On November 3, Michael Rotondi, principal at Los Angeles–based RoTo Architecture, received Cal Poly Pomona’s Richard J. Neutra Medal for Professional Excellence. The award, which has gone to Raphael Soriano, Thom Mayne, Ray Kappe, Tadao Ando, Lawrence Halprin, Garrett Eckbo, and others, honors “individuals who have dedicated their careers toward researching and developing new environments in which to work, live, and play.”
Rotondi, a Cal Poly Pomona alum, has practiced for more than 30 years. He also founded the graduate program at SCI-Arc and became the school’s first director of graduate studies in 1980. He was the school’s director from 1987–1997. AN West Editor Sam Lubell sat down with Rotondi at his office in the LA Brewery to discuss the award and Rotondi’s approach to practice, teaching, and even Buddhist philosophy.
Sam Lubell: The Neutra Award is about practice and education. It seems you’re a perfect example of that balance. Can you talk about how you’ve managed to excel in both?
Michael Rotondi: In the beginning education and practice are not so different because you have so much energy, and you use it in two directions. Eventually you begin to realize that it’s one practice in two venues and you’re really working with the same ideas; you’re just using them in different ways.
You’re delivering architecture and you’re trying to trigger the imaginations of students and show them how to solve problems in a creative way. They both require that you’re very clear on what your worldview is, and you’re constantly working on your manual and intellectual skill sets. How do you convert all those ideas into architecture?
I want to know what students are interested in, and I want to help them convert that into a process that leads into architecture. Instead of saying “follow these techniques and stay on this course and you’ll end up with something.” When you work with software, it’s basically procedural. It’s not intuitive. So the work ultimately ends up coming out of the procedures, as opposed to the procedures being a means to an end.
People are afraid to make mistakes these days. In teaching, you’re giving students license to make mistakes. As you get older, people try to avoid making mistakes. That’s when they get more refined techniques and become experts. When you become experts you stop learning. The most inventive work comes from people who have a beginner’s mind. It’s like you’re seeing things for the first time and doing things for the first time.
So would you say there’s a backlash against the supremacy of software in architecture?
Yes. For instance you can’t rescript Revit. It’s not a creative tool. Revit is becoming like LEED. Everyone thinks you need it and you don’t. There’s certain software that’s good for architecture but not for architects. It hasn’t given us more insight. At SCI-Arc we are always trying to stay a step ahead of the machine. In my seminar last year I got students to work very intuitively and trust their instincts. I make up a story and out of that extrapolate certain principles. We work our way around to a series of concepts that we can use as a basis for quick modeling. So they take it back from the verbal to the visual.
My teaching is a way to get the students back in touch with who they were at a younger age. The objective is to get them to act as spontaneously as they did as a child, but with the intelligence of an adult. That’s a lethal combination. That’s how I work. I’m like a 10 year old. Pure program is the body moving through space. Is it possible to make a coherent program that sustains your interest for a long period of time through the experience of space? It’s about the body being able to sense lightness, weight, compression, expansion. How do you put together architecture the same way you put words together?
Would you say that education has moved too far into the hyper intellectual?
It definitely has. And what it’s doing is marginalizing architects. Critical practice has become about marginalizing ourselves. When we’re talking about narrative we’re talking about procedures. But it’s highly intellectualized.
It’s an incredible fear of difference. Tribal differences. I think you become more open minded when you start to shed yourself of fear. That’s been the path I’ve tried to stay on. I’ve wrestled with my fears and tried to push them aside. When you’re a child you’re very open. In a beginner’s mind you’re trying to provisionally remove expectations from the process and develop the innocence that you had as a child.
What are your goals in architecture?
I want to leave town like the Lone Ranger. Nobody knows who I am but the town is better off. Education at its best is drawing the best things out of people and then giving them structure. You can still satisfy the standards. It’s like doing a building. What’s the problem we’re trying to solve? Then how do we turn it into something meaningful? For me, meaning is bringing people together and bringing meaning to their relationships and keeping them together. Not just how the space is configured or shaped, but the character of it. It’s total aesthetic. Aesthetic become transparent and you don’t notice it.
