Saturday, December 11, 2010

Soleri Bridge Dedication in Scottsdale

Out on the bridge, as the ceremony was ending, and the people were leaving.

Paolo Soleri in his concepts and through his work issues a challenge to us that we are unlikely to live up to. By "us", I mean the billions of human beings on this planet who either own or dream of owning a single-family dwelling, one or more petrochemical burning cars, and who are or dream of becoming user-uppers of all the resources of this planet as if there will be no tomorrow for us, our children, or their children. By "challenge", I mean a vision of how we could live which would ennoble our existence while also establishing sustainable living patterns which would not write loans against our planet that our children will not be able to pay back.

By "unlikely to live up to," I mean that the ship has probably already sailed. China and India are hell-bent on out-American-dreaming us so fast it will make our heads spin. Cars, roads, consumption, Walmart itself, they are lighting the way forward on how to make hay while there's still cheap energy to burn and environment to despoil. 

I'm sure they know all about it, but the panelists in the discussion after the dedication seemed slightly out of touch when it comes to the historical significance, and probable near-future trajectories, of China and India. They have had "high density dispersed urban nodes" for centuries. What they didn't have was wilderness interspersed between those urban nodes; instead, they have dense, labor-intensive agriculture to feed the nodes. I am interested in where the food comes from to feed the mega-dense dispersed nodes that were mentioned in the discussion, but that's a question for another day, I guess.

The twentieth century saw the rural/urban balance do a rapid flip-flop in China as hundreds of millions flocked to the cities, which they are now doing their level best to fill up with cars and freeways and pollution. The China where I lived in the late 1980s is no longer there. It would be unrecognizable to me as China. But, I digress. The hutongs and courtyard homes populated with extended families are gone now, replaced with an architecture and a lifestyle aimed squarely at consumerism and ever-increasing individual wealth.

The donkeys that I saw pulling carts into the nodes bearing the produce of the countryside as the sun rose have been replaced with cars that we would all recognize as our own. More than anything else, that says to me that some alternative concept of how cities could be designed around Soleri's concept of arcology, combining architecture and ecology to create a sustainable and livable environment, has only one chance: if it can be manufactured in China, blister packed, and sold at Walmart at five pounds for $4.89 (or about 20 Chinese yuan, I think the price point would be there). Short of that, it looks for all intents and purposes that we plan on continuing to buy, consume, and use up, something like ants swarming a sugar pile, until there's nothing left.

Something like 50 years ago, Soleri recognized that possibility, and designed an architecture which challenges us to think of how things could be different. We didn't listen to him then, and we (people of earth) show no signs of hearing much of what he has to say. Except for this bridge in Scottsdale. Except for this bridge.

At solar noon, a dagger of sunlight slices between the pylons and lights up the red line down the center.

Community waterfall about to be poured (see video below)

One of the silt cast panels around the bridge, a Soleri surface decoration trademark.

Performers in "Vessel", directed by Rachel Bowditch

Another player in "Vessel"

Paolo Soleri, age 92: Bridge Maker.

Soleri cast bronze bells hanging in the smaller pylons.

Architect Will Bruder speaking.

Paolo Soleri holding the proclamation that was read by the Scottsdale Mayor
During the panel discussion, Soleri said something along the lines of "Humans can only make two things which are truly organic: babies, and what we make when we go to the bathroom." He said this in reference to the title and keynote of the discussion, which was about "Organic Architecture," yet it seemed he wanted to distance his own work from the term. As I was sitting there thinking, couldn't we at least have gotten that right about his thought and came up with a theme that he would consider himself directly part of, he started talking about technology. Not just cars, but computers, and the way that our high-tech cleverness has created distance between individuals, to the point that it is very conceivable that computers will render our flesh-and-blood componentry unnecessary, replacing the Dionysian with the digital. The way he said it, hearing his 92 year old voice say the words, brought tears to my eyes. Because I knew there's no way we will live up to his arcology vision. It's a miracle this bridge was built.

There were several points in the discussion when "bicycles" was the obvious answer, but no one used the word the whole time. Not once. One of the architects mentioned his usage of a motorcycle as more sustainable than cars, which they certainly are, but bicycles? Not once. Again, apparently out of touch with how China and India got around before they got so enthusiastic and successful about being like us. I was in multiple high-density dispersed urban nodes in China where the streets were jam-packed with bicycles which outnumbered the fuel-burners many times over. Again, those days are gone, lost, poof, but could have at least offered material for interesting discussion amongst the panel.

The crucial moment actually came very early, when a graph projecting that Phoenix might grow to a population of 28 million by the year 2050, and then a map of how much space would be required to hold that many people. What I don't think the presenter realized was that the map he showed was already nearly the same as what is already defined as the Phoenix metropolitan area: at 16,573 sq. miles, it is the same size as the Netherlands, but with a population density of 258 per square mile.

28 million would only put us at 1689 per square mile, which is certainly higher than the Netherlands' 1000 per square mile, but much lower than Amsterdam and many other cities already. I was jumping up and down in my seat: they use BICYCLES to get around those cities. Or could be more sustainable if they (we) did.

28 million: bring it. We have space, solar, and bicycles. Not sure where the water's going to come from though. I think it's on special at Walmart anyway. Looks like they ran out of arcology though. Videos below. I need a parasol. Get up. Go ride.





  1. They should have just cut the ribbon and said: Get up! Go ride!

  2. Does Soleri ride? Maybe when he was a bit more spry?

  3. A beautiful bridge and great pics.

  4. Thanks for sharing this with us.
    Super Pics.

  5. Super job, JRA. I even abbreviated my own blog post about it in deference to the quality job of yours: The Soleri Bridge.

    Hey, you know that silt cast panel you had a picture of? Hardiboi was parked behind it for a bit. Also took a "beauty shot" of him on our way there: Hardiboi headed to Scottsdale.

  6. Steve, I don't know if he did or not. He mentioned walking with a parasol as being healthy and sustainable. This is again a challenge to a culture that hates to walk from the car into the supermarket. A bicycle, you can really go somewhere on one of those. All the way to the supermarket, for example.

    JK and Trevor, thanks! BluesCat, I took some pictures back there, but don't think I captured Hardiboi. Thank you for the compliments and linkage.

    limom, some people did Get Up. Go ride, to get to the ceremony. I have some pics related to that coming up soon.

  7. John, great post! You're right, bicycles were conspicuously missing from the panel discussion, but mostly because those guys just didn't get to them. I think they were there in spirit, since they are afterall, the underpinnings of a sustainable society.

    Also, I think John Munier's point that the fact that everyone wants to be like us is true and in fact the biggest problem with China, India and other developing countries. We've done too good a job of marketing the American dream when in fact, we need to be learning from ancient cultures like China's and India's to get back in the right direction.

  8. Taz, during the lectures I was thinking a lot about Jared Diamond's book "Collapse". There's a balance between the carrying capacity of the planet and lifestyle, and it feels like we're tipping that in the wrong direction. Ants on a sugar pile. Paolo seems to know what he's talking about, and it is mind-blowing in its strangeness and distance from our present lifestyle(s). I don't know exactly what it will take to make a stable planet with happy and healthy billions living on it, but I am pretty sure it's NOT going to be based around spreading and culturing the dream of becoming a billionaire tycoon. How about the dream of happiness first?


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