In 1946, Italian architecture student Paolo Soleri discovered a book about Taliesin West, Frank Lloyd Wright’s legendary winter home located in Scottsdale, Ariz. He immediately wrote to Wright and enclosed some of his sketches. Months later, Wright responded with an invitation to apprentice in Arizona. This was a major turning point for Soleri, who would eventually become one of the 20th century’s leading architectural and environmental visionaries. His life and his works form the subject of the documentary, The Vision of Paolo Soleri: Prophet in the Desert, which the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art will be screening on Feb. 16.
Soleri was born and raised in Torino, Italy, and, even as a kid, displayed an innate sense of artistry. In the film, we see his early sketches of classical figures wrought with pinpoint detail and masterful perspective. During his youth, he studied the prevailing aesthetic and intellectual movements of the 1920s and ’30s—Le Corbusier, The Bauhaus, Picasso. He continued his education at the prestigious School of Architecture at Politecnico di Torino, where he graduated with highest honors. But Soleri’s real beginning started when he traveled from Italy to the deserts of Arizona for his apprenticeship with Wright.
While there, he garnered a reputation for the offbeat. Director Lisa Scafuro’s film features recollections from some of Soleri’s contemporaries at Taliesin. One recalls Soleri’s penchant for carving risque figures to put on his architectural models. It was far from the only thing that made Soleri stand out. His designs evolved out of Wright’s established ethos—the integration of architecture and environment. For Soleri, this formed the central tenet of his work, “arcology” (a synthesis of architecture and ecology).
After returning to Italy and founding a ceramics factory, Soleri moved to Arizona full time. There, he began construction on his most influential and experimental of projects—Arcosanti. The title loosely translates to “arcology against property,” which sums up the principles of Soleri and his designs. In 1970, Soleri and crew began Arcosanti as a sprawling, 25-acre experimental town built out of organic materials that meld into the structures' natural environment. Since its completion in 1989, Arcosanti has become a beacon of innovative design and part of Soleri’s overall contribution to architecture and environmentalism.
You can see The Vision of Paolo Soleri: Prophet in the Desert at SLOMA on Feb. 16, at 7 p.m. There is a suggested donation of $5 for members and $7 for nonmembers. For more info, visit sloma.org.