Paolo Soleri’s Miniaturization Imperative in the 21st Century

The writings of Paolo Soleri were the first significant corpus of architectural thought to which I was exposed. For that reason I have perhaps had a tendency to discount its value. Decades after I first read his key works, I return to them in a world in which we widely accept that we are hurtling toward the likely catastrophic effects of many decades of disregard for balance in how we occupy the planet. I find Soleri’s thought as impactful as I did then and more prophetic than I imagined.

Paolo Soleri was an Italian architect who spent a large part of his life in Arizona, where he created Arcosanti, a community in the desert to develop and experiment his ideas on urbanism and design where I spent the summer of 1986 as a volunteer. Soleri wrote several books and produced numerous drawings and models, becoming an influential figure in American urbanism and architecture. He died in 2013 at the age of 93.

Arcosanti, Yavapai County, Arizona

The most basic idea that has only gained relevance over time is the central tenet of “arcology”: a term Soleri invented to denote the synthesis of architecture and ecology at an urban scale. This idea, to accommodate man in an intelligent form of collective dwelling in balance and harmony with the natural world, “the human abode within the planetary abode”, is really the central question we face today. 

There can no longer be a question as to the importance of this as the core question of the physical configuration of humanity, nor of the fact that none of the models we have implemented at scale around the world achieve this, nor of the dire consequences of models that only perpetuate waste and imbalance. It can only be puzzling that we have not made more progress in understanding and implementing what the synthesis between man and nature at the urban scale could be. A proposal like NEOM certainly makes it feel like we have not made much progress.

The second idea is that the city is the vector for achieving this. Today the ecological breakdown of our society has led many to challenge the city as an idea and to posit that anti-urban living is the way to align our lifestyle with the ecological. Soleri says exactly the opposite, that the city is the form of organization that at the level of the planet and at the level of our species is the only configuration that can allow at once the flourishing of man and the flourishing of our planet. In Solerian language: “The city is the necessary instrument for the evolution of mankind”. It is only by finding a viable urban form that we can achieve sustainability for planet earth in the presence of roughly 10 billion humans. 

One of Soleri’s central ideas is to think of the city as an organism within a very broad, i.e. cosmic, timeframe. I’ve read this described as using the organism metaphorically to think about the city. But that’s not it. Here we are talking of the actual conception of the city as a higher level biological configuration. This is critical, because it introduces the notion of self-organization and adaptation to gain metabolic efficiency in an environment where fitness to purpose defines survival.

Here enters the concept of miniaturization. “Miniaturize or die” is the slogan for the idea that compactness is the condition for frugality, using what is strictly needed and wasting only what must be wasted. This concept of metabolic efficiency is very straightforward and intuitive condition of survival. 

Putting survival itself forward as what was at stake may have seemed hyperbolic in the 1970s and 1980s to all but those who had a heightened awareness of environmental issues. Today it seems painfully self-evident. This was truly a very basic and profoundly ecological logic that has been born out unfortunately faster than we thought.

The aspect of human realization was always present in Soleri’s thought, with the idea that reorganizing our city physically to align with respect for the planet would not be at the expense of human welfare but a vector to improve it. The proximity with nature that dense, defined urban configurations allow comes up again and again, as does the idea of “reach”, i.e. improved access for all to the amenities that cities offer. More fundamental is the idea that the physical reorganization of cities invites a societal reorganization, but Soleri was not a social thinker so beyond the general idea that the next stage in physical organization of humanity will naturally invite our evolution from a sort of karmic point of view of collective mutual awareness, kindness, and well-being, there is little to offer. 

The part of Soleri’s work that has aged poorly is the graphic renderings of arcology, the synthesis of architecture and ecology. These megastructures are redolent of an enthusiastic architectural adventure of the early 1960s that turned out to be an impasse, as broken down by Reyner Banham in Megastructure: Urban Futures of the Recent Past.

Illustration from Arcology: The City in the Image of Man

One aspect that continues to intrigue me is three-dimensionality. In Soleri’s words: “The compact city is a three-dimensional city. Its vertical dimension is congruous to its horizontal dimensions[…]. The city must be a solid, not a surface.” This is compelling and poses an interesting challenge. But it is problematic in that we have neither the governance model compatible with this sort of urban structure, nor the technical solutions for this sort of structure to truly evolve in a metabolic way, nor the building technology to build such a thing without being profoundly impactful in terms of emissions and at a deep risk of generating waste through obsolescence. My view is that this is a challenge for which we are not yet ready.

But it is beyond this that Soleri’s drawings, in their inability to escape from the design language of metabolism, discredit Soleri’s thoughts. They carry the fundamental underlying idea that an architectural megastructure can be a viable way to address an urban problem. This has always struck me as strange, as this architectural demiurgical thinking is in deep contradiction with the basis of Soleri’s eschatological discourse. It should be obvious that what humanity needs is not outcomes that can be “designed” in the architectural sense of the word, and especially not outcomes represented as an architectural object in a finished state. Biological design is a process that will lead to its own outcome; a fixed image of a final outcome is not helpful.

This leads me to my view that the only desirable outcome in the Solerian paradigm is in evolutionary self-organization of cities through trial and error. On a sanguine day, I’m tempted to think that this may not necessarily be out of reach.

If the idea of limiting the physical growth of cities truly takes hold, we will start working within a defined geographical perimeter, and that is the first step. The fixation of the boundaries will also help us take a different view of externalities, as we will collectively be forced more and more to contend with their consequences.

Then, if we take urban metabolism seriously and we examine the inflows and outflows of cities with a view to reducing them, we will be imposing constraints on the system that will finally be of the nature to allow our natural ability to innovate in urban context to find solutions aligned with the conditions of the survival of urban entities.

Finally, this should lead us to examine the internal structures, flows, and processes within our cities, as well as the issues of inequity and well-being that undermine the internal integrity of the organism, in order to find the functional preconditions of sustainability.

My current conviction is that this can only be achieved as a process. We can’t just fast-forward straight to the solution as Soleri’s models and renderings suggest. It will take time, and we know we don’t have time. Whether we find a viable model before our species has extinguished itself is a completely open question.

The conclusion is that the only thing we can do is everything we can to accelerate this process. This means setting parameters, such as restricting the physical expansion of cities and putting prices on externalities, that catalyze the generation of more efficient forms of urban organization. In the end this becomes a governance question: the speed of the adaptation our physical urban form will be determined by our awareness and our consequent collective willingness to pose ourselves parameters in line with sustainable human presence within the planetary boundaries.

Bibliographic references:

  • Paolo Soleri, Arcology: The City in the Image of Man, MIT Press, 1969.
  • Paolo Soleri, Arcosanti an Urban Laboratory?, Avant Books, 1984.
  • Paolo Soleri, Technology and Cosmogenesis, Paragon House, 1985
  • This piece is a perfect summary of Paolo Soleri’s work: Alicia Imperiale, Miniaturize or Die, Paolo Soleri’s City as Architecture, in ACSA Proceedings, 2014.