Visuals: Paolo Soleri

The architect wants to redesign cities— but what about the people in them?

Architect Paolo Soleri in Arcosanti, Arizona on November 12th, 1976. Credit: Santi Visalli/Getty

Architecture usually represents a compromise between the extremes of prostitution and dictatorship. The prostitutes are those workaday draftsmen who ply their services to the highest-bidding developer of big boxes for the city and little boxes for suburbia.

The dictators are those relatively few idealists who achieve prominence as artists, visionaries, or prophets, such as the late Frank Lloyd Wright and, currently. Paolo Soleri.

Like Wright – and to lesser degrees Corbusier, Saarinan, et al. – Soleri is essentially a sculptor, with a colossal ego. Wright expected people to live, work, worship, or absorb culture inside his sculptures; Soleri envisions his sculptures housing entire cities of more than a million people. Although Soleri has been hailed as a prophet of things to come, the large exhibition of his plans and models organized by the Whitney Museum in New York suggests that his vision is basically a throwback to antiquity. He is the pinnacle of the monumental mentality, the last of the pyramid builders.

The frail, diminutive Italian architect – a one-time student of Wright pere – has been working out plans for his gigantic arcologies (architectural ecologies) for the last ten years. His models, floor plans, and elevations are, for the most part, magnificent to behold (although if they were ever built to scale, you could behold them in entirety only from a distance).

Great pyramids, diamonds, triangles, and other solid geometric forms are supported in the air on colossal columns; there are clusters of gigantic, interconnecting towers. Some models bear a striking resemblance to M. C. Escher's fantastic tetrahedral planetoids; some resemble cave dwellings or Tibetan lamaseries. "3-D Jersey," one of Soleri's most grandiose projects, looks like a cross-section of a giant turbine punctured by huge open cavities and notched with terraces and gear-like ridges. The model for Arcosanti, Soleri's experimental project under construction on the Arizona desert, is a story-book castle. Variations on the idea include cities within dams, and a sleek bridge whose sub-deck would contain museum and convention facilities.

The Utopian ideal that Soleri's visionary cities project is likewise attractive – from a distance, or reduced to imaginary dimensions. But it is one thing to visit a city – or a sculpture – and another thing to live there.

Soleri's basic idea is to "compress" the present two-dimensional solids that would rise vertically into space. His goal is a paradoxical "miniaturization" that would reduce the distances between a city's various parts, there-by increasing speed and efficiency and permitting a greater complexity of function, a richer, more elaborate "texture" of cultural and social life.

In a more or less typical project, like "3-D Jersey," the "core" of the huge 300-story superstructure would house shopping centers, cultural institutions and other features of downtown, or uptown, commercial and social activity. Private apartments would take the form of thousands of cell-like spaces in the city's outer "skin," as well as in skyscraper-like supporting columns. The city would be surrounded by an airstrip, in effect becoming a huge air terminal. Factories and warehouses would be underground, as would public transportation to other cities or the surrounding countryside.

Elaborate traffic charts have been devised, following the daily routines of typical inhabitants to show that any part of the city could be reached from any other in no more than 15 minutes by foot, less via electric ramps and elevators; eliminating the automobile and its pollutants from urban life is one of Soleri's prime goals. There would be roof gardens over the city's various component units, and since the structure would fill less horizontal space than present cities, it would be surrounded by easily accessible open country, Soleri says. He adds: "Its exterior will act as a vast surface receptacle, gathering the energy of sun, wind, and water, and turning it to use."

Soleri feels his visionary cities parallel a universal course in biological evolution, away from formlessness toward increasing "compression," "miniaturization," and "complexity." "We are all miniature systems of infinite complexity, fantastically well organized," he says. "We should see the city as an inner environment, rather than an outer one. We are creating a new animal, with thousands of minds, serviced by thousands of brains."

Soleri insists that the obvious impact of his ideas in terms of increased physical efficiency and environmental conservation – much as these considerations have fired up many of his disciples – is strictly secondary to the goal of enriching human life. He sometimes refers to this ideal in almost mystical terms, but the general principle is that life is where the action is, and action is strictly a function of people. "Scattering is the negation of life," he says. "Life is in the thick of things."

There are hundreds of possible objections to Soleri's ideas on every level, but it is precisely in the latter area – of human life – that his ideas seem most shaky, and that he himself is most vague.

Given the technological and economic capacity to produce moon landings and Disneyland, Soleri's arcologies are probably within relatively close reach of our ability to build. Their seemingly monstrous logistical problems – What happens when a fuse blows out? How to control the water pressure on the 298th floor? – might not be greatly different from such problems now, and service and maintenance could conceivably be carried out with infinitely greater efficiency in proportion to the increased "miniaturization." Compressing the present-day suburban sprawl into the structure of the city itself would logically leave surrounding land areas more open and free of buildings – although they would likely be as swarming with people as Ocean Beach on a warm Sunday afternoon.

But how do you send the kids outside to play? What happens when there's an epidemic? Soleri, who sometimes lapses into a chilling architect's jargonese, referring to people as "miniature systems" or "soft ware" and homes as "private spaces," is distressingly unclear on many of the simplest, as well as the most monumental, human implications of his ideas. It is virtually impossible to imagine one of Soleri's cities coming into being without sweeping changes in current social, economic, and political systems; the alternative would seem to be a magnification of urban conditions that are barely tolerable now.

