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 V.19 No.26 | July 1 - 7, 2010 

Guest Editorial

Creators and Destroyers: On the Paolo Soleri

Raffaele Elba

The history of art and architecture has been the story of creators and destroyers. The creators have been the few who have used their minds to bring forth something from nothing. The destroyers use emotion and force to turn something into nothing, [ Arts Commentary, “Building Something out of Nothing,” June 24-30]. Once destroyed, these works cannot be duplicated (except poorly as we have seen in a few instances). The examples of irreplaceable works that no longer exist are unfortunately too numerous to mention and extend back for centuries. Some of these were damaged or ruined by forces of nature and others by conflicts among men (WWI and WWII, for example), but the most egregious examples are works that were destroyed intentionally by people who had power but little intellectual understanding of their importance.

A few examples of the latter during the past century include Frank Lloyd Wright's Larkin Building completed in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1906 and demolished in 1950 to make way by the City of Buffalo for a parking lot. Fifteen years too late on Dec. 22, 1965, the Buffalo Courier-Express wrote, “The loss of the Larkin Building was a tragic one for Buffalo and the entire world. In presenting the acts concerning its demise, it is hoped that in the future we will study the value of a structure and avoid the destruction of milestone architecture.”

They say lightning doesn't strike twice, but Wright's Imperial Hotel, an architectural fantasy, completed in Tokyo in 1923-24 after six years of construction, was demolished in 1968 to make way for a more economical “box” building. Given the importance of Wright's building, it would have made more economic sense to preserve it, even if only as a display inside the lobby of the monster glass box that came along to replace it. At least there would still be a reason for future generations to visit that site.

The theater was constructed using an earth-casting technique.
Cosanti Foundation - Colly Soleri
The theater was constructed using an earth-casting technique.
Another work of architecture in Japan is the incredible Sho Hondo Buddhist temple, which was said to have been built to last 500 years. It was completed in 1974 and destroyed in 1998 at the whim and personal antipathy of one individual, who happened to be the high priest of the Nichiren Buddhists at the time. The architect of this masterpiece, Kimio Yokoyama, who I met in 1974 when the building was completed, says the demolition cost more than $35 million. The senseless demolition of the Sho Hondo temple recalls the no less mindless destruction in 2001 by the Taliban of the Buddhas of Bamiyan, two sixth-century monumental statues of standing Buddhas, carved into the side of a cliff in Bamiyan Valley in Afghanistan. Again, the decision to dynamite this work that belonged to mankind and the ages was made by one individual in order to rectify what he personally considered to be against his beliefs.

Closer to home here in Albuquerque, we have seen the destruction in 1970 of the Henry Trost-designed Pueblo Revival Franciscan Hotel built in 1922, as well as the 1902 Charles Whittlesey-designed Alvarado Hotel, destroyed the same year. Neither of these works is of the caliber architecturally of those mentioned above, but they had meaning in the community and their destruction was no less senseless. An article online from "Doug's Web Nook" states, concerning the demolition of the Alvarado:

"Where a grand hotel once stood, now stands a replica. ... The irony is why this building was torn down, and nothing was built on the spot for another 30 years. When something was finally built, it was a copy of the demolished building. Only communities that are blind to their heritage make such shortsighted decisions. We are only caretakers of cities bequeathed to us by our ancestors; and only we can pass that valuable gifts to the future.”

Paolo Soleri, the man/architect/artist, turned 91 on June 21, 2010. I first met him at his workshop/studio, Cosanti, in Scottsdale in 1965. At that time, he had built a wonderful pottery building in Italy and the amphitheater in Santa Fe, and he was still building Cosanti in Arizona. He was working on theoretical projects of every architectural type but focusing on the shape and growth of cities: arcologies, as he termed them. He later began construction of Arcosanti in northern Arizona, which continues as a work in progress to this day, but there are very few other built works by this great artist/architect.

Paolo Soleri, the amphitheater, has existed for about 45 years. For some reason (there can be no good reasons), it is now in danger of being demolished. As with the examples mentioned above, this appears to be the decision of either one man in power or a committee with the same power to destroy a unique and irreplaceable work of art/architecture. Once gone, this building can never be re-created—though I expect that 30 years from now there will be legislation proposed to build a replica in Styrofoam and plaster at great cost once the value of this building to the community, the State of New Mexico, the United States and the world is understood.

Even had Paolo Soleri built dozens of buildings around the world, there would be no excuse for erasing any one of them. As it is, we are the custodians of one of the few structures designed and built under the direct supervision of this architect. There is no pressing need to build something else on the land now occupied by this structure. The excuse that it does not comply with current codes is as nonsensical as saying the same about Notre Dame or Hagia Sophia. Should we tear those down using such excuses?

The Santa Fe Indian School has on its property a great work of architecture. One day this may become a cash cow rather than the white elephant the school seems to think it is now. It is worth something as an architectural tourist attraction, if nothing else, until such time as ideas for its use come to the fore. If it is considered unsafe and an insurance liability by the current occupants of the positions of power at the Indian School, then bury it (carefully)! Return it to the protection of the earth from which it grew. Don't destroy it! At least we will have the option to rediscover it in years to come when our culture comes to its senses and realizes that this is a “pearl of great price,” to quote one of my grandmothers.

 

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