Tribute to Paolo Soleri 1919-2013

Paolo Soleri died April 9 this year, as you can read in this New York Times article, and I feel it is a fitting tribute to show my holiday snaps, taken last year, of the ceramics factory he designed and helped build in Vietri Sul Mare, Italy. At the time I was asked to review Conversations with Paolo Soleri, and I decided to visit one of his earliest buildings, seeing that we were in the area.

I have to say that I had incredible difficulty with the book; I found it somewhat impenetrable, pretentious and cult-ish. A positive exception was the essay by Lissa Mc Cullough, which translated Soleri’s ideas in plain English. As I tried to work my way through the interview with the man himself, however, I would only occasionally find an interesting nugget of information or insight, but was hugely put off by his obscurantism and the vocabulary he had invented for himself. It was just as if he was using language to create a distance, and to lend himself an aura of mysticism in the process. The other side is of course that he was very early in his assessment of the ecological damage technologically advanced industrial societies are causing, and it is also true that unlike many visionaries he did actually physically build stuff. The message that we have to change our ways radically in order to live as part of nature, rather than in opposition to it, still stands and I decided to leave the review for what it was.Vietri_01

His vision can be best appreciated at Arcosanti, the living community he built out in the desert in Arizona. What is less well known, though, is that one of his earlier buildings is in Italy, a ceramic factory he built in the 1950s in Vietri Sul Mare, close to Naples. The factory is an interesting run-up to ideas which he would develop later and at the same time you can still clearly read the influence of Frank Lloyd Wright in it, for whom Soleri had worked.

The outside is a series of towers made of locally fired clay pots, sitting on a concrete base in which ceramic plates are encased. Apart from advertising the products of the factory, and perhaps referencing Parc Güell by Gaudi, it is a clear example of his penchant for experimentation with materials. I do not think that the facade comes together as a composition, and I do not think it has much to do with the context in which it sits (funny that!), but it is intriguing nevertheless.

The best moment of the building is when you enter it and step onto the shop floor inside, though. You suddenly find yourself in an elongated top-lit atrium space,  with the floors spiraling down around it, to a floor covered with stacks and stacks of ceramic plates, vases, garden ornaments, cups and whatever else. The columns are shaped like trees, and the branches spectacularly angle out to hold up the ramped mezzanines. A combination of Frank Lloyd Wright and a Gothic cathedral under the guise of practicality. The idea behind the spiral was that you start the production process at the top and the ceramics slowly work their way down, – aided by gravity – to be sold on the floor below. If the angled floor is practical is another issue, but it results in a fantastically bold space which earns Soleri to be called a great architect in my book. I wish you all the best, Paolo Soleri, wherever you may be.

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About thomaswensing

Architect and Activist. Over the years I have become increasingly aware that I need to actively engage with the issues I care about. My passions and irritations are many and change often, but a red thread is always a deep concern over the fact that capitalism does not work as it is claimed it does, democracies only serve the needs of the few and environmental resource depletion and pressures continue to mount. I think it is time for citizen's activism to create pressure, to bang on the doors of established powers and interests until we get it right. As you will notice, if you continue to follow my blog over time, there are certain fetishes I have; modernism, social housing, the avant-garde. I propose to recuperate the Modern Project from the dustbin of history and re-establish the link between social engagement and architecture. Watch it all come down needs to be followed by let the good stuff blossom!

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