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"Things need to look as if they are alive!"

STIR WORLD / JUNE 2023

Link to interview

Vladimir Belogolovsky talks to Michael Rotondi of RoTo Architects, who believes that an identity crisis in the formative years of his generation made architects inventive.

Vladimir Belogolovsky (VB): Your father was an Italian chef and your mother was a seamstress and a self-taught musician. You watched them do their work and, in both cases, as you observed, it was making something out of nothing. Where did your interest in architecture first come from? What sparked it?

Michael Rotondi (MR): I didn’t know the word architecture, but I knew drawing and construction, and I knew the word building, which for me meant creating something from nothing. When I was in middle school, my mother decided to tear down our house and build a small apartment building where five families could live and to some degree share their lives. Our lot was quite big. And I was there during the entire process, three years. Demo, planning, design, construction, and move-in. Ever since then, I look at an empty lot and I can imagine a new building with people living in it. Then, in high school, I discovered technical drawing and I still draw a lot. Drawing is a meditation. Ever since I was a child, my mother encouraged free-hand drawing, and when I had a pencil and paper in hand everyone left me alone. I learned how to use drawing to shift from a big noisy family into solitude. I also watched my mother, always drawing people, from a distance, their clothes, and then at home, patterns with all kinds of annotations on them prior to cutting fabric and sewing.  

Then in my high school technical drawing studio, I would draw machine parts in isometric and axonometric. To do it very precisely was overwhelmingly joyful for me. Also, when I was a child, my mother wanted to expand my experience and dexterity by giving me a toolset for Christmas. So, I would go around the house fixing things. I discovered so many ‘extra parts’ that weren’t needed. [Laughs.] Then one day the tools in the box were replaced with drawing tools, and I would spend hours on end drawing. So, I loved constructing forts and rolling vehicles out of lumber with my older brothers, in the backyard. I liked imagining things to be built. That’s where it all started.

VB: You were a student at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, then at Cal Poly Pomona, and in 1972, one year before graduating, along with some of your professors and 50 students, you left Cal Poly to found SCI-Arc. Could you touch on that?

MR: The dean at Cal Poly Pomona made sudden changes without our consultation and it was harming the school, we felt. So, we were getting together three nights a week at Ray Kappe’s house or office trying to figure out what was happening. At some point, we all came to a realisation that we should start our own school instead of trying to change the existing one. 

VB: What was the problem?

MR: Ray Kappe was let go as the leader of the school of architecture, Chair of the Department of Architecture. We were not happy about that decision because we liked what we were doing, and the energy and sense of adventure that pervaded the place, which became the model for us when we started SCI-Arc. The people I was hanging out with the most were young professors, just five to seven years older than I was. It was the time when environmentalism hit architecture, Stirling and Aalto came into our orbit and the discipline suddenly went beyond Corbu’s Five Points or Vitruvian Ten Books. This combined with, context, trying to figure out how to read the world around you—not just climate-wise, but particularly how to take on social problems. That was the time of social upheaval. We were all young and when you are young you are naturally attracted to change because that’s what’s happening inside you, hormonally, physically, and mentally. So, when the world around you does not change, and even tries to mold you into what’s expected of you, you resist. You want to express your resistance.     

VB: Could you touch on Thom Mayne’s role in your life? He was your studio professor at Cal Poly Pomona and SCI-Arc. Then after collaborating with Craig Hodgetts for a couple of years, you joined Morphosis and remained there for 16 years. How was that experience?

MR: We both had a passion for architecture and played together for a long time. We met at Cal Poly. He was a young studio professor at Cal Poly but at SCI-Arc the structure was a bit different, we worked independently, so I asked him to be my advisor. We talked a lot about architecture, literature, films, SCI-Arc, and a lot about alternative education, which was the basis of my thesis. Working with Thom was like two kids, an older and younger brother, playing ‘in the sandbox.’ I was calm and pensive and he was more active, expressive, and I learned a lot from our conversations, our sketching, and modeling, and by merely sitting and observing with curiosity and reflection. To this day, I see him as a teacher, a mentor, and a friend. For a while, at Morphosis, it was just two of us. When I left, we were two partners and we had about 30 people working for us.

VB: You left in 1991. Why?

