Thank You, Paolo Soleri

I have no illusions about my relationship with Paolo Soleri and Arcosanti. I was never a workshopper and I never lived there. I am an outsider, and worse than that, a filmmaker, that breed of human notorious for dropping in, acting like your best friend, and then leaving you. We become intimate with our subjects quickly and then we edit what they said and betray them. We are not to be trusted.

And certainly, Soleri had encountered enough filmmakers and media people to know this.

Paolo Soleri interviewed at Arcosanti.Yet he agreed to be in A Life’s Work because, I like to think, he knew and appreciated what I was trying to get at. And as Arcosanti’s PR person told me after I first met him, undoubtedly paraphrasing, Paolo liked my vibe.

But we were not friends. Over the course of four years, I interviewed him four times, followed him around a few afternoons, including a rare visit he made to his first commission, Dome House, sat in on some talks, and videoed a lecture he gave at the New School. He admitted that he didn’t remember me from one interview to the next, and I didn’t expect him to. I’m not memorable and even if I were, what would  it matter that he didn’t remember me? What mattered was that he was full of ideas and he expressed them well and with an understated passion in front of the camera. What mattered was his work. I wanted to hear about that, and he gave me that.

This is not to say I didn’t want to be something other than an outsider, an intruder. I was a little surprised when he said this about himself.

I’m very methodical. To boredom. To the ceiling of boredom. That’s one of the reasons why I’m not social, I think. When I am in a group (laughs), I don’t know what to do. I’m not interested in what you might call benevolent gossip or not benevolent gossip, so I cannot get interested enough in your life, in your adventures, so if we were to spend days together chances are I would not give you very much. Maybe a beer. But that’s part of my make up. I’m made that way.

I didn’t take this personally. I imagine the curse of being a genius is that you are often the loneliest person in a crowded room.

So given all this, why am I so hard hit by his passing?

Because when I opened his big black book, Arcology, The City in the Image of Man,  for the first time, my mind was blown. Because Paolo Soleri was the first person who agreed to participate in the film, and that lent me and the film a certain credibility. Because he was very generous with his time when time was something he was running out of. Because the last time he sat in front of my camera, I was told he would not talk to me for more than 20 minutes, but we spoke for 45 minutes and we would have spoken longer, I have no doubt, except I didn’t want to monopolize his time. Because he was funny, even when he was cranky, and he made me laugh.

Because when I asked him how he, then 86, kept his creative fires burning, while my father, more or less his contemporary, had no spark at all, he gave me this:

That’s a majority of us. Naturally you should take your father’s life as a whole thing, his whole life. Number one it was important because it was part of this genesis and number two probably he contributed something very original. That could have been very tiny or an assemblage of tiny things, that was your father. He probably loved someone. More than one person. The moon isn’t able to love anybody, or a galaxy. So that’s a triumph of reality.

We weren’t friends, but I’ve lived with him for seven years, watched his facial expressions on my monitor, listened as he responded to my questions in his northern Italian accent, an accent that reminded me of my mother’s , one I had no trouble understanding but that other people did (hence the subtitles). I dreamed about him.

I had hoped from our first meeting that I might have shown the completed film in Arizona,  at Arcosanti, that he might see it. I can’t express how it feels knowing this will not happen.

Condolences to the Soleri family, his friends, and the Arcosanti community.

Here’s how my first interview with Paolo Soleri ended. I think it says more than all the words above.


7 Replies to “Thank You, Paolo Soleri”

  1. Really nice, David.
    I had the same reaction the first time I saw his book. Just, “wow.”

    That last little moment here, thanks for including that.

  2. A beautiful and moving tribute, David. Maybe by exposing his work to dolts like me, you add some small part to Soleri’s legacy, yes?

  3. Jamie, thanks so much for you comment. It seems many people had that response to the book, including Paolo’s successor, Jeff Stein. There’s something comforting in that.

    John, thanks for leaving your comment here, I appreciate it. It would be a privilege to add even a tiny bit to his legacy, or to expose his work to a few people who aren’t aware of it. Suddenly, I feel a greater urgency to finish this film. An obligation, really.

  4. That was a great read, especially reading his perspective on individual creativity. It’s always overwhelming when I’m reminded that 7 billion thinking, breathing, eating, loving, creatures is a rarity. Most of the universe is just rocks, things that once were rocks, and things that will soon become rocks.

    I’m curious, what was your elevator speech to him/his publicist? Was there anything in particular that you think you said that made him agree to be interviewed?

    1. We are star-stuff, Carl Sagan used to say.

      The elevator pitch was: It’s about people who are doing things that require a long view. I think there were a few things that convinced Soleri that I was worthy of his time. One was mentioning architect Louis Kahn, who, he told me, he felt a kinship with. I think another was that I had done my research and was asking him specific, informed questions about his work. Everyone likes that. But mostly I think he liked the idea that someone was trying to make a film that dealt with the themes A Life’s Work is dealing with.

      Always good to see your name on the blog. Hope all is well with you. And if you make it back into town, drop me a line. It’d be good to see you.

Comments are closed.