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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?
A scaly silver beast emerging from a hillside, or a precise composition of abstract geometries? Bill & Melinda Gates Hall, the latest addition to Cornell’s Ithaca campus, can be seen as both, and it’s an ideal symbol for a university that has won acclaim for architectural and technological excellence. OMA’s Millstein Hall brought the architecture school into the 21st century, and Morphosis has now done the same for Computing and Information Science, an interdisciplinary department that was established 14 years ago. Bill Gates was greeted like a rock star when he opened the building his foundation helped to fund (donating $25 million of the $60 million construction cost). It’s a model of digital design and fabrication as well as sustainability, and is a precursor to the collaboration of the same architect and client on Cornell NYC Tech, the research campus that is slated to open on New York’s Roosevelt Island in 2017.
The faculty was eager to improve their working conditions. “We told the architects we needed light, light, light,” said Kavita Bala, associate professor of computer science. “I work in computer graphics, and it’s important to have bright, open spaces where ideas can flow.” Jeffrey Hancock, professor of communication and co-chair of information science asked for a “non-traditional design to inspire us. Curved lines intersecting with linear angles, lots of glass and light—not just in the common, collaborative areas, but in every office, lab, and teaching space.”
Transparency is the hallmark of the Morphosis design. A five-story block of laboratories and meeting spaces rises from a slope and is entered from an upper-level plaza beneath the cantilevered west end, or from below. Each glazed facade is shaded by sharply angled panels of perforated stainless steel. It’s a strategy the architects have employed on several recent buildings, but each iteration builds on what went before. An addition to New York’s Cooper Union is veiled in steel mesh. For the Hollywood satellite campus of Boston’s Emerson College, folded aluminum panels screen the inner faces of two residential towers, and different shapes were combined in a random pattern.
At Gates Hall, the concentration and configuration of the panels responds to the path of the sun. As on previous jobs, Morphosis worked closely with the A. Zahner Company of Kansas City, which custom designed the 450 panels in 90 subtly varied forms to simplify production and installation, and to achieve an elegant composition at minimal cost. The dramatic variation from one facade to the next animates the simple block, as does the cantilevered wedge that contains a third floor student lounge at the southwest corner. Zahner also fabricated the yellow ochre metal panels that line the soffit of the entry plaza. Tapered concrete columns help support the overhang and root the building to the ground, while faceted concrete benches extend the geometry into the landscaped perimeter.
Within, the themes of openness and transparency are further developed, so that the researchers and students who formerly toiled in dark, enclosed spaces are encouraged to look in on their colleagues and socialize in the many shared spaces. A lofty skylit atrium is wrapped in fritted glass to expose activity on four levels of the building. A lecture hall opens off the ground-floor entry hall, which is linked to the first floor by a two-story, south-facing space. Other large meeting areas are grouped around the atrium for ease of access. Fully glazed offices, small meeting rooms, and labs flank racetrack corridors on the three upper floors, and these incorporate break-out areas for chance encounters and impromptu meetings. A glazed attic story pulls additional natural light into the fourth-floor labs. Everyone on the south side enjoys the bonus of a grandstand view over Hoy Field, the campus baseball diamond.
Gates Hall should achieve a LEED Gold certification for its conservation of resources and energy. High-performance glass and efficient shading devices provide an abundance of glare-free natural light. There’s a chilled beam passive convection air-conditioning system that draws on the campus lake for cooling. It’s a bold step towards the zero-energy building planned for Roosevelt Island. Gates also demonstrates the steady evolution in Morphosis’ work as they’ve moved from an exaggerated emphasis on complexity and raw detailing to more sculptural and refined projects, with no loss of vigor and originality.
AN's Crits provide a chance for our contributors and some of our in-house staff to share their thoughts, and raise questions, about some of the most talked-about projects around the country. This year included in-depth looks at the 9/11 Memorial Museum, the Perez Art Museum, and MoMA's controversial planned expansion.
Herzog & de Meuron's design blurs the distinction between inside and out.
Inga Saffron laments the controversial plan by Diller Scofidio + Renfro to demolish the American Folk Art Museum building.
Alan G. Brake descends into Davis Brody Bond's somber museum.
