A significant piece of ecological design lies within Phoenix, and remains a hub of design, ecology, and architecture today.
Within the midst of the urban sprawl of Phoenix lies a sanctuary of forward-thinking and innovation. One of the few surviving remnants of the late Italian architect and philosopher Paolo Soleri, Cosanti is a significant landmark in ecological design and 20th-century architecture. Cosanti is a portmanteau of the Italian words cosa, meaning things, and anti, meaning against. Cosanti, by its very name, is intended to represent the idea that nature is the best habitat for humanity.
Paolo Soleri briefly studied under renowned architect Frank Lloyd Wright. He entered Wright's tutelage the first time he came to America in 1947, at the end of World War II. It is no coincidence that the property is only a few miles away from Taliesin West, Wright's winter home and desert laboratory. Consanti's construction began upon Soleri's return to the States after being commissioned to build a ceramics factory along the Amalfi coast in his native Italy. The grounds served as his home and design studio until he died in 2013. At Cosanti, Soleri conducted countless experiments to expand the current view of architecture during his time. He believed the isolated and expansive suburban communities, which were on the rise, lacked many of the most essential elements of building cohesive and prosperous communities. Ironically, the area surrounding Cosanti has mutated from an extraordinary frontier to abnormal suburbia. More curvilinear and organic-styled buildings transfixed many mid-century architects, as opposed to the previous decade's art deco movement. Having worked under Frank Lloyd Wright for almost two years, it is no surprise that Soleri was inspired by Wright's blending of indoor and outdoor spaces. This theme laid the groundwork for many of his future projects.
All of Soleri's architecture is deeply intertwined with his personal philosophy, based on the writings of the Jesuit priest and paleontologist Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. He believed that life is beautiful. "There is an inherent logic in the structure and nature of organisms that have grown on this planet." Life on any scale consumes matter and makes it live; thus "matter becomes spirit." The human spirit, or consciousness, can mold matter outside of itself, allowing consciousness to bring beauty into the world. By taking what is internal and making it external, we have built civilization through our physical creations and societal relations with each other. Since both come from the Latin root civis, Soleri concluded that there is no distinction between city and civilization. And just as evolution states, form becomes function. We have been forming our cities in a way that is incongruent with society and the planet. Soleri was not against industrialization and believed it to be a good thing, but he thought that we were allowing technology to become our masters instead of the other way around. He also believed that creation is a process over time. Life is a creation of evolution, and resources undergo a similar process. Once we exploit a resource, it is gone forever. Because the time for its creation was in the past, Soleri's architecture draws upon nature, conservation, and change motifs.
Cosanti is a precursor to Arcosanti, an experimental vertical city located due north of Phoenix. The goal of these prototype buildings was for Soleri to put his philosophy into practice and craft sanctuaries that would bring people closer to nature rather than bulldoze it. Cosanti takes advantage of Arizona's favorable living conditions and plentiful sunlight. Many of its formations are demarcated by their distinctive half-dome shape, which serves the purpose of passive climate control via solar dispersion. The buildings are also oriented to the south to reduce the effect of direct sunlight entering the dome. Much of Cosanti's anatomy is additionally located below the desert's surface to utilize the natural insulative properties of the Earth. While the small urban estate contains many structures, it is most notable for one of the first experimental structures built by Soleri on the premises. The Earth House is named for the early use of Soleri's variations of earth-casting techniques. Earth-casting is a process that molds its ensemble from the roof down to the ground by pouring cement over an earthen skeleton, followed by the hollowing of the framework after it sets.
Soleri's earth-casting styles are better known for their use in the fashioning of his famous bells. After returning from his foray into Italy, he was inspired by ceramic manufacturing and decided to pursue the art form himself. By using earth-casting, Soleri began to originate ceramic bells laced with distinct tribal patterns and animal figures in styles resonant to the Native Americans of the Southwest. Only a few years later, after the arrival of a skilled bronze caster around the 1960s, did Soleri's bells come into their modern incarnation. Still using the same earth-casting techniques, these bronze bells are like their ceramic cousins but come in a plethora of tortuous designs, animate textures, and bewildering patinas. To this day, Soleri bells are still handcrafted by many skilled in-house artisans and coveted by their owners worldwide. Suppose you plan on grabbing one of these but can't make the trip to Cosanti proper. In that case, you can head over to the Cosanti website, where you can peruse a library of bell sounds before making a purchase.
Since its inception, Cosanti was designed to be a multi-purpose property where people could live and work within its confines, emphasizing community and nature. For Soleri and his students, it was a haven to assess new techniques in construction and design. Over the last half-century, thousands have contributed to the Cosanti property, making it one of the longest-lasting and most elaborate collaborative projects continuing to this day. In 2020, what was formerly known as the School of Architecture at Taliesin formally dropped the Taliesin component and moved its campuses from both the Taliesin houses in Arizona and Wisconsin to the sites of Cosanti and Arcosanti, respectively. This move has not gone unnoticed. It shows Soleri's impact on the architectural community as his mentor and producer of Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright, is considered the most prolific American architect of all time. But since the future of architecture is trending towards an emphasis on ecological synergy, it's no wonder that the School of Architecture has initiated this transition to a new era. With this move, new life has been breathed into Cosanti as it continues to thrive as a hub of design, ecology, and architecture.