By California architect Lamont Langworthy with Jeff Stein
Not everyone reading this is young enough to have worked on Arcosanti. Some folks sought-out Paolo Soleri’s ideas long before there even WAS an Arcosanti. They came, in the 1950’s and 1960’s, to Cosanti, a very different sort of architectural experiment than Arcosanti, intimate in its scale, intricate in how it’s spaces connect, its 5-acres the basis for all non-profits in Paradise Valley. (It’s true: if you’re a non-profit in what is now Phoenix’s wealthiest suburb, you must have property of at least 5 acres. )
Lew Davis, the great depression-era southwest painter and his wife, a ceramicist, had, bought, in 1936, the pink ranch house and 5 acres that would later become Cosanti. By 1956, although Doubletree Road was a dirt track, and even Scottsdale Road was not paved north of Camelback, and there was only one other house within a mile of Cosanti, it was beginning to feel too crowded for the Davis’s. They sold the place to the Soleris and moved to the mountains.
Lamont Langworthy, architect from Graton, California, remembers it this way:
“Paolo and Colly had settled on a large lot on Doubletree Road when D.K. Taylor, an aspiring architect and my mentor, told me that Paolo could use some help building (excavating really) a below-ground concrete house. I was immediately hired for $1.00 an hour and everybody was happy.
“Paolo would build a dirt mound on the ground, form some ribs in it, reinforce it minimally with some chicken wire, pour about 1.5 inches of concrete, then dig out underneath it, occasionally installing a column support or wall as we progressed. Every now and then he took off to sketch up drawings of a city on a dam or cities combined with bridges, all on long rolls of butcher paper. While he was doing that, I learned how to mix concrete in the Italian Method: just make a pile of materials and mix it with water. A little bit of dirt thrown in will provide the right color.
“Then, Paolo started making wind bells, having devised a method to support his giant ideas. Occasionally I would go out in the front yard and dig cone-shaped holes in the sandy soil, then fill each one with ceramic ‘slip’, let it set for a while, then suck out the slip when the walls got to be about ¼” thick. Then I’d set it on a shelf for further drying. Later Paolo would quickly carve his magic scribbles on the exterior of the rough cone. After installing a clapper and hanging wires, we would set it on his shady shelf structure to sell to curious passers-by. All bells for the first few years were ceramic but Paolo did improve his designs by making some molds. This was my great work after graduating from the University of Washington Architecture School.
“Cosanti back then was all by itself with desert all around. Paolo and Colly had bought it with a small house and gutted the living area for a large table where we had wonderful lunches by Colly, then a ½ hour siesta per Italian tradition. I learned from Paolo that creative thinkers have to actually do something in the real world. Later on, I would get my contractors license under the name of “The Master Builder, Inc,” as I had to become a builder since no one in his right mind would bid on some of my hillside houses.”
That was then. Today Cosanti, an Arizona Historic Site, is as vibrant as ever, the center of Soleri windbell operations, hosting daily tours and special events, and undergoing continuous preservation/renovation efforts supervised by longtime Cosanti resident and builder and executive VP Roger Tomalty. Roger and workshoppers have made great strides in solving issues of handicap visitor access, solar protection, and have recently completed the total renovation of Soleri’s first office and drafting space, adjacent to the original pink ranch house.
Come for a visit and experience it for yourself as this architectural treasure, a repository of concrete ideas about how to live in the Sonoran desert moves into the 21st century. And if you were part of building this midcentury-modern icon let us know how it was for you. You’ll make it even more meaningful for us.
I was a worker one summer in one of Soleri’s “Silt Pile” workshops. We built one of the domes that summer, piling and compacting the silt into a half dome shape, then carving the ribs for the reinforcing. When all was shaped we each were given a square to apply a paper design, nailed to the dirt with roofing nails. I wonder if the dome we worked on–where my design was–is still there. When all the designs were finished we applied the concrete that was reinforced with tiny pieces of wire. I really worked hard and it was very hot, but I loved it all. Learned how to do concrete work, as well as bell making, and was inspired by Paolo’s creativity and persistence. Never could a contractor talk down to me (as a woman) and tell me something was impossible to do–since I had already done it myself at Soleri’s. I have photos I took that summer.