But Soleri vacillates wildly on these all-important questions. At one point in a recent interview, he said his cities do not "necessarily presuppose a social revolution" and that conditions would not be that different from high-density apartment living now; at another point, he said his cities might require an evolution in the human species, and at still another, he said he preferred to avoid the "soft ware" question altogether.

Expanding on point one, Soleri said, "We are already moving in this direction, and in Europe individual houses have been giving way to apartments for a long time." Private ownership would remain possible in his visionary cities, as well as social stratification – possibly in its most literal sense, by levels – although "by putting everyone under one roof, the tendency to segregation might be lessened," he said.

Many of Soleri's sub-plans seem to proceed from this status quo assumption – his traffic patterns for "3-D Jersey," for example, which follow a housewife from a trip to the clinic to a visit to Mama, and an out-of-town executive from a businessman's lunch to the cocktail hour – projecting all the attributes of square, middle-class existence. It is difficult to see how human life can be "enriched" by compressing, and thus multiplying, all the worst aspects of urban and suburban living as they presently exist – one of which is density itself. Miniaturization, in this sense, would mean amplification of problems that could spread with the "efficiency" of a flu virus.

If an evolution of perhaps genetic dimensions is required, it is imperative to ask if the path of evolution Soleri's cities would require or chart forth is a desirable path to follow?

On a social level, bigness of numbers coupled with sophisticated technology has historically tended to increased "organization" and social control – either in the form of overt, totalitarian dictatorship or of centralized, standardized group think, these factors, more than any system or policy of government, are responsible for the loss of individual freedom that has been taking place in every big industrialized country.

On an individual level. Soleri's theory of evolution would seem to reverse the old Darwinian axiom that the evolution of the individual recapitulates the evolution of species – a notion that is probably as true of man's social evolution as of the embryonic metamorphosis from tadpole to infant. Children gradually develop from complete self-centeredness to identification with larger groups of people, eventually – if all goes well – becoming "social animals." It is probably necessary to go through all the stages to achieve a mature form of individuality. In Soleri's "arcologies," a child would be plunged almost from birth into a highly complex social mechanism from which he could "unplug" only when he was able to get away from everybody else.

Ultimately, Soleri puts most of his eggs in the basket of culture. He says his arcologies would differ from anthills in the way humans differ from ants, because man is a "cultural animal as well as a social and environmental one." Historically, it has been true enough that the arts flourish in cosmopolitan urban centers, partly because commerce has also flourished in these places; but it is also true that artists have generally been loners, estranged from the masses of mankind, if not from one another. Communication is an essential ingredient in creative and cultural life, but a culture built on communication alone is an anthill commerce culture – like the commercial fads and fashions that sweep through the American cultural scene today. An equally necessary ingredient is privacy (which is one of the first things an individual is deprived of in the brainwashing process). To be sure, Soleri has allotted the inhabitants of his cities their "private spaces"; he even grants individuals the "option" to live in the country, but he seems to have devoted little real thought to the quality of privacy – a privacy without confinement or alienation. It is a fundamental ingredient in the "quality of life" that preoccupies so much architectural thinking today.

In contrast to Frank Lloyd Wright. Soleri is a soft-spoken, humble, even pixieish dictator. He says that his models and plans are decidedly not sculpture, that they are symbols, if not necessarily realizable city plans, and that the forms they take are always outgrowths of basic human needs.

The main problem with Soleri's theories is that this latter claim is very difficult to see. On the contrary, his models look like Platonic or Euclidean ideal forms into which human needs have been arbitrarily poured, edited, and redefined – ideal forms for one man's notion of an ideal society. As architecture. Soleri's designs seem reactionary rather than revolutionary in concept, attempting to impose a rationale on the ugliest, most irrational features of urban life – high density, plastic sterility, over-centralization – and freezing them in inflexible monuments whose cost would tend to make them permanent features of the landscape, as impervious to change as dinosaurs.

In the last analysis, Soleri's vision is at once too totalitarian and too piecemeal – it fails to concern itself with the relations between these gigantic city complexes, seems to take for granted the continuation of such fundamental problems as population increase, and includes no policy toward the vast land areas that would lie between the cities – presumably inhabited by us anarchists, atavists, and barbarians. His theories encourage the delusion that problems can be solved by simply putting them all under one roof. It is tempting to see Soleri's arcology as part of some subtle Roman Catholic conspiracy to come up with an alternative to birth control.

Architecture is too important to be left to architects – either to the idealistic and visionary dictators, or to prostitutes who serve more remote dictators of commerce and industry. The needs of the 20th century require a flexible, perhaps even disposable, architecture, and above all, an organic architecture that would be the unique out-growth – the creation – of its own inhabitant, a retreat as well as a launching pad, a place where a person can relate to himself and also have more than just a voyeuristic relationship with nature. The term "organic architecture" has usually been interpreted by architects in forms of seashells and such, as if man were a chambered nautilus or some other kind of sophisticated mollusk. The principle is sound, though, and someday someone may come up with forms that will genuinely project the secretions of the people who live within, and from the inside out.