Wednesday, August 02, 2006


“In order to come out with a species, it takes an enormous amount of work, let’s call it, with lots of waste, and lots of abortions, and so on. But once an organism is defined, then that living organism, every living organism, is a model of frugality, of leanness.”
—Paolo Soleri, “Beginning, Ends, and Means,” The Urban Ideal, p. 42

I am really enjoying The Urban Ideal. It is a challenging look at the concept of miniaturization in architecture: the idea that structures can serve multiple, overlapping purposes, and that what would cover a large area of land or space in a traditional city could be “compressed” in the cities proposed by Soleri. It is also a look at how we influence our environment and vice versa. I like the influence that the paleontologist and Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin has upon Soleri, even if Soleri has taken Teilhard de Chardin’s Omega Point concept and divorced it of any of the spiritual impact that was intended for it. At times, there is also a tension between Soleri’s concepts and those borrowed from Teilhard de Chardin, which I find rather refreshing. Soleri allows his work and thoughts to evolve, to move, to be messy and dynamic rather than static, to be dialogic. Such is the case when you compare Soleri’s model of frugality above with Teilhard de Chardin’s look at modern humanity.

“Nowadays, over and above the bread which to simple Neolithic man symbolized food, each man demands his daily ration of iron, copper and cotton, of electricity, oil and radium, of discoveries, of the cinema and of international news. It is no longer a simple filed, however big, but the whole earth which is required to nourish each one of us.”
—Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, “The Collective Issue,” The Phenomenon of Man, pp. 245-246

Perhaps, the case could be made that Homo sapiens, as an organism, is not yet well defined. That would help reduce the tension between the two passages. But, I am not quick to reduce any tension that might exist. I think it is the place that really helps to jumpstart my own thought processes and get me thinking in a more open-minded and holistic fashion.

Furthermore, upon reading and reflecting upon both of these pieces, I am reminded of Annie Dillard’s wonderful prose on fecundity:

“I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives, Henle’s loops and all. Every glistening egg is a memento mori.
—Annie Dillard, “Fecundity,” Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, p. 160

Next, the piece that really holds all three authors together in conversation for me is Annie Dillard’s book For the Time Being. In each of its seven chapters (a holy number), she ruminates upon ten impressions, always in the same order: (1) birth, (2) sand, (3) China, (4) clouds, (5) numbers, (6) Israel, (7) encounters, (8) thinker, (9) evil, and (10) now. One of the key figures that holds it all together is Pierre Teilhard de Chardin. Dillard examines his paleontological work in China in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as his religious and spiritual struggles. In addition, she reflects upon the concepts of frugality and fecundity as they play in our lives as temporal and spatial beings.

In other words, the reading of The Urban Ideal is going rather slowly for me because I keep being compelled into the pages other books. I am inviting good friends into my library to converse with one another and me about life—mine, yours, theirs, ours. And, that is quite all right with me. I think it makes for the most rewarding read.

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