Aug. 22, 2017
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07.21.10 Paolo Soleri cover

Redemption Song

For the Santa Fe Indian School, Paolo Soleri’s demise is a beginning, not an end

July 21, 2010, 12:00 am
Santa Fe architect Conrad Skinner was 19 years old when he heard Paolo Soleri, the Italian-born architect, speak at an exhibit in Washington, DC. “He hit the world of architecture like a tsunami, this little guy,” Skinner says with a laugh.

Soleri advocated the fusion of architecture with ecological concepts. “Arcology,” as it was called, was also about ending the isolation of people from one another and their communities.

Some 15 years later, when Skinner moved to Santa Fe, he was captivated by the Paolo Soleri Amphitheater, which the Institute of American Indian Arts had commissioned Soleri to design. (The amphitheater was built during a time when the Bureau of Indian Affairs relocated Indian School students to Albuquerque, and the Institute of American Indian Arts took over the Santa Fe campus.)

“There are the expressive elements of the architecture and the earth forms—and the way the canyons come in from the back—and it becomes kind of a cave,” Skinner says. “It’s not just organic in its shape, but it’s organic in its closeness to the geological forms.”

It’s not only rare—Soleri took few commissions—but is also an example of “cultural bridge building,” Skinner says. After all, it represents the work and backing of Natives and non-Natives alike, including the wife of late former Department of the Interior Secretary Stewart Udall, Erma Lee.

In short, the Paolo deserves to survive, and Skinner, like many others, is increasingly frustrated that the city’s elected officials haven’t done enough to save it.

“I feel as though Santa Fe politicians and a lot of people here are always ready to get up in arms about threats to the Santa Fe style but, when it comes to sticking their necks out about this architectural treasure that we have—because it doesn’t conform to the Chamber of Commerce’s view of the architecture that is promoted as a part of Santa Fe—these people chicken out,” he says. “They’re always ready to sound off about the near-sacred status of Santa Fe style. But when it comes to this somewhat eccentric treasure we have in Santa Fe, their tongues are tied.”

SFIS officials say they have not set a date for demolition—nor are they closing the door on preserving the Paolo.

“Sure, if someone came to us and said, ‘We’ll donate X amount of dollars to keep it open,’ that would be great,” the council’s communications consultant Edward Calabaza says. “Nobody, of course, has come forward, but we are open to those suggestions, and if somebody—a mysterious donor or a philanthropist—came forward, sure, we’re open to that.”

Superintendent Everett Chavez notes that the Indian School itself only uses the Paolo for graduations.
Credits: Ana Goñi-Lessan

SFIS officials also released a public statement this week in response to US Sens. Tom Udall and Jeff Bingaman that conveyed willingness to meet with the senators to discuss options for saving the amphitheater.

Be that as it may, frustration also is palpable when it comes to SFIS officials.

In a letter to SFR, Talia Kosh, the founder and president of New Mexico Lawyers for the Arts, writes that the amphitheater is sacred to both Natives and non-Natives.

“That is not something that should be demolished because groups acting as a business are going to make room for a parking lot or another office building or some money-making structure,” she writes. “The Paolo is a tribute to this concept and SFIS is tearing it down—as a corporation.”

Demolition for Paolo isn’t a done deal. It may not happen at all. But fear that the ampitheater might just disappear has been palpable throughout the controversy. That’s in large part because the Paolo Soleri situation isn’t the first time the All Indian Pueblo Council has alienated its Santa Fe neighbors and drawn fire from the preservation community.

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