by MICHAEL PERKINS
IN 1956, ARCHITECT PAOLO SOLERI BEGAN THE FIRST MINIATURE DEMONSTRATION OF WHAT WOULD BECOME HIS LIFE’S WORK, an experimental, self-contained, sustainable community he called Cosanti. Erecting a humble home just miles from his teacher Frank Lloyd Wright’s compound at Taliesin West, in what was then the wide-open desert town of Paradise Valley, Arizona, he started sand-casting enormous concrete domes to serve as the initial building blocks of a new kind of ecological architecture. And, over the next half-century, even as Soleri would call Paradise Valley his home, he would construct bigger versions of his dream city, now renamed Arcosanti, on a vast patch of desert between Phoenix and Flagstaff.
The project, which at his death in 2013 was still unrealized, was funded over the years by the sales of Soleri’s custom fired bronze and clay wind bells, which became prized by Arizona visitors from all over the world. At present, his early dwellings still stand, as do the twisting, psychedelic paths and concrete arches that house his smelting forges, his kilns, the Cosanti visitor center, and a strange spirit of both wonder and dashed dreams. It is a magnificent ruin, a mad and irresistible mixture of textures for photographers.
Name the kind of light…….brilliant sun, partial shade, catacomb-like shadows, and you’ve got it. Name the material, from wood to stone to concrete to stained glass, and it’s there. The terrain of the place, even though it’s now surrounded by multi-million dollar mansions, still bears the lunar look of a far-flung outpost. It’s Frank Lloyd Wright in The Shire. It’s Fred Flintstone meets Dune. It continues to be a bell factory, and a working architectural foundation. And it’s one of my favorite playgrounds for testing lenses, flexing my muscles, trying stuff. It always acts as a reboot on my frozen brain muscles, a place to un-stall myself.
Here’s to mad dreamers, and the contagion of their dreams.
By MICHAEL PERKINS
SOME SUBJECTS SEEM AS IF THEY ARE GOING TO FOLLOW A SURE PATH, then dog-leg on you in the doing. Last week I was fascinated to attend a celebration of the summer solstice in a building designed to highlight the drama of its unique light. Phoenix’ Burton Barr Library reading room, an enormous space bordered by shaded glass on its north and south faces and slab concrete for its west and east walls, has, since its opening, hosted an annual midday demonstration by its architect, Will Bruder centered on the longest day of the year. First, a capacity crowd watches intense light crawl dramatically down the library’s west wall, seeming to sweep shadows downward like a rapidly descending curtain until the entire west surface fairly glows with light. For a few minutes, under this enhanced illumination,what normally appears as a seamless monolith of concrete shimmers with a million tiny fractures, creases, and flaws, rendering the usually dull surface alive with small but perceptible dances of color.
Immediately following this subtle but sweet show, as the sun travels to the west over the top of the library, the same display begins in reverse on the east wall, as shadows begin to crawl up from the floor and eventually confine sunlight on the concrete surface to a narrow slit at its top. The same intense reveal on every facet of the slab’s surface is seen again, and, along the ceiling, the library’s carefully designed support pillars, all positioned under individual circular skylights in the reading room’s roof, begin to resemble glowing candles. The entire phenomenon, subtle and quiet, yet beautiful in aspect, is all completed within a half hour.
In that half hour, my original shooting strategy, an overall wide shot to show the amazed onlookers inside the vast room, craning their necks to observe the miracle between rows of book shelves, moved from “sure thing” to “what was I thinking”? As it turned out “the story” was too big to be trusted to a big picture (!), and I came to realize that the heart of the light effect might best be told, for me, in one part of one wall. All the other props inside the structure provided so much visual information that nothing true was going to emerge in any attempt at an overall “coverage” image. I decided to show the shadowy tendrils trailing from a single part of the ceiling structure, but to shoot a three-shot bracket of exposures, all at ISO 100, to be combined later in High Dynamic Range software, to glean as much information (and the widest range of tone) on the texture revealed by the travel of the light across the wall.
The result was a shot that eliminated the rest of the overall solstice story as I tried instead to show object, shadow and detail combining as elements in one integrated design. It’s up to anyone as to whether I made the correct decision, but it’s safe to say that it was correct for me at the time. Sometimes a thing is interesting to look at by itself, for itself, without context or alibi. Of course I realize that I have provided both those things by writing this, but this forum is dedicated to the urge that makes us all throw something at the wall (excuse the expression) to see if anything sticks, so maybe it’s not wrong to give this a bit of backstory. Eventually, however, it’s either a picture or it’s not.
- Spiritual Significance of the Summer Solstice (aquariuschannelings.com)