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.
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: