PRINT May 1970

Paolo Soleri

A city is a perfect and absolute assembly or communion of many towns or streets in one.
—Aristotle, Politics

IN AN EPOCH IN WHICH urban planning interest is centered in “non-delineated matrix systems” and “statistical composite frameworks,” Paolo Soleri is one of the few architects in the world who advocates an unrestricted use of the third dimension in the design of cities. More than any of his contemporaries, he fathered the idea that cities be regarded as singular objects, not unlike a cup, a table, or any other type of artifact invented by man. Soleri’s position is not without precedent. Other architects have speculated on what “literal unity” means for the city. Vasari’s star shapes, de Giorgio’s octagonals, and Boullée’s spherical geometrics come quickly to mind. But these were paper-graphics, flat-disc attempts at organization rather than true perceptual environments.

Attempts at new city imagery, whether from the Renaissance, the Enlightenment or the Modern period, are seldom isolated exercises in pure formalism. Brought on by the break-up of an older socio-economic order, they are always characterized by the desire to replace “conditioned necessity by liberty and harmony”1 as proselytized through Utopian theories of world behavior.

The fatal convergence of deteriorating cities, population increase and ecological blight—spectered by leisure—is the most deadly confrontation creative thought has ever faced. Well aware of this, Soleri has, for the past decade, devoted attention to developing a comprehensive philosophy of urban man. His now fully realized complexity-miniaturization credo affords the first evolutionary rationale for high-density, centralized living. If, for example, congruence between the vertical and the horizontal becomes a key factor in the new city, it is because Soleri sees man as a physiological solid defined in thickly organized layers of complex performances—a kind of dimensional consciousness seeking its own image. “In its evolution from matter to mind,” Soleri writes, “the real has been submitted to numerous phases of miniaturization so as to fit more things into smaller spaces in shorter times. This process, from haphazardness and dislocation to co-ordination and fitness, has been mandatory because each successive form of reality carried in itself a greater degree of complexity. Any higher organism contains more performances than a chunk of the unlimited universe light years thick, and it ticks on a time clock immensely swifter. This miniaturization process may well be one of the rules of evolution.”2

People don’t quite know what to make of Soleriism. His recent retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art left both layman and critic stunned by a diversity of interests, from the earth casting of wind chimes, fabric design, conventionals like houses, factories and theatres, to way-out cities spanning mountain canyons as single-beamed highways. To some, the Italian-born, Arizonian based architect is the high-priest of gobbledygook; to others, he is a 50 year old prophet from the desert teaching ecological salvation (the new city is carless, pollution free, and returns to nature nine-tenths of the land normally consumed by the conventional city). To most, Soleri takes on a “Renaissance-man” appearance.

The “cosmic potentials” of 1950—Soleri’s first contact with big city imagery—are more than just reminiscent of a Leonardo da Vincian manner of addressing oneself to the phenomenon of architecture. Here buildings become vast surface receptors gathering the scattered energy of sun, wind, and water and transforming it into electromechanical energy. A “solar potential” might have a myriad of apartment units, each one with a dome receptor facing into the path of the sun. The bottom of the dome, blackened, is tube-connected to a central plenum which spines off an enormously large mother dome. The workings are simple: sun hits the blackened surface causing hot air to rise; velocity increases due to the central plenum getting smaller, and to the auxiliary feed-in tubes; at the top a wind generator converts this activity to electricity, and storage batteries ensure the continued heating and lighting of the apartment unit long after the sun has set. The result is a wafer-thin, leaf-like slab curling up into space. The “cosmic potentials,” with their reciprocating bars, centrifugal water fins, etc., demand that a new chapter be written in American architectural history. They are not so much the application of creative thinking to old subject matter as they are the creation of a new category of thinking.

All of this ought to have given Soleri and his theories top-drawer prominence. It hasn’t. He is now, as he was in 1961–62 when Peter Blake introduced Soleri to the professional reader,3 very much an outsider, virtually unknown to the public. Books on urbanism fail to mention his name, and, despite the fact that the best of his work (in particular, the cantilever bridges, the “Beast,” Babel Canyon and Hexahedron) undeniably ranks with the finest architectural creations this, or any century has ever seen, none of it is built.4

Up till now most professionals regarded Soleri as a disciple of F. L. Wright, assuming Soleri had nothing to say of significance. While it is true that Soleri owes much to Wright,5 and that for a number of years Soleri thrashed around before establishing direction, the differences outweigh the similarities. The educational towers from Soleri’s first city project, the 1958–64 Mesa City, are clearly representative of his early style of transition. Conceived along Wright’s tap-root, vertical central spine and cantilever floor system (Johnson Wax Research Building), Soleri diverges by treating this as a motif subject to modulations and variations from structure to structure.

However, it is the surface reality of the towers which is pure Soleri. The entire structure is draped in steel cord, like fish-netting, then pulled into tension, twisting into a concave “elanoidal” shape, and finally sprayed with resilient plastic. A dialogue ensues between insides and outsides: where the sunlight is strongest, Soleri intends to etch the plastic into interlocking fingers resembling vascular veiling; on the north side where there is no glare, this applied decoration is not used. Consequently, these towers vary from the translucent to the transparent, depending on orientation. In addition, some of this decorative veining unexpectedly becomes real veining—great snorkel tubes carry light and air into the central portions of the tower, thereby confusing the boundary between what is applied and what is real. The juxtaposition of opposites and the ambiguous are major characteristics of Soleri’s style, appearing a good many years before Venturi made them the basis of the new credo called “complexity and contradictions in architecture.”6

Soleri generally plays it on the safe side of reality, taking time to let his ideas mature. “The present conception,” he writes of Mesa City, “short of trying the unification of the whole city under one roof, within one structure, requires nonetheless an extreme technological know-how. The intention is to demand of technology the most without giving to it the least liberty.”7

He was, even at that time, in 1960, working well within the limits of what he now calls complexity-miniaturization. “Mesa City,” he continues, “is conceived not as an amorphous coral colony (the mineral one-dimensional in the evolutionary scale) whose undifferentiated cellules are interchangeable and whose size is only a parameter of time energy. It is conceived, instead, in the likeness of higher organisms whose many organs answer defined and complex functions (the animal three-dimensional on the evolutionary scale). While in the coral colony one can speak only of cellule, of contiguity between them. . . . in the higher organisms space and time along with the mediating matters are fundamental, are the texture itself of the organism. Thus in the city one organ envelops another and by another is enveloped in strict interdependence . . . spaces within spaces within . . . time.”8

Mesa City, like all of Soleri’s cities, is not for everyman, let alone today’s man, but for purified man. Cities are built in the image of man, and Soleri abstracts from life three types which are co-present and co-operative in everyone. Sloth man is a consequence of man’s abdication of willfulness: his is a death wish, a resignation to a predetermined world, possibly hyper-sophisticated, but barren, indifferent and regressive. Bullion man is the worshiper of pure rationality, willfully dedicated to the logistics of matter: a thing for each place and a place for each thing. His destiny is a kind of abridged genesis of matter with no account or trace of elation and sadness. Esthetic man longs for, seeks and will create the “non-created” by a reprocessing of nature into the man-made. In it the rational will be a vehicle toward a super-rationalization of existence, and the structure of the real will be super-structuralized into esthetic form. The end of willfully directed life is esthetogenesis.9

The first indications of Soleri’s predilection to transform everything into the esthetically useful came in 1948, when asked by Elizabeth Mock to design a bridge for the Museum of Modern Art’s “fantastic bridges.” The subject appealed to Soleri since bridges are generally regarded, or disregarded, as mundane, large-sized public utilities. Soleri adopted a sculpturally structural approach the like of which hadn’t been seen since Gaudi and Maillart. Named “The Beast,” the bridge won immediate recognition. It also prefigured the break from unembellished international style to three-dimensional expressionism and literal continuity of form.

Although his bridges are among the finest productions of his career, they represent to Soleri a diversionary hobby, and attain relevance only in the context of the cities for which they were designed. His main interest, beginning with Mesa City, has been to “instigate a remaking of the manmade landscape of the earth, not for the sake of novelty (nor against it) but because it is time for man to reassess his urban position within the natural order of things on a non-expedient basis.” Sheer number, as Soleri points out, “has made man a doer or undoer of cosmic dimensions. Unloaded on man is the responsibility for the whole planet, and the betterment of the conditions of man and of nature conservation now depends, to a large degree, on our ability to create new and radical urban patterns.”10 Soleri sees today’s society as an awkward “gingerbread man,” suffering from a “flat gigantism” that nails it to the surface of the planet, with suburban entrails spilling out over the land.

Soleri, as others, adopted high-density as a way out of the problems resulting from the horizontal, sprawling, one-level city concept. Le Corbusier undeniably showed the way with the Marseilles “Unite d’Habitation” (1947–52) where 1,600 people lived in close quarters. But when Le Corbusier came to design a city, Chandigarh (from 1950), it turned out to be conventional, only stylistically more unified. His notebooks give no indication of other, more radical concepts. And F. L. Wright’s mile-high tower was only a device to destroy the city, in effect, in order to get people back onto acreage plots in a romantic Walt Whitman-Thoreau kind of ruralized urbanism (Broadacre City).

Soleri owes his city concept to no one but himself: embryonically advanced in the “cosmic potentials” and positively stated in Mesa City, Soleri carried the idea of high-density to its ultimate conclusion when he advocated the use of vertical structures of such an immense size that they would incorporate all aspects of life (work, education, health and recreation) for as many as a million people per cubic mile in cities conceived as single buildings.

Cities, as we now know them, are heterogeneous collections; cities, as Soleri conceives them, are entities of unique character, designed in bigness, of pre-determined size and shape, capable of being seen as a whole. Prior to Soleri, urban design was largely a matter of planning distributional systems which many others then cast into building types; after Soleri, the city is more likely to be regarded as a legitimate subject for homogeneous architectural expression. He is, in this regard, the “last of the dinosaurs” in applying a purely architectonic sensibility, while at the same time thinking it possible for one man to design a city in its entirety.

Soleri’s city concept, which he calls “arcology,” manipulates a city positively, as a sculptor would blocks of stone, by cutting out inches, funneling through air-holes, scooping-out interiors, overlapping streets in three-dimensional tracery patterns, etc. Most elements serve multiple uses: roads are also apartment blocks as well as giant sunscreens; structural members carry inside industrial complexes while supporting parkland; residences become translucent honeycombs filtering light into the bowels of the city. It is as if all the fragmentary statements of 20th-century theory—architecture as space, as structure, as performance, as matrix, as component, as prefabrication—have been welded into an exhilarating display of cities conceived as inverted pyramids, chamfered octagons, upended cubes resembling aircraft engines, cones floating as bell-buoys mining the oceans, bobbing along with the currents, cylindrical Asteromos spinning in outer space. “Miniaturization will cause the scale of the earth to ‘expand’ and will also make feasible the migration of man to sea and the orbital lands.”11

Soleri named his city concept “arcology,” fusing the terms architecture and ecology, to indicate that at a certain point in bigness the architecture itself becomes a positive environmental or ecological factor, shaping man’s sociological identity. An arcology illustrates the premise that man must define his corporate image in finite, perceivable terms if a sense of place, belonging and identity is to be fostered. Each arcology is a particular instance of how man might wish to live. Although the layman will think them visionary to the extreme, to Soleri they are but “Model T’s” of a new generation of cities.

Babel Canyon and Hexahedron are particularly memorable arcologies. Babel Canyon presents to the viewer a smooth, slightly curved octagonal outer face, with a cutaway profile that directly expresses the reductive principles of cantilever construction. Once past the shell, this puristic container gives way to the more intricately detailed and picturesque as the various urban functions intensify and vortex towards a centrally held civic nucleus.

If Babel Canyon is an exercise in controlled formalism, Hexahedron is a tour de force of dynamic counterpoise. Two pyramids are superimposed, inverted and rotated in plan. The sides of the pyramid—again irregular in sharp contrast to the rigidity of the overall shape—function as a crystalline membrane, one living/working unit thick, for a hollowed out interior (complete with “sky” bridges) almost twice the height of the Empire State Building, prismatically fracturing light by day and reflecting light at night. Hexahedron more than confirms the notion that high-density living does not result in a loss of environmental richness. Man can, in fact, achieve an artificial landscape which vies successfully with the natural.

The architectural critic encounters unexpected difficulties with Soleri’s arcologies. There is a limit to what extent an arcology can be, or ought to be, subject to formal analysis. Soleri purposely leaves them in an embryonic state of development, especially where detailing is concerned. He allows apprentices, who transcribe his sketchbook notations into final drawings, the license of their own talents. For example, some arcologies have a textural infill which delightfully resembles a stylized version of Roman apartments from Pompeii, while others, unfortunately, bear traces of Corbusier and Tange. Soleri does not feel this compromises the conceptual validity of his work. Nevertheless, Soleri runs the risk that the arcologies may remain too much of an idea, and not enough an elaboration, ever to be taken as serious ventures into city design.

