Cosanti Review – Rethinking Sprawl


Paolo Soleri’s name is familiar to any student of future-think.  



Archology, the movement he founded, has its cradle in greater Scottsdale’s Cosanti. 



Once a remote outpost in the Sonoran Desert, it now is part of the very suburban sprawl that the archology movement has in its gun sights. 



One wonders if Soleri in the later of his 93 years sometimes got startled to find himself in what he’d consider the belly of the beast.


Here is a trailer to a movie about Soleri and archology that will be available for purchase in summer of 2014.


Beyond Form Trailer from Paolo Soleri: Beyond Form on Vimeo.




43-year veteran of both Arcosanti and Cosanti, Roger Tomalty, a longtime student and protégé of Soleri, is an able steward of Cosanti  today and keeper of the faith.  Anyone who is concerned about global sustainability owes themselves a trip to Cosanti and an audience with Tomalty, if possible.   (Note:  If he is  not available there are ongoing tours by well-schooled docents such as one of the producers of the aforementioned film, Aimee Madsen.)


Tomalty explains how Soleri came to Arizona and how Cosanti and its desert offspring Arcosanti came to be.  “In 1946 Paolo Soleri was already a PhD and licensed architect when he came to Arizona to work with Frank Lloyd Wright.   Soleri didn’t last long with Wright because he disagreed so profoundly with Wright’s vision of the broad acre city


“Remember that half of Wright’s buildings predated the light bulb.  Wright loved automobiles and technology.  He envisioned an America where every house had a carport.  Think Levittown or Phoenix. 


“Soleri thought this was not only unwieldy but also unsustainable.  He was from a European city.  He liked cities, not sprawl.  His Italian architectural training at the end of World War II was not just about buildings.  It was also about cities and first and foremost Soleri thought of himself as an urban theorist.  He sees the city as the instrument of access, connecting individuals to each other and institutions. 


“Sitting in traffic?  No.  Archology is architecture and ecology.  In contrast to Wright, Soleri wanted to eliminate the automobile as a focus and instead make cities’ access to culture and education be central.


“…The name Cosanti is a bit of a play on words in Italian.  “Cosa” means thing and “anti” can mean both before and against.”



Today Cosanti is a non-profit educational foundation on the land where Soleri conducted his many experiments in bioclimatic architecture. 



More than 12,000 students from across the globe have come to Cosanti and Arcosanti to immerse themselves in Archology’s teachings and learn by doing.



Soleri happened upon the area when he did a local architectural project and later married his client’s daughter.  Shortly after that he returned to Italy where he was commissioned to build a ceramics factory near Solerno Italy. This climate-controlled multi-use facility, which incorporates living, overnight guest accommodations as well as being a factory to produce ceramics, was just designated an Italian Historic building.



It was at Ceramica Solimene where Soleri’s interest in ceramics and how it informs the building techniques used at Cosanti (and Arcosanti) were born. 



Cosanti’s buildings are earth castings of 1 ½ inch compressed concrete.



These are amazing structures to behold and as Tomalty points out, the result of a very cost-effective, though labor intensive, building process. 


“Cosanti”, a book co-authored by Roger Tomalty and Aimee Madsen that is available in the gift shop as a memento, explains how the experiments in earth casting began in 1956.  “..A thin layer of concrete was cast directly onto the shaped desert surface which acted as the form.  The earth was later dug out and removed.”


Cosanti’s architecture is also a neat demonstration project of passive cooling and heating.  Each structure is designed to optimize sun effects in the winter and minimize them in the summer.



On a smaller scale but ubiquitous throughout Cosanti are ceramic and bronze cast bells and other “Cosanti originals”, which are sculptural assemblages of Cosanti castings of various sizes, some of which are valued at nearly $100,000.   If you are visiting, it is well worth your time to dawdle by the wall of bells created to support the work of other non-profit organizations working for the greater good.


Although Soleri was an adopted son of Scottsdale area it is likely that many if not most of the golfers, spa devotees and other tourists to this self-described “most Western of Western towns” have not heard of him, even though you can see some of his work in the city’s center such as the Soleri Bridge and Plaza with a bell assembly known as the Goldwater Bell within.  

Goldwater Bell Installation at Soleri Bridge & Plaza from Aimee Madsen on Vimeo.


You may not have the life opportunity to work as a student at Cosanti but you can visit and listen in on the conversation about urban culture and sustainability that Soleri started and is known for worldwide.


For information on visiting see the Cosanti website or call 480 – 948-6145.


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Photos by Peter Kachergis unless otherwise indicated 


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