Thursday, March 01, 2007

Surprise Visitor

[Update: please see comments for a response from Mr. Roth and a bit of an apology from me.]

I received a note in our mailbox from the lady that runs Arcosanti's guest services (in English, she's my boss when I give tours). Seems a "journalist" (to be fair, this was her term; the writer as far as can tell makes no such claim) came visiting last week and got a few wrong impressions of us. As you might expect, I have a few thoughts on the matter:

First of all, Mr. Roth was given some bad, or at least misleading information on his tour. There have been several new tour guides (including yours truly) and the training is somewhat lacking. Mostly you follow around a few tours and read some printed material, then someone is supposed to follow you around to make sure you don't give out bad or misleading information. In my case, I was doing tours before I followed any because the person I was going to follow couldn't do the tour at the last minute, and I have yet to have anyone follow me. What can I say other than "We're working on it."

Mr. Roth's first two sentences about Arcosanti are: "For Arcosantians, Paolo Soleri is the sun. As if to prove it, our guide pronounced his Christian name much like Apollo." Uh, that might be because that's how his name is pronounced. Talk about reading way too much into nothing.

Anyone who calls Paolo's home luxurious has obviously never been to Cosanti. Paolo lives in a small ranch house that was on the property when it was purchased in the 1950's. Emphasis on the "small".

Most residents don't even bother to attend School of Thought, not alone "flock to hear him [Paolo]." And the ones that do attend are far from slack-jawed worshippers at the feet of the Master. Paolo is frequently challenged, argued with, shouted down, and even booed on occasion. There may be uncritical worshippers of Paolo somewhere, but you won't find them here.

Mr. Roth says, "The name [Arcosanti] is said to mean 'against material things' -anti-cosi - thought quite obviously it was meant to suggest a sacred ark as well." It was meant to suggest no such thing. First, Cosanti is a word Paolo made up by combining anti (Latin for "against") and cosa (Italian for "things") and is meant to convey the idea of 'against material things'. Arcology is a work Paolo made up by combining "architecture" and "ecology" and is stands for a style of architecture that is designed to fit into the local ecology instead of in opposition to it. Arcosanti is the combination of "arcology" and "cosanti". Mr. Roth links to the Wikipedia entry on Consanti which clearly explains all this. No suggestion of a "sacred ark" other than in the author's own imagination.

No one pays Paolo to have him sketch them in the nude. If Mrs. Roth could have checked her "horror" long enough to read the leaflets that were sitting directly in front of her while she was leafing through the portfolio, she would have known that.

I could go on and on (no, we don't all huddle around a ringing phone breathlessly hoping it's Paolo; no, our TV wasn't stolen; yes, the five school-age kids here ride a bus seven whole miles to school just like millions of other kids) but that probably amounts to beating a dead horse.


Conrad H. Roth said...

Ric, your criticisms are fair, mostly. I confess that I have not been to Cosanti, for instance. I am well aware of the various etymologies given by Paolo for his creations, and I own more than one of his books. But nevertheless, if an Italian calls something 'Arcosanti', either he intends the overtone of 'sacred ark' or he is an idiot. Paolo is not an idiot, but he is evidently quite grandiose in the way he thinks--which, incidentally, is not something I scoff at.

If my wife was wrong about the payment situation for Arcosanti, then I apologise; that is the impression she got from whatever info was there.

I was told the TV was stolen, they hadn't had it back for several days, and were quite irritated about it. As for 'Apollo', that was a conceit--for heaven's sake don't take it so literally.

Anyway, I'm sorry if my account annoyed you. I tried to convey my mixture of baffled amusement and wonder at such a bizarre and radical undertaking, and if the piece came across as too dismissive then my ambition exceeded my reach. I find Arcosanti consistently remarkable and can readily understand the appeal of it. Soleri does come across as somewhat unhinged--especially in his most recent writings--but in truth I admire the communal aesthetic.

Ric said...

I was too quick and probably harsher than I intended to be. I was annoyed and that is not a state to be in while blogging, which I should know. I have also found out that you didn't just get some misleading information from your tour guide, but intentional misinformation, which you can hardly be blamed for. The TV theft is part of that: it was not stolen, it was moved from the music center to make room for a yoga group using it as a meditation space. While it was already relocated, there was some discussion of making the move permanent, but no theft and no irritation. And while we do sell garlic and other agriculture items in the gallery, it isn't a significant portion of our income, nor are we Arizona's second largest producer of organic garlic (or if we are, it is only because we are one of only two producers of organic garlic in Arizona).