How did Cal Poly Pomona help shape you?
I started at Cal Poly SLO, which was very institutional. I heard there was something going at Cal Poly Pomona. It began to bring out the stuff inside me that I didn’t know I had a capacity for. It helped bring out the creative side and focus it. That’s where I met Thom Mayne and Glen Small and others. The highlight was meeting Thom and working with Thom. It’s like a band of brothers.
Why did you stop working with Mayne and Morphosis?
In 1989 I met April (Greiman, his wife and noted graphic designer) and fell in love and changed my outlook. I realized I had to go on a path that was different from the path that we were on with Morphosis. It happened at the perfect time. It was difficult to give up that identity, but I needed to. I realized that if I was able to grab onto anything else I had to let go of what I had. We decided to dissolve the partnership, and look what he did. For me, seeing Eric Owen Moss bring SCI-Arc to the stratosphere and see Thom take Morphosis to where it is; just being part and laying down some DNA, it’s a gift.
No regrets about leaving?
I was there when I was needed. It was about me working with Thom at a time when he needed someone like me working with him. He took off. I helped set up the structure of SCI-Arc at a time it needed structure. It was waiting for Eric to take it to where it’s gone. For me the great fortune isn’t being given credit for things. The success of others, it could be Thom or Eric or my students. I’m somehow in the glow of that. That’s a gifted life. My objective is to try to put into the world my values and the things I believe in. I see things more clearly now than I ever have. My skill is more advanced than it’s ever been. I think I’m prepared to make an offering to the world.
How has SCI-Arc changed since you were director?
In my time it was intentionally unorganized. We wanted to be free. But eventually it needed structure to have freedom. It was a mess. Now I think we need to peel back on the structure. Over time institutions perpetuate themselves. Is it possible for
an institution to be on the edge and freewheeling and still have procedures to fall back on? The answer is yes.
What are the biggest challenges facing architectural practice and education today?
The biggest challenge is shifting from the age of economy into the age of humanity. The shift now in teaching is we’re in a period where there’s a generation that is more cooperative than any generation in the past and plays more games than any generation in the past. How do we leverage that? We’re still teaching in a system that’s outdated. It’s about testing and trying to bring people up to a level playing field. How do we integrate play into teaching? Humans have the longest period of prolonged play of any species. If any species does it, it has to be an evolutionary imperative. Play is where the imagination develops. Experience is what lets theory hit the streets. The biggest challenge we have is the reintegration of the head and the body.
In practice I think the two sizes of firms are going to be infrastructural and small. The small firm is where the experimental happens. I keep my firm at 15 people. We’re very nimble. That’ s my choice. I think 100-person offices are going to disappear. Firms will be from 400 and up or 30 and down.
How does Buddhism impact you and your architecture?
In practice I’m a Buddhist. It’s a more precise way to reach, define, and see wholeness through interdependence. Everything is connected to everything else. There’s a profound awareness of impermanence. Everything is always changing. In your mind you construct the world and objectify the world. You’re always thinking about the nature of reality and the nature of existence. You’re able to make connections between science and spirituality.
Meditation is a way to focus my mind and body and reach a very high state of concentration. To take all this thought that’s stratified and scattered and bring it to a point where it becomes white light and you can see things very clearly and very quickly. You comprehend more clearly what you can do.
What are your biggest frustrations about working in LA?
It’s always possible to disarm people not by making them afraid but by making them feel secure in your presence. You do that by being genuinely interested in who they are and what they know. You learn how to listen how to learn from somebody. In that listening your body senses that this person is interested in me. In LA that can’t be the case if there’s an endgame that’s predetermined and you enter the room wanting certain outcomes. So everybody is on guard here.
How have you changed with the profession?
Trying to be aware of everything that’s going on and not thinking you have to do everything. Just stay on the path you’re on. I’m not a Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah guy. It’s not my personality. In my early days I did a lot of Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah. Now it’s a quest. Is it possible to make buildings that you can only see once you’ve looked twice? Once you look twice they open up like a great wine. It’s very subtle. I asked myself, is it possible to look twice in order to see once?