Soleri views the arcologies simply as “instrumentals” illustrating complexity-miniaturization. A de-emphasis on formal relevancy, based on the assumption that design is a matter of personal taste, is indeed curious from a man who believes esthetogenesis to be the end state of evolution. Since the arcologies, like all art, are “sentimental” or “culture fixed,” Soleri is not committed to them in the same way as he is to complexity-miniaturization. If ever one of them were built and proved to be beautiful, thereby escaping obsolescence, only then would a formal contribution be made.

There are, consequently, apparent schisms between what Soleri says and what Soleri does. His handling of complexity is similar to Stella’s; both rely on pure geometric form as a container for exuberant interior activity. Stella explores in a succession of situations the different kinds of complex color and pattern arrangements resulting from geometric interlock. Soleri says his arcologies are complex: what he shows is a surface textural motif which is repeated from arcology to arcology without extensive modulations. Irregularity of surface may indicate functional complexity at work (schools, residences, offices, football stadiums) but it does not mean that perceptual complexity has been achieved. What is achieved, generally, are contrasts in scale and fixture between the container and the infill. Soleri’s floating city, Novanoah I, indicates the other, more interesting options open in complexity.

Complex entities seek to be so fully relational among the parts that the whole, qua whole, need not command pictorial interest. Where this would occur in an arcology would be at the points of eccentricity and intimacy, when the spectator can no longer see the form as a whole, but only as parts. Freed of the necessity to be self-supportive and self-contained, all the plug-in components can become, literally, residual fragments. Just what a state of textural fragmentation would be like is interesting to speculate upon. Obviously, a different kind of unity is present, quite unlike that associated with the pure form of the gestalt itself. Robert Morris, in his scatter pieces, and Gene Davis in his stripes, reveal some of the problems resulting from part structuring. The arcologies, pristinely sheathed in their homogeneous skins of plastic and looking all the same on the surface, give no indication of other, more radical possibilities.

Failure to explore complexity (if it is a failure) is in reality a failure to explore the viability of the arcologies. Unlike the allied arts, which exist on a take it or leave it basis, architecture is an inescapable regulatory phenomenon shaping man’s daily existence. Anyone who presumes to design cities must build in escape valves for the myriad personal idiosyncrasies of mankind. Soled, well aware of this, sees the irregular textural skin of each arcology as the product of humanity at work. Yet, what would one of the arcologies look like, filled with saggy air-blown polyethylene baggies juxtaposed against the metallic? Or what would happen to those beautiful, symmetrical models if a block of inhabitants decided to paint an entire radial quadrant of Babel Canyon pink? Would the geometry be, in fact, visually strong enough to keep an arcology from becoming the world’s first environmental junkyard?

Soleri, apparently, did not feel obliged to explore these aspects. He could have. Soleri is a master draftsman, as his well-known scroll drawings indicate. Investigation could have been achieved through a progressive, larger and larger detailing of any one of the arcologies, and by engaging the creative ideas of others. As the arcologies now stand, they look theatrical and precious, rather than tough and demanding. Soleri obviously runs the risk that someone else will put into practice what he is preaching.

Soleri may not be perturbed by all this: he wants the complexity-miniaturization concept subject to criticism, discussion and extension in the hands of others. The arcologies are, therefore, best regarded as universals, the barest suggestion of suggestions—“phantoms,” as Soleri calls them—of how to categorically treat the city. They can be differentiated conceptually between the geophysical situational (lake/ocean cities, mine-shaft cities, coastal-plain cities, hill-side cities, etc.), and the abstract (cubes, pyramids, cylinders, octagons, etc.), between open systems such as dam cities which use already concentrated forms of environmental energy, and closed systems such as “Asteromo” which operates at the opposite end of the environmental scale by providing whatever the city needs but on an artificially induced basis.

The conceptual foundations of arcologies would be verified in Asteromo, or any kind of asteroid city, because survival is presented in non-nostalgic terms. Outer space has no place for colonial grey-shuttered sputniks. Asteromo is a double-walled cylinder kept inflated by pressurization and rotation. Its inner skin is lined with vegetation for food and the carbon-dioxide cycle. With a population of 70,000, the coincidence of equity and congruence in a micro-cosmos, where to be a free agent coincides with complete responsibility, would test high-density, compressed living conditions.