I guess what set me off was your reference to Apollo. We are constantly accused of "worshipping Paolo" as some sort of secular god. For me personally, and for most of the residents I have gotten to know in my time here, it is the exact opposite. We are all too aware of Paolo's shortcomings and his knack for pissing off people the project could really use. It's one of the reasons that many of us don't attend School of Thought; it's just too painful watching him repeatedly alienate guests and residents who have quite legitimate questions about the project.

And it is bizarre, and radical, and highly experimental. It is also frustrating, appealing, irritating, wonderful, and pointless, depending on the day and even the hour that you happen to ask.

Anyway, thanks for the comment and clarification.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Thanks for this, Ric. I'm very grateful for your comments and corrections. The situation you describe here--of the disjunction between Soleri 'up there' and you guys 'down here'--is if anything more interesting than the one I imagined. I wish I'd known about this a week ago, and managed to speak to the residents in person. That, no doubt, would have made a much more worthwhile piece. Still, I'm content to leave it in the air as a tantalising suggestion.

I hope that, despite a false start, this little exchange has effected some fruitful erosion of the wall that stands between Arcosanti's residents and its visitors.

Lily Roth said...

Dear Ric,

I would like to mention the sketching people in the nude. My husband, Mr. Roth, writes in a light-hearted, humourous vein. I was not "horrified" by the sketches. I happen to be an art historian, so I'm pretty familiar with the female nude.

I was more AMUSED than anything. The pamphlet stated that women "between the ages of 21-40" could request a sitting with Paolo Soleri to be drawn in the nude. The things that amused me, in no particular order:
1. a man in his 80s, NOT an artist, gets young women to pose nude for him just 'cause he's "Paolo Soleri".
2. his sketchings are utterly mediocre, the only distinguishing characteristic is the frequently bizarre and unnatural poses he has them in...standing up, knees bent outward to expose one's genitals is not really a very natural pose.
3. the sitters don't pay him, but they get ONE copy of the sketch "free" and he sells the rest...
3. Frankly, my first thought was amusement and respect for an old geezer who had such a great scam going. Actually, Conrad reproved me repeatedly for using the word "scam". As he fairly pointed out, these women knew what they were getting and were, apparently, pleased with it. Hence, no scamming involved.

I'm sorry that my amusement ruffled so many feathers...c' is a little funny, no?

For what it's worth, I admire the goals of Arcosanti...I can well believe that the execution is very difficult. Also, please don't take offense at Mr. Roth's remarks on Paolo-worship...actually, we've toured Taliesin West and your guides are FAR less worshipful than the guides are there of the late, great, Mr. Wright. It was meant to entertain, not offend.

All the best,
Lily Roth

Ric said...


I'd love the chance to talk "off the record" with Arcosanti visitors. Being a tour guide has it frustrations; primarily always steering away from problem areas. I've never lied in response to a direct question, and I'm sure I've wandered into forbidden territory from time to time. But as a tour guide, I am an employee of the foundation given the task of presenting Arcosanti and Paolo in a positive light. Obviously, one of the residents' favorite hobbies is griping about this place, but it would be nice to bounce things off an outsider that has been here a couple times and is at least passingly familiar with Paolo and Arcosanti.


Your comment is in line with the opinion of most of the residents, including, for the most part, mine. The only difference on my part would be that, as someone who has never had an art class, I tend to judge how good something is by the "could I do any better" criteria. If you consider Paolo's sketches to be mediocre, anything I would attempt would likely fall into the "so hideous is ought to be burned before any more poor slobs are subjected to it" catagory. So on that criteria, I consider his stuff pretty good. But I'm really not the one to ask.

But we do get people who are truely horrified in the "Oh my God, naked sketches right out here in the open instead of locked away in the adults-only section and oh my God look how many of them; they just go on and on for pages and pages and would look at this one and this one and this one!!" sense. And surprisingly, it usually isn't our older guests. So when Conrad said you were horrified, I never gave it a second thought. Taken in the correct context (as in the reader knowing you and that you are an art historian and as such unlikely to be horrified by respresentations of nude women), I can see how it would be funny.

Conrad H. Roth said...

I should add that Lily, like yourself, admitted that Soleri's sketches were 100% better than anything she could do. I've never seen any attempts at my wife's drawing, which she assures me is a good thing!