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"I think of my work as imploding rather than exploding."

ARCH DAILY / JULY 2023

Link to interview

In the following interview with Michael Rotondi, we discussed some of the seminal architects in Los Angeles, building a house for his son without construction drawings, music that corresponds to his ideas in architecture, searching for his own voice and skill sets, what he learned from Frank Gehry, and being more interested in implosion rather than explosion. He asked rhetorically, "What if architecture could move fast in slow motion?"

Vladimir Belogolovsky: I wonder what you think about Los Angeles and some of the seminal architects who defined it.

Michael Rotondi: Frank Lloyd Wright, of course, set up the ground for modern architecture to happen here in LA. He had an immense ego, sometimes to a fault, but still, he became a great attractor. Rudolph Schindler came to LA to work with him and then Richard Neutra followed. Both were very instrumental in doing Architecture that was simultaneously universal in principle yet uniquely Los Angeles...then John Lautner...then the next generation: Harwell Hamilton Harris, Raphael Soriano, Gregory Ain (who hybridized Schindler and Neutra), and Ray Kappe. But then it went dormant for a while due to capital markets in real estate taking hold. But it was always a city where people who wanted to invent a life came and exercised their imagination. There is a certain freedom here and you could be whoever you wanted to be and express yourself accordingly.

VB: I am curious about your CDLT House, which you designed and built for your son. It was built without any construction drawings. How so?

MR: I set out to do this project right after I came back from a pilgrimage to see the work of Carlo Scarpa. One of the things I took from him is that he was able to work on such projects as Museo di Castelvecchio in Verona or The Banca Popolare di Verona for 5-7 years each. And you can see in various parts of these projects what he might have been thinking or feeling, whether he was in a good mood or not. Each idea would provoke the next. His architectural intelligence was the filter for improving at full size, in real time. That's what I wanted to do, as well.

So, after that trip I demolished the back of my own house - a neutral stucco box built in 1950 with a large flat rear yard bounded by an uphill slope. I said, "I am going to work on this remodel for five years. I am not going to make any study models and no construction documents. I am just going to work from sketch to construction at full scale." It became a sort of daily journal. I worked in an improvisational manner, testing ideas by immediately building them to close the gap between the moment of conception and the moment of occupation. Each component became the impetus for the next, after evaluating the consequences of the previous decision. Ideas and construction were united. Additionally, even if I did not like the way something came out, I would not be able to redo it. All mistakes had to stay. I had to work on these mistakes until they looked intentional.

Three years into construction, Thom asked me to see what I was doing there. When he came, he had a big smile. He loved it. The parts he gravitated most to were what I considered my biggest mistakes. Now they've become 'intentional details.' [Laughs.] He would point to this or that and say, "Wow, how did you think of that?!" And I would tell him the truth, confessing, "I fucked up." [Laughs.] So, it became an exercise in which I collapsed the time from conception to construction, from sketch to the built form. I should add that I happened to know the local building inspector since we were kids, playing on the HS football team. That's how I was able to get the building permit. My son still lives there.

 

VB: Any insights on how your details were invented in this unique design/construction process?

 

MR: I decided to use only timber, steel, and concrete. Each material was used to take advantage of its unique properties and qualities - wood is for spanning and warmth, steel is for connections and to assert technology, and concrete is to express weight and the notion of plasticity. The idea to use different textures in the concrete surface, came from my experience flying across the US - when you see intricate land patterns. I would just stare out of my window at a cruising altitude of 35,000 feet. And I began to wonder if I could produce a similar pattern to stare at, in the house. Another concept was - no two columns should be alike. I also played with the relationship of symmetry to asymmetry. Spaces were conceptually symmetrical but perceptually asymmetrical. There was a hidden equilibrium, which is important to me. There was a whole series of such rules that I set up and followed through.

I used wood, steel, and concrete in ways to best express their character and qualities. Each member or component had to do maximum work, and each had to have a natural patina or texture and they had to be put together in an additive manner, like a child's construction. For that, I was particularly inspired by Anthony Caro's steel sculptures. He worked in an additive way by welding together such elements as plates, beams, tubes, angles, channels, and so on, adding one element over another. I was interested in using this technique. A simple and direct way to construct something that may end up complex.

VB: I assume you were building this project using your own hands, right?

MR: I was. I also had a carpenter and his two assistants helping me. He had masters degrees in literature and music. But carpentry was an absolute joy for him. As we were working together, I would hand him a visually descriptive sketch and would explain verbally what I was after. He would then run with that idea. As he was interpreting my sketches, I could respond to what he constructed, and continue sketching. Something unique would come out of that process.

