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Architect Paolo Soleri dead at 93

Paolo Soleri, an Italian-born architect who created a visionary prototype for a new kind of ecologically sensitive city in the remote Arizona desert four decades ago, only to watch the suburban sprawl he detested begin to creep near it in recent years, has died. He was 93.

Soleri died of natural causes Tuesday at his home in Paradise Valley, Ariz., according to an official with the architect's foundation.

A one-time apprentice at Frank Lloyd Wright's Taliesin West compound on the edge of Scottsdale, Ariz., Soleri founded his own desert settlement, called Arcosanti, in 1970 at a site roughly 70 miles north of downtown Phoenix.

Perched on a bluff overlooking the Agua Fria River, it drew inspiration from the utopian villages of religious exiles and the fledgling environmental movement of the 1960s. Like Wright, Soleri was energized by the extremes of the desert landscape and relied on young, earnest followers to carry out a good deal of the construction work.

But he also broke philosophically with Wright, whose influential Broadacre City plan of the 1930s imagined a string of lush suburban communities connected by car traffic.

In a series of feverishly detailed drawings, Soleri instead proposed denser, vertical settlements that would leave more land untouched at ground level. He called this approach "arcology," a term combining architecture and ecology.

Planned as a community of more than 5,000, Arcosanti was never home to more than 100 or so people. Most of the residents were apprentices to Soleri who, like Wright's followers at Taliesin West, paid for the privilege of studying his work at close range.

As Soleri aged, progress on the desert compound went from deliberate to grindingly slow. Even some of his followers said his approach was autocratic, or called the philosophy underpinning the architecture opaque.

Paolo Soleri was born on June 21, 1919, in Turin, Italy. After earning a doctorate in architecture from the Polytechnic University of Turin, he moved to Arizona in 1947 to study at Taliesin West. He also traveled to Wright's original Taliesin compound in Spring Green, Wis., spending 18 months all together as an apprentice.

"I was there to be a sponge, really," he said in an interview for a new documentary on his career, "The Vision of Paolo Soleri: Prophet in the Desert." He left Wright in 1949 to pursue his own work.

Soleri's first solo project was the Dome House in Cave Creek, Ariz. Sunk partially into the desert, the house is topped with a retractable glass dome and suggests a cross between Wright's work and the futuristic Los Angeles architecture of John Lautner, another Wright disciple.

While working on the Dome House, Soleri met Corolyn Woods, the daughter of the client, who would become his wife.

He and Woods, known as Colly, spent the next six years in Italy. Soleri accepted a commission to design a building for a ceramics company on the Amalfi Coast.

After returning to Arizona in 1956, Soleri founded a small studio on five acres of land near Scottsdale and named it Cosanti. It was a prelude to the grander ambitions of Arcosanti, which began when Soleri purchased more than 800 acres near Cordes Junction in the late 1960s.

Soleri's wife died in 1982. He is survived by two daughters and two grandchildren.

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