Discover Cosanti’s Progressive Experiments in Architecture

The otherworldly structures and dwellings that comprise Cosanti are recognizable to the many thousands of people who have visited this cultural treasure in Paradise Valley. Arrestingly imaginative, these original structures date back to the late 1950s and early 1960s and have earned Cosanti a place on the Arizona Registry of Historic Places. Cosanti was built by Paolo Soleri (1919-2013), an Italian-born architect, urban designer, and philosopher. Including Cosanti, less than ten of his projects have survived. 

Soleri experimented on a large scale with his “earth-casting” technique in 1956 to create the innovative structures found at Cosanti. Built almost counterintuitively, from the roof down and outside in, many of these unusual spaces were created by first forming a concrete shell over mounded dirt. The soil beneath this shell was then excavated out (usually by hand) and what remained became a structure’s walls and - roof. The structures at Cosanti are experiments in passive solar heating and cooling, frugality, recycling, and cleverly building structures according to the sun’s position in the sky to warm the semi-outdoor spaces in the winter and cool them in the summer. These ancient concepts influenced Soleri’s thoughts on how humans can create a built world to live in that is in balance with nature. He called this idea “arcology,” a blend of “architecture” and “ecology.” 

Like arcology, “Cosanti” is a combination of two words that embody the spirit of Paolo Soleri’s emphasis against hyper-consumerism: the Italian words, “Cosa” and “anti” translate as “against things.” The Cosanti Foundation is a nonprofit organization founded in 1965 by Paolo Soleri and his wife, Colly,  to advance a philosophy of forming communities focused on living more fully with less… and with a less detrimental impact on the ecology of the Earth. Predating the Environmental Protection Agency and Earth, The Cosanti Foundation is supported in part by the sales of windbells at Cosanti Originals and continues the work Soleri began over 65 years ago.

Embracing the concept of arcology, The Cosanti Foundation’s mission becomes more and more relevant in today’s world as human civilizations grow larger and more complex. The need to live more sustainably is critical as society is faced with designing cities to accommodate a rapidly growing population projected to reach 10 billion by 2050 and with many coastal communities needing to relocate inland due to rising sea levels caused by climate change.

Compounding the projected population explosion is the notion of how the Earth’s natural resources – the ecology – become compromised as food shortages, climate change, and a culture of relentless consumer consumption continue unchecked. To this end, the guiding principles of The Cosanti Foundation are a progressive rationale for why re-examining the way communities are formed and human habitat is built in balance with the environment is critical in the 21st century.

Paolo Soleri: Visionary Architect Ahead of His Time

Born in 1919 in Turin, Italy, architect Paolo Soleri came to the US in 1947 to study under Frank Lloyd Wright. Soleri and Wright had vastly different views on the shape American cities should take; Wright favored the sprawling “Broadacre City” concept that would disperse people from each other and the nexus of community life, while Soleri envisioned the opposite, an “urban implosion:” a compact and vertically dense, environment that emphasized people’s connection to one another and to nature. The apprenticeship with Wright, while contentious and brief, influenced Soleri and his life’s work profoundly and cemented his interest in incorporating natural elements as Wright had into his architectural designs. Following his year and a half studying with Wright at Taliesin West in Scottsdale, Arizona, Soleri received the first of only two commissions in his career to design and build a private home. Dome House, a futuristic and modest home in Cave Creek, Arizona was completed in 1952. The house attracted the attention of the architecture world and soon after it was built, Soleri accepted a commission to build The Ceramica Artistica Solimene, a ceramics factory on Italy’s Amalfi coast. It was while constructing this factory, now designated an Italian historic building, that Soleri first learned the craft of ceramics. Returning to Arizona in 1955, Soleri and his wife settled on a 5-acre parcel of land north of Phoenix for “Cosanti,” Soleri’s architectural and design studio, in what was then a rural area where crop and livestock farms thrived. Today, Cosanti sits on the same piece of land and makers of the world-renowned bronze and ceramic windbells,  Cosanti Originals, operates there. The landscape surrounding Cosanti looks vastly different from when it was founded. The town of Paradise Valley grew around Soleri’s modest piece of land and mansions now populate the area much as farmhouses once did,  standing in contrast to the organic and provocative architectural experiments Soleri created there.

Using ceramics skills he developed at the Solimene Factory in Italy, Soleri began making earth-cast ceramics including ceramic Cosanti windbells. These individually handcrafted works of art are still being produced at Cosanti Originals using the same time-honored traditions and methods Soleri introduced. The highly collectible windbells are also created using bronze at an on-site foundry. Soleri’s artistic output was prolific and the sculptural bell mobiles and sculptures he created have helped to support his theoretic urban design exploration and architectural experimentation. In 1965, Soleri established The Cosanti Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to influencing the way the built world is created in balance with the environment. Many hundreds of art and architectural students from around the world have apprenticed at Cosanti with Soleri and, while “learning by doing,” helped construct the innovative “earth-cast” concrete structures used as workspaces, administrative offices, foundry, and ceramics studios. 