Soleri’s most recent explorations take the new city into the realm of the durational. It is the apogee and culminating stage of his evolutionary thinking. What are, in today’s cities, normally fragmented and dispersed civic functions were, in Mesa City, codified, compacted at one spot, visually expressed as a certain type of building (educational “elanoids,” ground village, “mushroom” clusters) and then disposed hierarchically according to the culturally greater or lesser. The arcology concept fused the segregated and codified functions of Mesa City into a fluid wholeness, in cities conceived as three-dimensional objects. Now, Arcontinuum, still in the formative sketchbook stages, is the fusing of all the arcologies into one physical stream of urban performances. Metaphysically, Arcontinuum illustrates the “noospherical” dimensional, the evolutionary stage just prior to universal esthetogenesis, where consciousness is an integrated hyper-organism whose cultural time beat is disengaged from any one individual’s life-death cycle. Physically, it is a linear city, snaking its way across the United States landscape, but one which, looking much like a python that swallowed a pig, an elephant, and a mouse in that order, would expand and contract dimensionally and rhythmically along its tubular length according to geographic, social and economic densities. There seems to be no end, for Soleri’s is a continuing endeavor.

Donald Wall teaches architectural history and theory at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.



1. Helen Rosenau, The Ideal City, Routledge & Keegan Paul, 1959 p. 5.

2. Paolo Soleri, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, MIT Press 1970, p. 31.

3. Peter Blake; “The Fantastic World of Paolo Soleri,” Architectural Forum, Feb. 1961, pp. 104–109: “Paolo Soleri’s Visionary City”, Architectural Forum, March 1961, pp. 111–118.

4. What has been built is not without distinction. In 1949 he hand-constructs, along with Mark Mills, his well published cave-creek underground desert house, covered by a split revolving dome for sun control. Soleri’s most successful commission came in 1951–52 with the completion of the “Solimene” ceramics factory near Vietri, Italy. The factory is patently derivative in many ways: the interior structure reminds one of Gaudi’s “Sagrada familia,” as does the use of clay bottles instead of brick for sheathing, and the interior ramp, the continuity of exterior surfaces as well as the principle of plastic flow, comes from Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. But the juxtaposition of the two sources results in highly original architecture with no overtones of excessive historical sentimentality. From 1956 onwards, after settling in Scottsdale, Arizona, Soleri experiments in concrete casting using earth as framework. Activity is limited to his own premises. Earth is first moulded into the desired shape, grooved into channels for steel reinforcing bars, then a thin layer of concrete is poured over everything. After hardening, the earth is removed, generally by Caterpillar. Silt holds impressions, thereby allowing for quick, integral surface decoration. As the concrete drys, it bleaches out color from the silt, staining the buildings a mottled red-grey-brown. Sometimes artificial color is introduced, especially in the ribbing, and the result borders on low-key polychromy. By color and shape, by burying some structures while allowing others to ride free, Soleri successfully amalgamates, in one, the picturesque and the classic, the spontaneous and the pre-conceptual. This coalition characterizes the arcologies as well.

5. Soleri, in 1948, lived at Talieson where he worked in the gardens, on construction and as a personal waiter to Mr. and Mrs. Wright.

6. Robert Venturi, Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, MoMA, 1966.

7. Notations accompanying Mesa, City drawings included in the MoMA’s “Visionary Architecture” exhibition, 1961.

8. Ibid, comments in parentheses are author’s.

9. Paolo Soleri, “Genesis of Leisure” address given at the “Man Working“ symposium, Central Washington State College, 1968.

10. Paolo Soleri, excerpt from a letter written to M.I.T. Press, 1969.

11. The social and psychological aspects of ultra-high density are not discussed since little can be said about it. Aggressive terretorial imperatives which result from overcrowding is relevant to animals, not to man. Paul Ehrlich, in “Population Resources Environment: Issues in Human Ecology”, maintains that “We have almost no information on the levels of crowding at which people feel most happy and comfortable and can perform various tasks with the greatest efficiency. We do not know whether high density during one part of the daily routine (at work) coupled with low density at another (at home) would have the same effects as medium density throughout the day. We do not know exactly what role high density plays in the incidence of stress diseases and mental health.” Ehrlich carefully differentiates between the perception of crowding as opposed to the actual tolerance of crowding, yet even here it is difficult to separate out what effects are attributable to which causes. Soleri, not wishing to play Russian roulette in the. grand manner, will begin construction this year on Arcosanti, a mini-arcology, approximately 70 miles from Phoenix, owned by his Cosanti Foundation. It will house 3,000 people dedicated to the urban issue, and will be a preliminary test of maximum density in the only way possible—pragmatically.

12. Paolo Soleri, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, p. 31.

13. Ibid.

14. Paolo Soleri, letter written to M.I.T. Press.

15. Paolo Soleri, “The New Environment” address given at the “Welfare of Man” conference, Rutgers University, 1966.