u     n    d   e  r

Soleri sketch from late 1965 or early 1966 showing construction phased over three summers.

“The Institute of American Indian Arts Cultural Center in Santa Fe was the first major built commission in America for newly immigrated Italian architect Paolo Soleri.  This was his first experience as an architect confronting the vastness of the landscape of the American southwest, and his first experience in working with a culture that, for centuries, had been an integral part of that vast landscape. In working with three other powerful personalities on this project, Lloyd New, Charles Loloma, and Rolland Meinholtz, Soleri came into contact with ideas about how to live in such a place and translated them into the space and form that would allow that life to really happen.  In the process Soleri not only transformed this place, he transformed himself as an architect. In this project he was able to integrate architecture with its place – he was required to do that, in fact. The lessons he learned here about climate and community and ritual guided his outlook and his professional output for the rest of his career.”

Jeff Stein.  President, Cosanti Foundation

Lloyd New and his teenage Hopi student at the Phoenix Indian School, Charles Loloma, demonstrated interest in architecture when they used to visit Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin as early as 1938.  The architect’s Scottsdale school was only a year in operation.  Wright was realizing a desert architecture on his campus,  incorporating local stone, concrete, timber and canvas.  In 1947 Paolo Soleri began an apprenticeship at Taliesin, building his first commission, Dome House, in Cave Creek, AZ  over 1948-1949 [1].  He  returned to Italy where, in 1953 he built his second commission, the Solimene Ceramics Factory using structural concrete techniques inspired by the Italian architect / engineer Pier Luigi Nervi.  At the factory he observed ceramic casting that influenced his subsequent molding of bronze bells and earthformed concrete studios upon moving to the United States.

Soleri’s establishing Cosanti, his educational foundation, in Scottsdale in the mid 1950’s was modeled on Wright’s Taliesin, the school led by a single charismatic master.

New had already in 1958, Joy Gritton reports, been contemplating an art school for young Indians  – he had approached Wright as designer.[2]  He set up his own artists’ compound, the Kiva Craft Center, in Scottsdale.  Charles Loloma worked out of a studio there, admiring Soleri’s cast bronze bells in a compound gallery.   But when in 1962, during the IAIA’s formative period, Loloma brought New to meet Soleri to discuss a theater design for the school,  he had the young architect and his construction methods in mind.

Earth-formed “apse” at Cosanti studio. Scottsdale, Az.

Cosanti had been running workshops training interns in Soleri’s techniques for casting bronze bells and earth-formed “silt-cast” buildings.  Soleri’s method supplants typically wooden formwork with a mold sculpted from fine compacted soil to shape the concrete. Relief, texture and color translates from the mold to the cement object.

The IAIA made it clear that the workshop format and earth-forming were appropriate for it’s “outdoor theater bowl”:

“Basically shaped earth, reinforced and with stabilized surfaces, the theater is to be constructed in an educational program using student labor. Working under supervision, students will gain invaluable experiences in actual design and construction, shaping by hand the forms for walls and structural masses in a sculptural approach.”


Spreading the “slip” coat over the upper stage earthen form

New saw the construction method and communal building workshop not merely as suitable for but  aligned with his philosophy of the theater:

“Mr. Soleri’s aim is to create an environment in cooperation with nature and in harmony with man.  In this instance, he and the students working with him are using earth and natural forms to provide an environment in which American Indian Theater can happen.”


Paolo Soleri was planning construction workshops during the design phase; Sketchbook page 119 diagrams building periods over three summers working from north to south, shell to audience bowl to the upper promenade.  During the first half of 1966 Soleri and his apprentices at Cosanti busied themselves with final design development.  Project manager Doug Lee, an architecture student from California Polytechnic institute produced two sets of drawings as design changes rolled in from Santa Fe.  Soleri himself crafted a styrofoam study model.  Last minute recognition of misplacement of the project on a Bureau of Indian Affairs survey necessitated a reversal of the plan with the canyon switching from stage right to stage left.  A $250,000 budget shrank the project scope to the outdoor theater, eliminating the covered stage shown in the master plan.

Cosanti workshops were one of several propagators of Soleri’s ideas.  The others included publications, exhibitions and partnerships.  The workshops combined study and practice;  hands-on instruction in Soleri’s techniques of silt-casting of bells, tiles and other objects in bronze, clay and plaster and in his method of “silt-pile” casting of architectural elements,  of concrete building components.   Study revolved around discussions of Soleri’s evolving architectural and urban philosophy. The marginalia of his notebooks are filled with notes and sketches of his arcologies.   Arizona State University, Call Poly and other schools accepted course credit through their architecture departments for participating students.  Soleri planned for interested IAIA students, most of whom were high school age, to engage in the same manner as college students.  In the first of many conflicts between Cosanti and the IAIA’s BIA overseers, the IAIA attendees working on the theater site ended up not being Soleri students, but Federal government employees.   The bureaucracy substituted the framework of pedagogy with one of economics.  The result was that they were motivated as workers rather than as pupils.  The BIA at their pleasure pulled students off the job to perform other campus tasks, disrupting the continuity both of their learning experience and the construction process.

to be continued.

1. Tomiaki Tamura, personal communication.

2. Gritton. p.9.

copyright© conrad skinner. 2011.


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