His revolutionary philosophy of “arcology,” a portmanteau of “architecture” and “ecology” is the theory for which Paolo Soleri is best known and his landmark 1969 book, “Arcology: The City in the Image of Man,” written at Cosanti became the catalyst for Arcosanti, the experimental micro-city midway between Phoenix and Sedona. Inspired by Soleri’s progressive arcology theory, Arcosanti has been built and inhabited over 50 years by thousands of volunteers. Dubbed “the urban laboratory” by famed New York Times Architecture Critic Ada Louise Huxtable in the mid-1970s, the moniker was embraced by Soleri who was known for his relentless architectural experimentation. 

Today, Arcosanti is no longer under construction, nor is it finished according to Soleri’s original design which would have housed 2,000 people. But it remains an experiment, both social and structural, and its residents participate by demonstrating how to push the boundaries by living in a place designed according to Soleri’s arcology principle which brought people closer to nature and closer to each other in spaces intentionally built to be multi-functional, vertical, and compact to use natural resources more wisely. Soleri received important acknowledgments and accolades over the span of his career including an AIA Gold Medal, the Venice Biennale’s Golden Lion, and the Smithsonian Medal for Lifetime Achievement, among others and he is widely considered to be an important figure in the canon of American architectural history. 

Paolo Soleri died in 2013 at the age of 94 in his home at Cosanti and, at the time of his death, few finished examples of Soleri’s architectural work remained in existence and Arcosanti was considered to be only 20% complete. Nevertheless, scholars, architects, urban planners, and many others continue to visit Cosanti and Arcosanti and find inspiration from Soleri’s arcology philosophy.

Arcosanti: Soleri’s Best-Known Experiment

On a desolate mesa in the high desert of Arizona midway between the sprawling metropolis of Phoenix and the artist enclave of Sedona, Arcosanti stands apart visually and philosophically. It is a vision of what future cities - and the thriving communities supported by them- could look like. Radical in its own time, through the environmental lens of today, Arcosanti is a welcome antidote to the plague of urban sprawl that stresses the planet and fractures a sense of community by putting too much distance between people. Vertical and dense, pedestrian, and integrated, the iconic architecture of Arcosanti was built by 8,000+ volunteers over 50 years, inspired by the arcology theory of architect Paolo Soleri.

 

The term "arcology" -  a blending of architecture and ecology - was Soleri's innovative approach to urban planning that brings people closer to each other and closer to nature through thoughtfully-designed architecture.  The architectural examples at Arcosanti exemplify this theory both by being situated amidst a barren, largely unspoiled, natural landscape, and through its structures that are designed to be minimalist and multi-use. In the 1970s, famed New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable described Arcosanti as an "urban laboratory," and indeed it is that - a proof of concept, an experiment, a lab. Continuously inhabited since 1970 by those who have built its structures and societal infrastructure, today Arcosanti attracts urban planners, architects, and scholars who are inspired by its origin story and marvel that through determination, learning-by-doing, and a willingness to dare for something different, thousands of amateur architects could create an alternative way of life that is materially frugal but experientially enriched.

 

The Cosanti Foundation

Since 1965, The Cosanti Foundation, a nonprofit organization, has been dedicated to influencing the way our built world is created in balance with the environment. By stewarding the culturally significant architectural sites of Cosanti in Paradise Valley and Arcosanti near Cordes Junction, The Cosanti Foundation continues its important work of influencing the way cities and the communities within them are shaped through the central tenets of arcology:

Exhibit Ecological Accountability: Responsibly develop a habitat for humankind that protects the surrounding natural environment

Leave a Limited Carbon Footprint: Advocate the advantages of building multi-use, live/workspaces where more activities can take place using less space, giving more people access to the essential economic, social, and recreational foundations of community life

Demonstrate Resourcefulness: Support a careful, thoughtful approach to planning, building, and day-to-day living that is experientially enriched but materially frugal

Learn by Doing: Challenge ourselves to be empowered by the satisfaction of trying to do something different and being agents for change

Every Cosanti Originals windbell sold helps to support the nonprofit Cosanti Foundation. Established in 1965 by Paolo Soleri, The Cosanti Foundation is dedicated to influencing the way the built world is created in balance with the environment. Soleri’s progressive architectural techniques philosophies attempt to create structures for a different kind of human habitat built around people, not cars, and designed to bring people closer to nature, not exploit nature’s limited resources.