Nearly a year after allegations of sexual abuse against Paolo Soleri became public, Scottsdale has failed to address what, if any, effect those allegations should have on the way the city has chosen to honor the famed architect’s legacy.
Daniela Soleri, Paolo Soleri’s daughter, published an essay on the website Medium on Nov. 13, 2017, entitled “Sexual abuse: It’s you, him, and his work” in which she alleged that her father sexually molested her when she was a child and attempted to rape her when she was 17.
The essay is a detailed and thoughtful examination on the relationship between an abusive artist’s work and the realities of their behavior – and how abuse perpetrated by powerful, talented men is often excused or ignored in order to avoid tainting their celebrated works.
“Part of the challenge for stopping harassment and abuse is sorting out our feelings about the works produced by alleged perpetrators vs. the men themselves,” Daniela Soleri wrote.
That challenge is a very real one for Scottsdale, a city that is home to multiple memorials to Paolo Soleri’s legacy – some funded by city taxpayers.
In correspondence with the Progress, Daniela Soleri, a university professor, declined comment due to scheduling issues.
“I think my essay itself speaks pretty clearly about my feelings regarding the issues you are covering,” she told the Progress.
Memorials to Paolo Soleri in Scottsdale include Via Soleri Drive, the street that bears his name south of Scottsdale Fashion Square and the Soleri Bridge he designed that crosses the canal near Scottsdale and Camelback roads.
The Soleri Bridge and Plaza host prominent Scottsdale events like Canal Convergence and Scottsdazzle.
The Soleri Bridge and Plaza were built with funds from the city’s Capital Improvement Project and Scottsdale Public Art, a division of Scottsdale Arts, a nonprofit partially funded by the city. Starwood Capital Group and Golub & Company, Ground Up Development Services and Salt River Project also provided funds.
The area is still maintained using public funds today. Scottsdale Arts is responsible for maintaining the artistic aspects of the Plaza, such as the Soleri bells. Multiple city departments are responsible for maintaining things like landscaping, irrigation and lighting, according to Public Works Executive Director Dan Worth.
The street dedication took place in 2004 and the Soleri Bridge and Plaza opened in 2011 – years before Daniela Soleri wrote her essay.
In the years since Paolo Soleri’s death, Scottsdale has failed to address many questions – and it’s not alone.
People still flock to the late Soleri’s Cosanti compound in Paradise Valley and pay $400 per ticket to attend the Arcosanti Festival at his experimental community north of Phoenix.
City faces numerous questions
Now that Daniela Soleri’s story is public, the city has yet to answer a fundamental question: Is it appropriate for the city to use public money to maintain the legacy of an alleged abuser?
Should the city rename the Plaza? Can it add an addendum to the plaque near the bridge acknowledging Soleri’s abuse?
The city has not addressed these questions publicly or internally, according to city staff.
Assistant City Manager Brent Stockwell said he was not aware of any conversations sparked by the essay and referred the Progress to a statement that Scottsdale Arts put out at the time the essay was published.
Around the time Daniela Soleri went public with the allegations, the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art was one month into showing the exhibition, “Repositioning Paolo Soleri: The City is Nature.”
Scottsdale Arts explained that the exhibition was the culmination of a 10-year engagement with Paolo’s work and the Cosanti Foundation and that the organization was “distressed” to read Daniela’s article.
“We are grateful for her honesty and commend her for raising important questions about the balance between society’s adulation of artists’ work, their personal accountability and the responsibility of those working with them,” SMoCA said.
The statement was made available at the exhibition as well.
Stockwell, the assistant city manager, echoed those words and indicated that this conversation is an important one to have.
Still, in the year since the essay was published, there is little evidence that this conversation has occurred in City Hall.
“To the best of my knowledge, this has not sparked any conversations,” Mayor Jim Lane said.
Lane continued, “These kinds of allegations need to be treated with respect for sure, but I don’t know that anyone has given any thought to take actions on.”
Several Scottsdale City Council members who spoke with the Progress were not even aware of Daniela Soleri’s essay.
Councilmember Suzanne Klapp said she had not heard about the allegations and commended Daniela Soleri for her courage to speak out.
“I find the revelations very saddening and her essay thought provoking,” Klapp said. “I hope her writing about her experiences can bring her some peace. As she points out, aspects of Soleri’s work are recognized and admired, yet that work can be very distinct from who he was as an individual.”
