Paradise Valley, Arizona

Happier than Arcosanti. Where Arcosanti can be bittersweet as an experience because of its expectations attached, Cosanti comes as a gift. When Paolo Soleri was kicked out of Taliesin West in 1948, and I mean that as a complement, when he was permitted to drop his hoe and escape from Olgiavanna's hypnotic manipulations, you (I) get the mental image that he was bounced out into the desert heat with a square suitcase and a steamer trunk, resting in the narrow shade of a cactus, smartly squashing scorpions with his palm, wondering what next. He, uh, returned to Italy and designed a factory, but came back to the United States a few years later. In fact, he came back to Arizona. In fact, he came back to Phoenix. In fact, he came back to a property now known as 6433 East Doubletree Ranch Road, six or seven miles from Taliesin West, the house of his former teacher. Why? I don't know.

This is the residence, Cosanti.

At Arcosanti the design problem is, how do you create an alternative eco-friendly city on the lip of a canyon in the middle of nowhere, and that's attached to all kinds of larger unanswerable questions and unsolvable equations about who's going to fund it, who's going to run it, what do the citizens do for a living. At Cosanti the design problem seems to be, how can I construct a comfortable residence in the desert?

Once an oasis, the kernel of another possible ecological answer, now an oddity. I don't know if Paolo Soleri is a grandfather, but he is grandfatherly and he has been grandfathered into this suburban Paradise Valley neighborhood. Let's say, "neighborhood". When he built it he was all alone out here in harsh surroundings, it must have looked like a desert refuge on Tatooine. Now they gridded the property map of Paradise Valley all in around him. And they filled in the grid with boxy "traditional" houses that look awkward and unsuitable for this climate and, uh, unlikely, next to Cosanti. Cosanti belongs here.

Now, of course, these surrounding neighbors and their committees and bankers would not allow Cosanti as a fresh project, no matter the size of the turkey you sent them for Christmas or how many diamond bracelets were concealed in its, er, moist cavities. Cosanti's appearance in this neighborhood among the surrounding houses sets up multiple contrasts and ironies that work to his favor.

On the Cosanti property there are a number of different structures. There's a shaded small parking lot and the Soleris' private residence in front, off limits, and a sign that gently suggests that you do not photograph Mr. Soleri. Too bad; he's photogenic.

There's a half-underground gift shop which produces the entertaining sensation of strolling through a hollowed-out whale. As you wander the pathways through public/private areas (don't worry, it's okay) there's a sequence of work areas presumably where they cast bells. There are two structures that look like dorms. Towards the back, the south lot line, there is a swimming pool that you don't recognize until you're practically in it, and the kernel of the entire property, an underground Hobbit-like residence with airholes on the top for climate control. That's the Earth House, the original residence. It is usually off-limits, which is a shame. But I don't want to spoil the whole sequence, the whole show. Part of the joy of this place is its complicated mystery.

Design integrity on the cheap. That's a wonderful aspect to Cosanti, its irregular and inexpensive beauty. Design integrity can be extremely inexpensive. In this way Cosanti is like the Eames house, the case study house meant to demonstrate the effectiveness of a steel frame (steel frame up in, what? A day? Three days?). And Cosanti is like the work of Samuel Mockbee. One of the attractions of building where Mockbee built, out around Newburn Alabama, was and is the lack of a building code. It almost makes you wonder what in the hell a building code is good for.

The original residence, the Earth House, is nestled around a hearth, open to the sky, below ground level, but is open to a southern courtyard. This was constructed with an earth casting method. Soleri built up a mound of earth, poured concrete over it, then excavated the earth once the concrete had solidified. Effective, smart, cheap. Soleri fine-tuned the earth casting process at Arcosanti to the point of including patterns of pigment on the top of mound, pigments that became integrated into the underside of the concrete dome. The south-facing domes and apses allow sunlight from the low-in-the-sky sun in the winter, and block sunlight from the high-in-the-sky sun in the summertime. But you've heard that before, I think.

Biomorphic..ness. Biomorphic-icity. Biomorphology. If you put all the architects best known for producing biomorphic architecture (Gaudi, Mendelsohn, Christopher Day, Hundertwasser, Gehry, Soleri) in the same room at the same time, I'm not certain they'd find much theory to agree on, except maybe the broad notion of taking nature as a design exemplar. Mendelsohn's Einstein Tower is always called an 'Expressionist' piece of architecture, suggesting that Mendelsohn was expressing his emotions, which is, by his own account, not what he was up to.

Comparing Cosanti to mainstream architecture and its construction techniques, dominated by straight lines, flat planes and geometric shapes, in which ornamental curves are expensive and difficult, and where asking for a structural curve is met with icy stares and unpleasant chuckling noises, is to be reminded how ridiculously restrictive the ordinary spatial grammar has become. It's enough to reawaken your sense of wonder.

And Cosanti is open to the public. It doesn't seem like it should be, but it is. It's a great place to explore, especially during the first walk-through.

6433 East Doubletree Ranch Road, Paradise Valley, Arizona.



Copyright 2006 Walt Lockley. All rights reserved.