Minneapolis' multimodal transit station and public plaza hopes to catalyze real estate development.
James McCown admires Tadao Ando's latest American cultural project.
Michael Webb goes to Oregon and gets deep into his cups.
Patrick Tighe Architecture and John V. Mutlow Architecture join forces to bring housing to the needy.
Alan G. Brake surveys the remnant landscape of the newest section of the High Line.
Alan G. Brake looks around Fumihiko Maki's New York City skyscraper.
Aaron Seward reviews Shigeru Ban's first major post-Pritzker commission.
In 2014, AN continued to report on efforts made by cities in the American West to create liveable communities with significant architectural buildings. Here's what West Editor Sam Lubell found to be top of 2014.
Sam Lubell sees metallic worms spilling out of Morphosis' new LA campus.
Advances in digital design made this decade-old design by Eric Owen Moss feasible for construction.
Los Angeles struggles to mold its emerging arts district.
Sam Lubell talks to DS+R's Kevin Rice about a plaza beside The Broad museum.
Gary Paige remembers the restlessly optimistic architect, artist, and teacher.
Sam Lubell on the importance of embracing cultural institutions in urban renewal projects.
Sam Lubell advocates for the merging of corporate and boutique architecture practices.
New director of AECOM's Los Angeles office suggests blurring the line between corporate and design firms.
New director, new directions at SCI-Arc.
The facade's stainless steel panels form a wave pattern, cutting down on glare and heat loads while representing the contribution computing has made to design.The recently completed Bill & Melinda Gates Hall at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, combines the schools’ Computing Science and Information Science departments under one roof. Designed by Morphosis, the facility encourages spontaneous interactions between these two disciplines with common spaces for comingling and transparent partitions that allow views, and daylight, to pass from space to space. The building envelope, a unitized glass curtain wall system, is wrapped in a band of perforated stainless steel panels that forms a dynamic, angular wave pattern across the surface. In addition to creating a sense of movement across the exterior, it serves as a fitting symbol of the contribution that computing has had on the arts and sciences: The architects used advanced digital modeling tools to design the geometry, pattern, and details of this additive layer, and made it to function both as an aesthetic gesture as well as a performance enhancing element of the architecture. “The goal was to establish a consistent level of daylighting throughout the interior,” said Cory Brugger, director of design technology at Morphosis. “We maximized the exterior glazing to get the light coming through. The design of the screen reduces the amount of glare and heat gain and starts to help with the performance of the facade system itself.” Located between Cornell’s historic Barton Hall and Hoy Field, Gates Hall fits 100,000 square feet of program in fives stories on a site roughly 150 feet long by 80 feet wide. “It’s a fairly squat building with a large foot print,” said Brugger. “So what we wanted to do was find a way to give some break on the facade.” The metal screen forms a band that covers the second through fourth floors. The first and fifth floors are fully glazed. At the main entrance on the building’s west side there is a large cantilever covering an entry court with some indigenous plantings and sculptural precast concrete “rocks.” Here, the facade becomes an integral part the overall massing of building, breaking down proportions of footprint and creating a sense of motion, giving the sense that structure is coiled to pounce across the road. Morphosis specified a YKK YUW 750XT 4 sided SSG unitized curtain wall system outfitted with a Viracon VNE 24-63 double glazed insulated glass unit. Ithaca does have a heavy winter, and heating days predominate over cooling days for the facility. To optimize the daylight/insulation ratio, the architects intermixed fully glazed panels with insulated spandrel panels. “There’s an alternation between full glazing and spandrel panels that helped us balance the environment and meet our efficiency target,” said Brugger. “It’s not fully glazed everywhere.” The curtain wall’s aluminum mullions are reinforced with steel, giving them the necessary stiffness to support the screen system. Morphosis designed the screen system in its own proprietary software program and used Rhino with Grasshopper to do the visualization. To coordinate fabrication of the panels with Zahner in Kansas City, the architects worked with CATIA and Digital Project. Zahner fabricated the screen panels out of 316 stainless steel. There are 457 panels total, in 13 different types, that bolt back to the vertical mullions at one of three elevations. The perforated panels have an angel hair finish. “It’s a non-directional finish takes away most of the gloss of stainless steel and gives it a little more depth in reflectivity, kind of a clean, matte finish,” said Brugger. “It still has a certain luster and gloss, but it cuts down on glare.” W&W Glass installed the facade, first putting up the YKK curtain wall and then erecting the screen system in a second pass. “We couldn’t unitize the two systems because they’re quite large and differently sized,” said Brugger. “Each stainless panel takes up two curtain wall modules.” The curtain wall modules are 5 feet 9 inches wide, whereas the stainless panels are 10 to 12 feet wide. The panels are set at different angles across the facade depending on solar orientation, with those on the south face at the most obtuse angle to create the deepest ledge for shading. This variation around the building envelope creates visual interest and expresses the computational nature of the design.
