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Architect Paolo Soleri’s daughter Daniela recounts childhood abuse in open letter

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“To create a society where women are not abused, everyone needs to speak up”

View of Arcosanti.
Wolfgang Kaehler/LightRocket via Getty Images

Daniela Soleri is a researcher and lecturer in environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara who began her training in the arid desert of Arizona, her home state. In fact, she grew up in one of the most cutting-edge places in America, a purpose-built development whose dual missions of sustainability and community predated so much of the activism happening today. That “bio-paradise” was Arcosanti, a “futuristic desert utopia” founded by Daniela’s father, architect Paolo Soleri.

Since Paolo Soleri’s death in 2013 at age 93, his reputation as a counterculture visionary has only continued to grow—meanwhile, Arcosanti the place has experienced a renaissance of sorts, cementing its position in contemporary pop culture with the help of a music festival, fashion shoots, and Instagram. (I have certainly fallen under Arcosanti’s spell; I’ve name-checked it in an introduction to new Curbed and recommended it to friends as a wedding locale.)

In November, Daniela Soleri wrote an open letter published on Medium about the truth of Arcosanti—inextricably tied to Paolo Soleri as visionary—that is much darker. Titled “Sexual abuse: It’s you, him, and his work,” Soleri’s account is breathtaking not only for its thorough and very personal reckoning with the truth, but for its clear-eyed articulation of the reasons why assigning all intellectual power to a solitary genius is so harmful.

She writes, “in my early adolescence, my father, an architect and craftsman, began sexually molesting me, eventually attempting rape when I was 17.” She began having “a clumsily literal” recurring dream, what she deems a “child’s solution to the problem posed by a man who I, and everyone around me, saw as the center of the universe.”

Soleri has spoken about her experiences several times over the years, including in her resignation letter from the board of Soleri’s Cosanti Foundation, as she recounts in the Medium post:

I finally told some of Soleri’s inner circle about my experiences about 24 years ago, others learned of them six years ago when I tendered my letter of resignation from the board of Soleri’s Cosanti Foundation, with an explanation of why. In response to receiving my letter, one of my father’s long time colleagues and board member wrote “I am disappointed in everyone.” A strange reaction from a man I had known since I was seven. Two years later he presided at a memorial seminar eulogizing Soleri and his work. His message seemed to be that, yes, he’s disappointed that those things occurred, but he’s equally disappointed that they are being brought up, instead of silenced.

Architect Paolo Soleri posing for a photo on November 12, 1976 in Arcosanti, Arizona.
Photo by Santi Visalli/Getty Images

As an industry and a society, we are still plagued with the idea of the “hero architect”—take, for example, the enduring legacy of Frank Lloyd Wright (with whom Soleri apprenticed in the 1940s). Daniela Soleri explains this effect on her father:

For me this was the grand flaw that plagued Soleri, his work and his organization: his single-minded control enforced by the deference of all to him. Without true peers of age or accomplishment in his inner circle, deference was the default for those living and working with him. In interactions with others, he had no time to spend teasing out the difference between compromise and engagement and so, in the name of never compromising, came intellectual isolation.

And as society begins to reckon with more men revealed very publicly to be predators, the question becomes, How do we consider their work?

I have tested myself over the last years, looking hard at Soleri’s artistic and architectural work. Most does not seem to me to be compromised by his worst behaviors. I still like much, though not all, of what I see, it still rings true. But it is clearer now. Viewing it free from the rationalizations and workarounds, I can also see flaws, expressions of ignorance, arrogance, narcissism. Teasing out a response to a work and its maker is complicated, and personal. Time or distance can depersonalize or disconnect behaviors from works, but not always or for everyone. For me now, unless a work is an extension or expression of an individual’s antisocial behaviors, or enriches and affirms those, I need to assess that work separately from its maker.

Daniela Soleri’s account is worth reading in its entirety, and you can do so here.

We also reached out to Cosanti Foundation Board president, Jeff Stein, AIA, who provided the board’s official statement on the matter:

We are saddened by Daniela Soleri's trauma. Her decision to speak out about her father's behavior towards her helps us confront Paolo Soleri's flaws, and compels us to reconsider his legacy. With Paolo Soleri's creative intelligence, he understood the need for discipline and limits to the urban form. However, his narcissism prevented him from understanding the need for discipline and limits on abusive behavior. We support and stand firmly with Daniela.

We know that Arcosanti and Cosanti are much greater than the ideas of one man. Over the past fifty years, more than 8,000 participants from all over the world have contributed to Arcosanti and Cosanti through our workshops and programs. Our work in urban planning will continue. It was considered radical fifty years ago and has proven itself relevant today. Our goal is a built environment inspired by Soleri's architecture that fosters community, integrates the natural world, and nurtures the best of human nature.

As we have seen over and over again, sexual misconduct and abuse—whether at home, in a close-knit communal living experiment, or in the workplace—is structural. And it’s true of architecture, even though the industry hasn’t (yet) experienced its Weinstein moment. As Soleri puts it, “It is not only a person’s financial and political power that provides them with cover, there are also ways in which a person’s opus itself becomes a part of the pressure for silence when he behaves badly.”

Anyone with information about alleged misconduct in the architecture, design, and development industries can contact Curbed’s editor-in-chief, Kelsey Keith, at kelsey@curbed.com. We are accustomed to discussing sensitive information and stories over the phone, so feel free to send an email asking for a phone call. You can also send tips using the app Signal, which encrypts text messages and voice calls. Tip Curbed via Signal here: 267-714-4132.