MR: Two unexpected events triggered a life change. In 1989 I fell deeply in love. I ended my marriage of 20 years and we started a relationship. Around the same time, I met the Dalai Lama, and, as a result of that encounter and experiencing compassion and romance in a short time zone, my body just lit up. From that moment I didn’t know what and I didn’t know how but I had to change my life. Still, it took me a couple of years before, finally doing so. In retrospect, it was perfect timing for both of us. Thom and I had a very tearful conversation about it, as I was confused and I feared that it might end our friendship and I might even lose my identity. There were many questions. But deep inside I heard a voice saying, “Stop thinking. Go with your heart.”    

One of the first things I did after that was to rent an apartment at Manola Court designed by Schindler. It was a small apartment on a hillside of Silver Lake, with big windows oriented westerly towards the horizon, filled with light. I stayed there for a couple of years as I was going through this transition. That’s where, from every Friday night to Monday morning, I would stay inside, basking in the sunlight and then city lights. That’s when I started really appreciating Schindler and his mastery of space and light. He knew the principles and ethos of Modernism like Neutra.

VB: The woman you fell in love with is April Greiman, the designer, right?

MR: Yes. She is an exceptional, forward-thinking designer. We are married, happily. We have independent practices but we do collaborate on all of my architectural projects—environmental graphics, colour, materials, design, and converse on so much more. We worked closely together for 22 years, creating and managing a retreat in the California desert. We purchased a 1940s motel near Palm Springs and transformed it into a retreat and spa. It was called Miracle Manor. We sold it about five years ago. It was an experiment, a showcase for the four-dimensional design of space and landscape. The intention was to make a quiet place to give the mind a rest, and to reach a contemplative state while being immersed in the space, colour, and texture of the desert and the place. The design was intended to be transparent to the experience. You might have to look twice to see our subtle design interventions. There were no telephones, no television, and you couldn’t play music, but there was naturally hot mineral water that came from an underground aquifer, into the pools. You could soak in the waters while in the space and beauty of the desert. Altogether it was a total aesthetic, quite extraordinary. It attracted creative people from all over the world, who longed for silence and vast space, subtle texture and patterns, and the everchanging quality of light in the desert. They could download whatever distractions they were carrying inside and then recharge and reboot. Many of them became our friends; architects, came routinely to visit as well. Infrequently, for close friends, we would arrange weddings.

VB: When you describe your work, you use such words and phrases as change, flexibility, adaptability, metamorphosis, bringing a hidden order out of the ground, turning stories into buildings, architecture as a medium for teaching and learning, and how to bring light through cracks. How else would you describe your work and the kind of architecture that you try to achieve?

MR: Non-repetitive, experiential, both familiar and strange. Our teachers were modernists, operating with certain formal principles that could be interpreted but within limits. The world my generation grew up in was more complex and unexpected. Fortunately, the world of architecture—practice and education—had an identity crisis in our formative years. This was an opportunity to reimagine and reinvent. Also, some of us learned how to use our hands before we knew why, so we improvised by editing and combining what we saw and knew, guided by intentions, as we solved problems and worked to discover the architectural equivalent of thoughts. I and my LA friends did not really start from theory to get to form. Theory may have been embedded in us so it came out at the appropriate time as we improvised. I try to make architecture implosive as opposed to explosive. Component parts come together to shape light and space. Metaphorically I think of it as distilled, like fine wine, which, when you look at it in a bottle, has a simplicity to it. But as soon as it hits your palate a complexity of flavours unfolds. With architecture as my primary focus, I am still trying to figure out how to embody simplicity, the other side of complexity. 

VB: Somehow, when I look at your work the word distilled does not come to mind. How so? I do see complexity, which can be described as explosive. How do you see it?

MR: Perhaps we define the word differently and its associative formal properties, or you associate distilled with minimalism. My intentions are to bring components, parts, and elements together into an overall system. My work is formally and spatially hybrid. Sometimes I think of the word fusion—thinking of fusion cooking which arrived in LA with a certain chef, Ishi, in the late 1970s. LA has always been diverse socially, culturally, geographically, and architecturally. I grew up in a part of the city where 125 multiple languages were superimposed, like photons. People and their ideas were searching for common ground and it first manifest in the food and music. The environment looked messier and messier as I became more discerning. Eventually, we searched for an aesthetic that seemed to embody the conjunctive forces and forms we saw all around us. Instead of representing the collision of these forces, I imagined it was possible they could exist in all of their difference, in a state of equilibrium, as a unity of all of this diversity, coming together. A distillation of sorts. My work is about sorting out all the things that I have been living in. Distilled is an inspiration to me. Again, it is not about trying to develop an aesthetics that looks minimalist. I am not interested in minimalism. Things need to look as if they are alive! 

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