If you look over the landscape to the rising peaks in Northern Arizona, ideas of urban congestion and sprawl seem far away. Even as cities like Flagstaff, Sedona, Winslow continue to grow we feel lucky that the problems of traffic, pollution, and overcrowding are to the south and the west – but not here. We drive oversize cars, forget to recycle, heat and cool our homes as if the future will never come.
"There is no future, there has never been a future, ever, ever, ever," said architect Paolo Soleri during a recent visit. "Forget about the future, that’s a kind of conjectural dancing that we do and we perpetrate and we enjoy, but we should remember: It is a fiction. Because the future doesn’t exist."
According to Soleri, the future is only the potential we create out of the present and the past. He revolutionized the idea of sustainable cities designed to minimize environmental impact, especially from cars – la macchina, in Paolo’s native Italian. Without significant changes in the way we live, Soleri's no future future may come to pass.
"One problem," he said, "which is desperate is the presence of the automobile. La macchina. As long as we depend on the macchina, for our happiness, we are destroying the environment. We are destroying the planet."
Construction on Arcosanti – now an Arizona historic site and the jewel of Soleri’s innovative urban designs – began in the 1970s. On an isolated piece of land near Cordes Junction, it embodies Soleri’s concepts of living in concert with the environment.
Though the building of Arcosanti has never been finished, architectural critic John Meunier sees continued relevance for those ideas.
"He is somebody who has been a leader in attaching the concepts of architecture to the concept of ecology," said Meunier, "and of course the word “arcology,” for which he is famous and which he in fact invented, puts those two ideas together."
Soleri came to the United States from Torino, Italy where he earned his degree in architecture. He apprenticed with Frank Lloyd Wright who influenced his ideas on creating buildings in tune with the environment. Just as Soleri was influenced by Wright, Arizona architect Will Bruder was inspired by Soleri in his youth.
"Something that I learned from Paulo was the respect that the ordinary could become extraordinary," said Bruder. "Art and architecture, architecture and art, to me have always been seamlessly connected."
Jeff Stein, until recently Dean of the Boston School of Architecture, took over the leadership of Arcosanti after Paolo’s retirement in October.
Stein remembers, "Thirty-five years ago I came out here as a young student on a construction workshop to explore the place to see what this was all about. Paulo talks about “leanness” as the coming thing for American and world culture. He has developed a way of making architecture that embodies the leanness."
But architecture critic John Meunier sees little hope that we will make the changes needed to live a sustainable future.
"The chances of his (Soleri's) ideas being adopted wholesale in American society are I think almost zero," he said.
Though Soleri is officially retired, he remains active in a number of projects including the new highway interchange at Cordes Junction. When complete, it will feature ornamental panels with Soleri’s designs. Soleri is overseeing the construction and placement of the panels.
Is the 92 year old he looking forward to turning over the reins of leadership?
"Oh, mama mia! Mama mia. That’s going to be in the future," he laughs.
Click here to see related New York Times story on Soleri and Arcosanti including more photos.