Remembering Arcosanti - A Tribute to Paolo Soleri

Paolo Soleri  1919 - 2013

Paolo Soleri  1919 - 2013

Not many people get to meet their heroes, let alone work for them. Truth be told, I only spoke with Paolo Soleri on a few occasions, but they were great conversations. He was engaging and thoughtful, and working for him was an honor.

But the place he created, Arcosanti, was (is?) magical. It's a place that could make a young man abandon his masters degree, become aware of the wider world, and pursue a more deliberate, conscious life.

Fourteen years ago, I was taking graduate courses at ASU's College of Architecture and Environmental Design. My major professor, Esther Ratner, and I were looking into utopian architecture and how the psychology of space and the shape of objects affects us socially.

Enter the Paradox II Conference at Arcosanti, September 24-26, 1999. It was a series of bold panel discussions that sparked a cross-disciplinary exchange of ideas that covered topics like "The Planetization of Humanity," "Transarchitecture," and "Cyberspace: A Better Kind of Wrongness?"  Esther and I got tickets and went. And when the conference was over, she went back to Tempe, not me. After the last panel discussion, I went to the conference co-creators Ron Anastasia and Michael Gosney and offered to live and work at Arcosanti and continue building on the ideas from the conference.

But it was the place, more than the conference, that took me in.  It was peaceful, tranquil, no traffic, no light pollution (if you've never been camping in Arizona and looked up at the stars at night, it's a transformative experience) and while the structures surrounded me and protected me, they were open and belonged to the site in a way that would make Frank Lloyd Wright blush with envy. Had I found Utopia?

Everything is temporary. I was there for about a year, worked hard, created my first architectural rendering and animation, the Teilhard de Chardin Center, with Rhino 3D and fell in love with architectural visualization.


It changed me. The place changed me, the conference changed me, the friends I met there changed me. I probably never would have become an architectural rendering artist. I most likely would have just glanced at the beauty of the world, never seeing the full picture. Now I'm a champion for reasonable sustainability, I live relatively simply and I'm a vegan. Looking back, I can honestly say that none of this was even on my radar before I went to the conference and Arcosanti.

"Everything is temporary." It's a notion I learned at Arcosanti. We each have a brief moment to affect things, to grow, to give ourselves - genetically, memetically, spiritually. And that's what Arcosanti is. Urban laboratory? Maybe. More than that, I think it's an idea made concrete by an architect who chose purpose over profit and spent a lifetime following his dream with unwavering determination - an entrepreneur of the spirit. Paolo once told me that architecture is the instrument, people play the music. But I don't think you can separate the music Paolo played from the instrument he created - they are one.

And by remembering Arcosanti, I remember Paolo Soleri. 

Paolo Soleri and I meet again at the dedication ceremony of his footbridge and plaza in Scottsdale, December 12, 2010

Paolo Soleri and I meet again at the dedication ceremony of his footbridge and plaza in Scottsdale, December 12, 2010

The Artist and The Brush

I had a great conversation yesterday with a talented photographer, entrepreneur and fellow artist (it's the same guy). And one of the topics that came up was one that I have thought a lot about recently -- talent vs technique.

Back in the renaissance, artists would show their mastery of technique and understanding of perspective by creating realistic still lifes, anatomically correct portraits and landscapes that accurately showed how the trees, shrubs, mountains, etc. were arranged spatially.

I think knowing how to do these things is important and I think they provide a great launchpad to take off from, but I think talent uses technique as a springboard. For instance, some writers who adhere to proper sentence structure would greatly prefer the phrase "...from which to take off." over " take off from." And then other writers who are aware of this proper technique might say, "Screw it! It just sounds better the other way." In the end, finding your literary voice is like finding your visionary voice. First, learn how and why something is done, and then do what you want.

And just as the renaissance artists learned how to chisel stone, mix their own paint and how to apply it to the canvas, 3d artists today learn how to set up global illumination, how to use equirectangular HDRI image-based lighting, how to create their own shaders and tileable textures and how to create 3d models out of NURBS and polygons. So, how has 3D technique and the mastery of it evolved?

In "The Before Time", in "The Long, Long Ago", in an age we called, "The Late Twentieth Century", doing any kind of serious 3D involved three things -- a Silicon Graphics workstation, Alias/Wavefront software, and an obscene amount of money. I was fortunate. In 1995, I worked as an industrial designer for a consulting studio called Concept Designworx and I learned Alias Studio and Power Animator on their SGI Indigo 2 Extreme workstation. It was a steep learning curve! I think back on all the things you had to do just to produce anything at all. It was all a problem to be solved, a puzzle, a game. I ended up loving rendering in 3D more than doing design. And when I decided to consult on my own seven years later, I was running Maya (born from Power Animator) on my Mac laptop - much faster and cheaper than the SGIs I had trained on. Even then, learning the techniques of how things were made in 3D, involved lots of late nights and several trips to Starbucks.

Now I run 3D Studio Max and Vray on an old-but-heavily-modified BOXX 8304 workstation. It's a lot easier to create great looking stuff and it's still much cheaper than the old SGI and Alias Studio, but I've seen fantastic work done using SketchUp and Maxwell (together about $95.00). And that setup is even easier to learn to use. So, what am I rambling on and on about?

For a 3D artist, I think it's important to get a foundation of how and why things work. Learn everything you can about perspective, composition, drawing, painting, photography, and about ray tracing, global illumination, making polygonal and NURBS models, and Photoshop. But after you get a handle on the technique, break out and explore. In the end it's your talent that shines over technique. In other words, it's the artist, not the brush.


It's a start, not just a start-up. Some people say, "Just get the ball rolling and then course-correct when it's moving." But I'm one of those people who tend to mess with stuff until it's just right. So, in the spirit of new beginnings, I'm going to send this sucker flying off the mountain. My OCD can kiss it.

I'm not sure how to begin this blog. But maybe I should start by explaining the Go Solar video (currently the only video in the Animation section).

I created this motion graphics ad for a friend of mine who wanted a promo for his venture into the solar industry. He did the voice-over, provided what he wanted to talk about, and we worked up the final script together. Everything was made on my old MacBook Pro with After Effects, Photoshop and Soundtrack Pro. We recorded a few takes of his voice-over with a Blue Snowball USB microphone and used his Prius as a make-shift sound booth. This went from concept to storyboards to final video in less than a week. And it was a blast to work on!

Comments? Critiques? I'm all ears.

Below are the early storyboards

solar concepts.jpg