In light of the ongoing discussions about and interest in sustainable cities, walkable communities, cycling as a healthy lifestyle choice, accessibility in general, I got to thinking about how oddly marginalized Paolo was, by many of his peers, during his lifetime. Despite world renown, multiple awards, blockbuster exhibitions of his graphic designs, the man was far from having been universally acknowledged by all the architectural giants whom he knew, who knew him. He was admired by many of his contemporaries but in general, they were not, as time went on, quick to ask his opinion. I got to wondering, as I said, how that came to be.
It is true that his writing is somewhat arcane, to say the least. It is also true that his structural vocabulary is as unusual as it is unique - Moishe Safdie once told me, after he and Paolo had competed for design of a building in San Francisco, he felt Paolo's forms served to disadvantage him. Neither of those facts completely accounts for his having been largely pushed aside, despite the initial enthusiasm of scores of architectural critics and savants, despite the still-present and consistent trickle of ongoing interest in his perceived work.
In the course of ruminating about this, Dr. Deborah Sword, a Canadian friend whose blog, WritingForLife, offers insight and information about the world of breast cancer survival, happened to bring to my attention physicist Murray Gell-Mann's Scientific American blog entry of 2013/12/17: "The events that create our current life are frozen accidents. What we think of as history is a series of coincidental cascades where events happened in a particular order to bring us to today."
The statement made sense, immediately reminded me of a related observation that also made perfect sense when it was delivered by Buddhist teacher Tulku Bardor Rinpoche at the Rigpe Dorje Centre in Montreal: "Most of life is accident, What we do with the accidents we are given is how we create karma."
Paolo Soleri never met Murray Gell-Mann or Tulku Bardor Rinpoche. Comparative religion was not his strong point and his knowledge of particle physics was, despite the sophistication of his designs for buildings, far from exhaustive. Nevertheless he did give thoughtful consideration to the world, came to his own conclusions about it, which echo in his own inimitable style the values of the Great Traditions. His insight, his embrace of what he called "frugality," is akin to the view of poet William Wordsworth, who said "The world is too much with us; late and soon, Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers...." and poet Oliver Goldsmith, who observed ""Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey, Where wealth accumulates and men decay.""
To poise oneself on the brink of the future is as precarious as poising oneself on the edge of a cliff. If you have no forecasting tools or a great deal of experience, it's hard to determine whether the next breeze will blow up into a storm of gale proportions.
Paolo understood the power of greed intuitively, how it could bleed a human soul and heart, remonstrated with it in principle as well as, for himself, in practice. But his ongoing reckoning with it as a force, independent of the basic, simple perception that it's wrong, is by no means an easy read, even for super-prescient phone-booth touchdown travelers.
Hang onto the coat-tails of the wind, o ye time-weary curiosity-seekers. Hitch your carpets up tight and snug. This could be the ride of your lives.