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.