Originally Published: August 20, 2007 4:09 p.m.
In 1947, a taxi driver able to understand broken English helped bring two of the world's most famous architects together in the Scottsdale desert.
After crossing the Atlantic Ocean on a ship, spending 30 days on Ellis Island, flying across the United States to California and riding a bus to Phoenix, Paolo Soleri, creator of Arcosanti near Cordes Junction and Cosanti in Paradise Valley, almost missed his appointment with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesan West.
"When I bought my bus ticket at Santa Cruz, I told the cashier I wanted to go to Taliesan," Soleri said. "I didn't speak English very well back then and when I got off the bus, I was in Tolleson, not Taliesan. I finally found a taxi driver who understood what I was saying and drove me out there."
When Soleri arrived at Taliesan West he was 28 years old and just starting his career in architecture. Wright was 80 and starting what historians call one of the most productive periods of his architectural career.
In 1946, Soleri earned a doctorate in architecture from Italy's Politecnico di Torino.
"Everyone knew about Frank Lloyd Wright and his fellowship, so I wrote a long letter asking to join the fellowship," Soleri said. "Six months later I got a letter that simply said, 'Come.'"
Wright's third wife, Olgivanna, started the Frank Lloyd Wright Fellowship program in 1932. Students paid for the privilege of hands-on training from the master himself.
Students and staff spent winters at Taliesan West and summers at Taliesan East, located at Green Springs, Wis. Both Taliesans are called masterpieces by art and architect historians.
For 18 months, Soleri worked, lived, studied and socialized with the Wrights. He worked with a group of builders and landscapers, prepared food in the kitchen and served meals to the Wrights.
"I was like a sponge," Soleri says. "I soaked up everything I could while I was there."
Saturdays at Taliesan West included formal dinners and entertainment. Wright required men to wear ties.
"I didn't have any ties, and one day Wright took me to his room and pulled out three of the most awful ties I've ever seen," Soleri said. "I picked one out and he tied it on me. So I can say, 'I've been tied up by Frank Lloyd Wright.'"
During a recent tour of Taliesan West, Kim Morgan, visiting from Prescott, asked the tour guide if she had heard of Paolo Soleri.
"Oh yes, he was here in 1947 to 1948," said Romay Schuster, tour guide. "Mrs. Wright could be very difficult on the students, and if she didn't like you, you were gone. She thought Paolo Soleri was a bad influence and told Mr. Wright she wanted Soleri to leave."
As Soleri tells the story, his "bad influence" actually was his creative genius and ambition disrupting Wright's control on the fellowship students. Soleri wanted to travel to Italy and see if some of Wright's designs could sell in Europe.
"I got along fine with the Wrights, they liked me, and at first Wright thought it was a good idea to go to Italy," Soleri says. "But then one by one, other students said they wanted to go with me, and he realized he would lose a lot of his students.
"Everything was rosy until I wanted to go to Italy. Then it wasn't so rosy. So they kicked me out, or let's say invited me to leave."
Soleri left, but he did not go far.
He lived a Bohemian lifestyle camping in the desert nearby and designing buildings with architect Mark Mills. Together they designed and built a glass-domed home in Cave Creek. Its living quarters are predominantly underground.
Commissioned in 1949 by Mrs. Nora Woods, the Dome House is famous for its innovative design and its passive solar cooling and heating system. It is listed on the Arizona State Register of Historic Places.
While working on the Dome House, Paolo met and married the love of his life, Mrs. Woods' daughter, Colly. Arcosanti's Colly Soleri Music Theater is named for her.
Wright designed homes, a beer garden, a gas station, office buildings, art museums and the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo. Soleri designs entire urban and community environments.
Arcosanti combines architecture with ecology into what Soleri calls arcology.
Arcosanti and Taliesan West are located less than 80 miles from each other. Cosanti, Soleri's home and first experiment with earth houses and arcology, is less than 30 minutes from Taliesan West.
A tour of each structure reveals some striking similarities and differences between Wright and Soleri's architecture - both design and build structures to be in harmony with the surrounding landscape, and both use concrete and native stone in their construction.
Taliesan West is built at the base of the McDowell Mountains.
"You should never build on top of a hill or you lose the hill," Wright told Mike Wallace during a 1950's interview. "I want to create architecture that is a grace to the landscape, not a disgrace."
From a distance, Arcosanti appears to grow gracefully out of the side of a mesa overlooking the Agua Fria River.
Taliesan is Welsh for "shining brow." Cosanti is a conjunction of cosa - Italian for 'things' - and anti, meaning before or against.
Wright died in 1959. During his lifetime, critics called him flamboyant, arrogant and a charlatan. He wore ties and overcoats, a pork-pie hat and carried a walking cane. He was a media hit in a time before the expression was invented.
Soleri favors sandals, shorts and shuns attention. He is the recipient of national and international design awards and accolades. He does not speak of his honors.
Wright and Soleri created some of the world's best-known architecture graces. Three of them - Arcosanti, Cosanti and Taliesan West - offer tours that allow ordinary folks a glimpse into the minds of two extraordinary men.