. It’s a community planned as a “lean alternative to urban sprawl,” where people live in close proximity and share resources.

The Los Angeles Times explains Soleri’s split with Wright:

But he also broke philosophically with Wright, whose influential Broadacre City plan of the 1930s imagined a string of lush suburban communities connected by car traffic. In a series of feverishly detailed drawings, Soleri instead proposed denser, vertical settlements that would leave more land untouched at ground level.
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Ultimately Arcosanti was to include towers 25 stories high.
Slightly more than a dozen structures have been built over the years, including a foundry and a music center. There is also a swimming pool. Soleri estimated near the end of his life that the compound was perhaps 5% complete

Eichler’s neighborhoods, with their single-story, single-family homes, align closer to Wright’s concept. They rely on cars and take up lots of space. But Soleri’s counterpoint, a vertically built community with a small footprint, increasingly informs how people develop today.  The Times points to “the $22-billion Masdar City project on the outskirts of Abu Dhabi, designed by architect Norman Foster as a hyper-efficient ‘cleantech cluster.’ ”

As we touched on in the series on the housing shortage, there’s not a lot of room left to build in the Bay Area. You certainly couldn’t do a new Eichler-style tract. Perhaps the next phase of our development will trace its roots back to Soleri as well.

If you have three minutes, Kelly Loudenberg’s introduction to Arcosanti is worth a watch: