EROS AND ARCOLOGY

By Doctress Neutopia, aka Libby Hubbard, Ed.D.

December 15, 2003


 

Do you remember in the 1970’s when it was reported that an architect, Paolo Soleri, was in the desert building a grand new idea of a city, an arcology-- the fusion of architecture and ecology--with hundreds of other folks? Well, after three decades whatever happened to it? Certainly urban sprawl is still a terrible problem in Arizona and there seems nothing can stop developers from destroying the desert with single-family housing. Perhaps the mystery as to why his city wasn’t able to be an alternative to sprawl lies in a recent exhibit of his artwork at the Vanier Gallery in Scottsdale, Arizona.

I wouldn’t have made a special trip to the exhibit opening had it not have been for a meaningful coincidence. Accompanying my partner, artist Wayne Sumstine, to Phoenix to deliver his artworks to the Sonya Smith gallery, we found a parking place in front of the Vanier Gallery. I noticed a poster in their window advertising the opening of the exhibit that would be taking place that evening. It was the title of the show, “Cosmos, Eros, and Arcology,” that caught my eye because Soleri had terminated my job at Arcosanti two years earlier when he had read and disapproved of my paper on eros and arcology.

Attending the opening reception, I wasn’t too surprised with what I saw. Much of the artwork consisted of typical images of nude women that one would see in any academic art school. It seemed as though Soleri, who had made an international reputation for being an evolutionary architect views women in the old sexist way. He writes of the “gentle gender” in his What If? Quaderno 7,” “Women are adorable, pheromonal predators: a cross between angels and praying mantids (two insects [three pairs of limbs], one virtual, the other real.).” (Soleri, 27)

The nude as a form of art has a long tradition in Western Civilization, from oil paintings down to high-tech advertising. The nude is an object of male desire, food for his lustful ego. Traditional art conventionalized the nude in certain poses and facial expressions that even young girls learn to exhibit to males in order to be seen as “sexy.” John Berger in his book Ways of Seeing writes, “To be nude is to be seen naked by others and yet not recognized for oneself. A naked body has to be seen as an object in order to become a nude. (The sight of it as an object stimulates the use of it as an object.) Nakedness reveals itself. Nudity is placed on display.” (Berger, 54) Nakedness is “to be without clothes whereas nude is a form of art.” (53)

In traditional European nude oil paintings the principal protagonist, the spectator, or owner of the painting is in front of it. The spectator is presumed to be male, a stranger with his clothes still on. He is the reason why the figure has taken off her clothes. Everything is addressed to him, to flatter him. Berger continues, “This picture is made to appeal to his sexuality. It has nothing to do with her own sexuality.” (55) The painting represents her “submission to the owners’ feelings or demands,” (52) not to have any of her own. In post-Renaissance art most all nudes were frontals because the spectator-owner—the sexual protagonist or in Soleri’s own words “narcissus-oriented predator”(Soleri 15)—is looking at it.

Soleri’s nudes [in the art show and in What If? Quaderno 7 ] are frontal and rear-end poses, in common terms, “tits and ass.” As Soleri states, “Male mammals are in single-minded pursuit of the female’s groin apparatus; but in the human male, this pursuit also includes the breasts.” (13) In most of his drawings the figures are looking down or have their eyes closed, in submissive poses. In several of the drawings, the woman’s hair covers up her face giving sole attraction to her sexual body parts.

His reclining nudes couldn’t be more passive. In several images the bodies are twisted so that both the breasts and buttocks are frontal. Hands of the figures are not seen as if they are handcuffed either in front or in back on their torsos. In the figure “Kathleen,” she is in a fetal position lying on a bed. From this drawing, it appears that sexual parts of the female body are more important to him than the psychological and holistic make-up of the woman. He writes, “The male goes around with a clone kind of mind. The surrounding near and far is a reflection of his presence. The female tends to fix her gaze and designs her body to better play the game of life giver.” (15)

Soleri’s view of women apparently hasn’t changed much in 60 or so years as exemplified in “Study,” a beheaded female frontal torso drawn while he was a student at Liceo Artistico in Turin, Italy in 1935. He now writes, “In the Evolutionary Coherence Bubble, which I define as the inscripted documentation that appears with the advent of bisexuality, there has been a slow but determined movement in the direction of subordination of female to male. This is due to the physiological fact that the female is a gestator and nurturer of offspring. The female, therefore, has lost some of her abstractional power, which vie the male, easily spills into brute power. The male has more idle time to play, abstractions included.” (27) He continues, “The lover cares for what and personae are. The abstractionist (theorist) cares for what things and personae could be. The female tends to be loving; the male, theorizing. This is not dualism, but a complementarity and is the stuff of life.” (15)

