If there were an official sound to Arizona, it would be the chime of Paolo Soleri’s wind-bells. Although this fascinating man left our world in April 2013, his voice has not been silenced. His bells – like doorbells that announce your arrival to another way of living – serve as reminders of what is possible when we approach our world with kindness and a sense of community.
Born in Turin, Italy, in 1919, Paolo Soleri was an architect, writer, thinker, philosopher, artist and visionary. When he was in his twenties, he spent a year as an apprentice for Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin West, returned to Italy for several years, then made his way back to the U.S. and settled in Arizona. In 1955, Soleri purchased a five-acre property in Paradise Valley, which he named Cosanti, a combination of the Italian words cose and anti. Together the words mean “before things,” expressing one of his hopes for humankind’s role in this world.
Cosanti and the experimental town Arcosanti, which he founded in 1970, are human habitats that Soleri created to explore alternative methods of architecture and ways of group living. While Arcosanti is the stronger expression of his concept of arcology, which asserts that architecture and ecology are one integral process, many believe that Cosanti is his greatest work.
Cosanti was not a master-planned compound but rather a function-based space for living, working and playing that grew organically over time, with new buildings – including outdoor studios, residences, a performance space and a pool – added as needed. To walk through the space is a push-pull experience as you are drawn down pathways, through half domes and into earth-formed concrete structures, each one inviting you to stay while also enticing you to see what’s next.
Soleri’s innovative and imaginative construction techniques are both sophisticated and crude, combining eco-savvy earth-cast architecture with salvaged materials like railroad ties and canvas tarps. The sculptural organic shapes are the result of pouring concrete over pre-shaped mounts of earth that were later excavated after the concrete solidified. Many are built below ground level for natural insulation, and all are positioned in relation to the changing angle of the sun for year-round temperature control.
My self-led tour of Cosanti was an experience of silence, with the exception of the bronze and ceramic wind-bells, which are handcrafted by artisans on site and hung everywhere, like branches on exotic trees. The few people I saw were a mixed bunch, some appearing to have arrived here 50 years ago in a VW bus, some clearly just off the bus that was still idling in the parking lot. To many, it’s unclear if Cosanti is home or a place to take home with them. Either would please Soleri, who wondered, “Can the American dream be reconsidered and reinvented?”
This vision of a function-based space attracts more than 100,000 visitors each year, and an additional 50,000 make it to Arcosanti, his experimental town in the high desert. As we give thanks for Paolo Soleri and others like him, I hope that his bells will forever remind us of what is possible when we follow our dreams.