Monsters, madmen, and magicians play starring roles in Haunted Screens: German Cinema in the 1920s, an exhibition that runs through April 26 at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. It’s a worthy successor to LACMA’s many explorations of that fertile era of experimentation. German studios churned out plenty of fluffy entertainments for mass consumption, but they also produced (as Hollywood rarely did) works of art that made few concessions to popular taste. The production sketches, stills, and movie clips from 25 features included in this exhibition reveal the huge potential of film to probe human psychology and imagine worlds that never were. Architects will be drawn to the elaborate sets and city streets, and by the installation, which was designed by Michael Maltzan and Amy Murphy.
The show has a strong emphasis throughout on architecture and urbanism. LACMA curator Britt Salvesen divided the 250 exhibits into four thematic sections and deftly wove them into a visual narrative, elucidated by succinct text panels. Within each section, one can review set and costume designs alongside production stills for a few features, and then step into a darkened space to watch excerpts of those films, back-projected onto suspended screens. Happily there was a rich trove to draw on, principally from the collection of the Cinémathèque Française in Paris. Hollywood studios squandered their treasures, treating talent as hired hands, and junking their archives. Most of their publicity stills were portraits of popular stars; at UFA, the leading German studio, up to 800 photos documented every aspect of a major production. Lotte Eisner and other dedicated archivists rescued prints and drawings that survived wartime devastation and carried them off to the Cinémathèque. In doing so, they preserved a legacy of art and history.
Like the painters and sculptors whom the Nazis would soon condemn as decadent, filmmakers—including Fritz Lang, F.W. Murnau, Georg Pabst, and Robert Wiene—mirrored the turmoil and creativity of the Weimar Republic. The distorted houses, oppressive city streets, and sinister laboratories they constructed on stages and back lots mirrored a society struggling to break free of the past, even as its economy and government foundered. Whereas the best German architecture of the 1920s—from the Weissenhofsiedlung to luxury villas and workers’ housing estates—is cool and rational, filmmakers exposed the contradictions of the times and the dark underside of material progress. Their subjects ranged from grinding poverty in the slums to the polarization of wealth, futuristic fantasies and folklore, surveillance and the threat of new technologies. The demons that haunt these films would soon achieve power: critic Siegfried Kracauer entitled his history of film, From Caligari to Hitler.
To articulate this multi-layered story and heighten its impact, Maltzan and Murphy have constructed a trio of wave-like forms to enclose projection screens, which are set at angles to each other, so one can watch one or several clips simultaneously. In the troughs between, small drawings and production stills are displayed on the canted surfaces, shard-like columns, and a jagged, open-ended frame. Posters occupy the side walls of the gallery, and sound cones descend from the ceiling. The installation is easy to navigate, but it subtly conveys an air of menace, mystery, and insecurity. Within a confined gallery, one can examine the exhibits, absorb the febrile atmosphere of Weimar, and surrender to the timeless magic of the movies.
LACMA is an appropriate host. It frequently presents selections from its fine collection of German Expressionist art, and commissions leading architects (including Frank Gehry, Morphosis, and Frederick Fisher) to install exhibitions. And it is located in the city that lured the finest talents of Germany in the years between the two world wars. Writers, directors, producers, actors, and—most successfully—cinematographers and composers migrated to Hollywood, initially for the money, and later as refugees. They brought a new sophistication to an escapist industry, and they helped establish the genre of film noir. For a decade, LA became Weimar on the Pacific, and there’s a faint echo of that era in the more interesting independent movies of recent years. Haunted Screens takes us back to the source.