One would hope that, at least in intellectual circles we would be progressing beyond early 20th Century male thinking stereotyping 21st Century women as baby-makers, and nurturers who only care for what is, not what could or ought to be. For Soleri, it seems that all a woman needs to have are breasts and a fertile womb, but certainly not the conceptional power to think her way out of urban sprawl! Berger writes about the contradiction that has caused this division in knowledge. He writes, “The contradiction can be stated simply. On the one hand the individualism of the artist, the thinker, the patron, the owner; on the other hand, the person who is the object of their activities—the woman—treated as a thing or an abstraction.” (Berger 62)

Soleri hasn’t attempted to keep abreast (no pun intended) with feminist theory or he would not perpetuate such belligerent sexist lies couched in esoteric language. Anecdotally, one of his male staff members reported to me that Soleri would brag to him competitively about how he got to see some of his “workshoppers” in the nude and he didn’t.

Workshoppers pay to come to his “urban laboratory,” Arcosanti, where they spend five weeks working to build his model community. Women workshoppers become welders, carpenters, chefs, managers, construction workers, maintenance workers, farmers, landscapers, web and graphic designers, architects, planners, electricians, plumbers, accountants, archivists, store keepers, as well as working in traditional female roles such as child care workers, secretaries, and housekeepers. They pay him for the privilege of working on the project of a world-renown architectural “genius.”

Obviously there are power imbalances between him and them since he is their employer and also their mentor, but some of these strong, brave, assertive, activist women who come to Arcosanti to build a new world find themselves as passive cows in front of his artistic stare. I think of the nude, “Kathleen” who could be his literary editor, a woman of poise and refinement succumbing to a fetal position as if she were a sex slave ready to be whipped. Why would an intelligent woman degrade herself posing as an idle abstraction for his sexual fantasy?

Berger answers the question; “In the art-form of the European nude the painters and spectator-owners were usually men and the personas treated as objects, usually women. This unequal relationship is so deeply embedded in our culture that it still structures the consciousness of many women. They do to themselves what men do to them. They survey, like men, their own femininity.” (63)

At Arcosanti, being an object of Soleri’s power and ideal is the norm. Soleri writes, “The male makes babies out of ideas and abstractions.” ( Soleri, 14) But for him, women’s role as life giver is not to make babies out of ideas and abstractions. They are the abstractions. To be an artist with the ability and vision to design and manage the building of an arcology is unthinkable, impossible for a woman--for an abstraction. To move beyond the cultural servitude of an impotent woman is unacceptable and inappropriate behavior, and leads to one’s termination.

Berger points out that there have been exceptional art works that represent something other than women as sexual object. In works of art from non-European traditions such as Indian, Persian, Pre-Columbian and African art, sexual attraction is often portrayed as active between two people. The couples are absorbed with each other; the woman is just as alive as the man. Berger states that in the European tradition there have been paintings—rare as they are-- in which the artist is in love with the woman. He writes, “the painters’ personal vision of the particular woman he is painting is so strong that it makes no allowance for the spectator. The painter’s vision binds the woman to him so that they become as couples in stone. The spectator can witness their relationship—but he can do no more: he is forced to recognize himself as the outsider he is. He cannot deceive himself into believing that she is naked for him.” (Berger, 58)

Soleri’s perspective of women doesn’t qualify as eros. Clearly, his nude portraits lack the depth of soul and depth of feelings required to depict unique characters with own sense of self. This goes to the root of the problem at Arcosanti. Without perceiving the source of creative life that women have within themselves and being able to foster an environment which allows their creativity to proceed on equal footing, the arcology project under his leadership is a doomed relict. It is arrogant and nonsensical to build a new world without the vibrant theories and intellectual stimulation of cocreative ecofeminists.

In a critique of the show published in the Arizona Republic, Soleri is quoted saying,
"I'm happy (about the show) because we need the money. We are very, very poor. I didn't want to break the archives, so I am selling the only things I think can be sold." And what can be sold? His demeaning cattle-prodded nudes. Ironically, the women who posed for them probably were not paid. Even more ironically, Soleri talks about his poverty in terms of money, when it is obvious that his poverty stems from the way he perceives women. Had they been working beside him as equals in democratic decision-making roles, we may have seen a prototype arcology evolve, a model so excited with the erotic power of love and partnership that the masses might have demanded the new world include them.


BIBLIOGRAPHY

Berger, John. Ways of Seeing. London: Penguin Books, 1972.

Soleri, Paolo. What If? Quaderno 7 Eros Nudes. Phoenix: Cosanti Press, 2003.

Tropiano, Dolores. “Soleri legacy being shaped.” Arizona Republic, November 2003

 


 
 

 

 
 
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