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Downtown Feast Provides Fitting Tribute for Lost Icon of Arcology

April 15, 2013 by Connor Descheemaker

Looking southward from Matthew Salenger's "Desert Islands" installation during Feast on the Street. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

Looking southward from Matthew Salenger’s “Desert Islands” installation during Feast on the Street. (Connor Descheemaker/DD)

This past Tuesday, Arizona and the world lost one of its greatest and most unique creatives in Paolo Soleri.

Over his 93 years of life, Soleri was hailed as many things. A visionary, a poet, a philosopher, an architect, a hippie, an idealist, a communist, a control-freak.

Dwelling for many decades of his life in the Arizona desert, Soleri was given the perfect canvas on which to paint his multi-faceted urban ideal.

Taken together, his major projects Arcosanti and Cosanti served as the unreachable societal ideal for communing in harmony with both nature and urbanity.

His drawings and sketches took on an equally monumental scale. The drawings still able to be seen took up entire scrolls dozens of feet long, spanning entire walls when hung end to end.

But perhaps most notably, none of Soleri’s work ever became mechanical. Each stroke of the pen was done with artistic flourish and vivid color, reflecting both creative unrest and a desire to express the fullness of nature in his work.

Soleri’s work fell under the banner of organic architecture, and he first came to Arizona after college in Italy to learn from its most famous practitioner: Frank Lloyd Wright.

After studying at Wright’s famed Taliesin West, rather than become another acolyte, Soleri rebelled.

He carried out a few commissions, and then began speaking out almost immediately against the very principles upon which his former teacher Wright built his reputation.

Rather than spreading out and making the car the center of everyday activity, Soleri craved hyper-urbanism, but not in the typical sense. Instead, he founded the philosophy of arcology, the intersection (even linguistically) of architecture and ecology.

Soleri’s hyper-dense structures would form a new vision of the city in direct contrast to Wright’s famed Broadacre City, which ended up forming the basis of American suburban growth in the late 20th century.

All based around the apse (a quarter-sphere structure), Soleri’s Mesa City concept would house tens of thousands of residents, but all over an incredibly small footprint. Sweeping, interconnected architectural forms would spring out of the ground and unite residence and business seamlessly.

Through this unique design, and especially its footprint, all residents would co-exist in an extremely egalitarian form, with everyone having equal access to nature. All parts of the city faced outward, and were each near to the edge of the city and therefore in constant interaction with the surrounding environment.

The forms which Soleri’s buildings and sketches took are truly unmatched in any era of architecture or design.

Above all, he desired for man to live in community, both with one another, and with the nature on which they so heavily relied.

Iconic, and wholly built to fit the Arizona desert in which they were built, Soleri’s Cosanti and Arcosanti stand unparalleled, now tributes to the natural, holistic vision of their creator.

(Connor Descheemaker/DD)

(Connor Descheemaker/DD)

This past Saturday represented downtown Phoenix’s most grandiose attempt ever to engage community and environment.

Roosevelt Row CDC
, in partnership with ASU Art Museum and School of Sustainability, hosted its first (hopefully) annual Feast on the Street.

The event centered around a massive, half-mile-long dining table, lined with 2000 chairs taking up First Street in downtown Phoenix, from ASU Downtown’s Taylor Place residence hall to Margaret T. Hance Park. And spaced evenly along the table were information cards and examples of plants native to the area.

The dining table was flanked on both sides by over a dozen food trucks, a beer garden, a farmers’ market, bucket plants, seed bags, “bike bouquets”, gardening demonstrations, and numerous other local food purveyors and advocates.

While Phoenix has long been perceived as a place which shuns density of any kind, the dream of those organizing the event and many of its participants is to finally re-adopt the walk, bike, and train, and rebuild the city’s urban core around these principles.

Historically though, Phoenix was a tight, accessible city with shaded, wide sidewalks, and a popular streetcar line to boot.

The area directly surrounding the Feast would not appear to many as the epicenter of an urban revival, but those pursing with a fine-tooth comb would find many glimpses of success in the dozens of independent businesses which have cropped up around First Street in the area known as Roosevelt Row.

Food, in the case of this event, was used as the catalyst for localism and community, and education about the flora and fauna of the Arizona desert to produce harmony between the modern, built world, and the natural one which existed before and will continue to exist if we embrace it.

And it was these ideals to which Paolo Soleri so desperately clung throughout his near-century of service to the practice of arcology.

With the Feast’s open embrace of locality and the natural environment the city of Phoenix, it would seem, is finally taking its first tentative, temporary steps toward the embrace of ecology in urban form, dreamt up so long ago by Soleri.

One could even faintly trace the Feast’s lineage to the numerous potlucks and community dinners held amongst students, apprentices, employees, and visitors to Cosanti and Arcosanti over their many decades of existence.

A fitting “fine” to the Italian expatriate’s time in the Sonoran Desert.

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