Klapp continued, “As a female, I am very sensitive to stories from women about sexual abuse. We are hearing more and more testimony from women detailing the abusive treatment from men in positions in power. I believe these allegations should be taken seriously and vetted appropriately.”
How should the city respond?
Scottsdale could look to other cities around the country, and the world, as it addresses Soleri’s legacy within the city.
In Eden, N.C., the city council voted on Nov. 20 to change the name of Kuder Street, named after a priest who was accused of sexually abusing boys while working at a local church in the 1930s and 1940s.
The City of Corona, California, in 2009 renamed Msgr. Thompson Circle following several credible accusations of child molestation levied against him, according to the Los Angeles Times.
Throughout England, hundreds of streets and other public spaces named after Jimmy Sevile were renamed after the former BBC star was exposed as a child abuser, according to The Telegraph.
In a BBC article, Jennifer Wild, consultant clinical psychologist at Kings College London, said removing these monuments can help victims.
Currently, there are no plans to rename or otherwise alter Soleri Plaza or Via Soleri Drive in Scottsdale.
“I am not aware of any effort or request to rename the street, bridge or plaza since the essay was published last year,” Stockwell, the assistant city manager, said.
Scottsdale Arts reconsiders
In the year since Daniela Soleri published her essay, Scottsdale Arts has reconsidered its relationship with Paolo Soleri’s work.
Since then, SMoCA has not hosted a Paolo-focused exhibition, nor does it have plans for another one, according to President/CEO Gerd Wuestemann of Scottsdale Arts.
In addition to managing the two museums and the Scottsdale Public Art Program, Scottsdale Arts is contracted by the city to administer certain city arts and cultural projects.
That said, Scottsdale Arts will continue to care for two major works by Paolo in their public art collection, the Soleri Bridge and Soleri Plaza, at the Scottsdale Waterfront.
“They are of great significance to the artistic history of Scottsdale,” Wuestemann said, adding that Scottsdale Arts will also continue to lead discussions about Paolo’s life and “personal failures.”
“We are focused on recognizing Soleri’s work and accomplishments, while providing information and context about his failures as a father and a human being,” Wuestemann said.
Scottsdale Arts is also considering suspending the sale of Soleri Bells in its museum stores. “As the sales support the Cosanti Foundation, not the Soleri family, we will start conversations about designating proceeds to victims of sexual abuse,” Wuestemann said.
“We wholeheartedly support making a concerted effort to raise awareness and to invest in prevention of and counseling for all victims of sexual abuse,” Wuestemann added. “Sadly, this is a scourge that still affects too many in our communities.”
City’s next steps uncertain
Where the city goes from here is an open question.
Officially, Stockwell said “the city does not have a position. Should the community or the City Council wish to discuss the issue, staff would appropriately facilitate those discussions.”
Lane said he was unsure about how a change would take place but said, “I suppose it needs to come from the accuser,” referring to requests to rename streets or plazas.
Daniela Soleri has not requested any changes to the street, bridge or plaza.
In her essay, she addresses the complicated relationship between an artist’s work and their abuse and said she can still appreciate some of her father’s work.
“Most does not seem to me to be compromised by his worst behaviors,” she said. "I still like much, though not all, of what I see, it still rings true.
“But it is clearer now. Viewing it free from rationalizations and workarounds, I can also see flaws, expressions of ignorance, arrogance, narcissism,” she added.
Councilmember Kathy Littlefield said that the “city should probably look at the issue, because the city should not be honoring somebody who is not honorable.”
Klapp said, “As for any potential change to the name of a street or bridge in our city that bears Soleri’s name, I would have to hear from people in the community before I could make any decision about removing his name from these locations. I cannot be the sole judge in this instance. That decision must be adjudicated in the court of public opinion.”
Daniela Soleri herself may provide the best roadmap forward via her essay.
In it, though not directly addressing the situation in Scottsdale, she repeatedly calls for open and honest discussions about abuse rather than the blind deference to powerful men and influential artists that can allow their harmful actions to go unchecked and contribute to a victim’s silence.
“Soleri has been dead for nearly five years,” she wrote. “The well of hagiographic films, essays and performances has slowed, hopefully making room for a more useful perspective that includes not only consideration of his work, but also honest acknowledgement that he was flawed.”
Later, she wrote, “Histories like these are a painful mess to sort out, but sunlight is a powerful healer.”