VB: Do you see yourself as a deconstructivist?

MR: I wouldn't say that. First, I don't start with a theoretical position, or from theory of practice. I always worked experientially - from experience to an idea rather than from an idea to experience. I always speculated that Peter Eisenman goes from theory to form. He develops a theory and he builds that theory. Many of his buildings became footnotes to his texts. Wonderful teaching instruments for our generation. Whereas for us, the text comes afterward. That's how Thom and I worked; we never talked about the theory that would lead us to design a building. We knew that architecture was a language but not literal. My projects follow a bigger idea that transcends architecture but with the objective of being grounded in architecture. For example, the house I did in New Jersey was trying to answer a provocation from the client after an evening talking about the complexity of 'human organizations.' I diagrammed our conversation and asked if he was ok with a house that explored the architectural equivalent of our discussion, spatial and formal complexity. He asked, "Is it possible to create an architectural complexity that may be strange to my eyes but familiar to my body?" Wow! What a question. I answered, "Yes!" Spatial parameters for that house were based on the order of various intervals and cycles.

Curiously, when I was still at Morphosis, I met a music professor who introduced me to composers whom he said Thom and I should listen to because their music corresponded to our ideas and works. I never heard of them before. But since then, I found many parallels in our works. They are [Karlheinz] Stockhausen, [Pierre] Boulez, [György] Ligeti, [Jon] Hassell, and others. Now I often listen to their compositions while I am working on my designs.

VB: What kind of architecture do you try to pursue?

MR: My architecture is about what I am experiencing while I am doing it. I like complexity but not always in visible ways. What if architecture was such that, you had to look twice to see something once? Or, what if architecture could move fast in slow motion? I think of my work as imploding rather than exploding. So, it is about coming together rather than blowing apart. Deconstruction is basically exploding. I think about how to bring things together...objects and people. But it is not about homogeneity or assimilation. Those are a dead end.

VB: Your projects follow particular sets of rules that you set up from the outset, right?

MR: Yes. My curiosities are framed by connectivity, coherence, and conservation. The ordering systems are important. There is an order that is less than visible, within and beyond all that exists establishing the protocols for their interactions. In particular, I find it convenient to employ geometry, linear and non-linear, in many ways, to make spatial or formal sense of things. My work is about interpreting these orders. I also like intuition, which is the combination of deep intellect and the fantastic.

VB: Thom Mayne said, “To produce something neutral is a failure.” Do you agree?

MR: If neutral means to take no position, then yes, I agree. Neutrality is tolerance and listening. It is telling people what you are thinking about but not telling them how to think. Can architecture as a discipline be neutral? I think not. It is a political act. It organizes the civic world, how we interact, and the quality of our exchanges. Architecture must take a position, but it can be impartial in how it presents itself with the objective of letting others make up their own minds.

I understand what Thom is saying. To him, architecture has to speak out. My work is not only about what you see, it is as much about who you are. Neutral can also be open-mindedness, being quiet, and actively listening as others speak. That’s how I teach. If I have 14 students, they will have 14 different projects. What they should have in common are the parameters outlined in the brief. But it is up to them how to interpret them and express them through their own voice.

VB: What do you think about the work of Frank Gehry and particularly his house in Santa Monica built in 1978? What was your reaction when you first saw it?

MR: It was liberating. It was like reading a manifesto that opens other ways to think and to see the world. In 1978 Thom went away to get a Masters degree from Harvard. A year later I picked him up at the airport and we immediately went to see this house. We drove right to the house, parked outside, and talked about what it was and what it meant to us as young practitioners. Although we didn’t go inside, it clarified for us quite a bit because we were still trying to figure out how to take experiences and ideas that you have been accumulating for some years, and put them all in one place.    

When you grow up with the second-generation modernists and hear from them, “All you need to do is to follow the formula, and you’ll get it right.”  We resisted those words. We were looking for an architecture that embodied the present day, not the values and ideologies born and matured in Europe. I always thought it was a blessing that the umbilical from Europe did not make it over the coastal mountain ranges.

Franks’ house was liberating because we realized that no one could call us crazy anymore. Because from then on, we could point to him and say, “Hey, he is the crazy one.” [Laughs.] So, he was our remote teacher. He was our alibi. And he was supportive of us. Of course, you can never copy what he does. It is not like Corbu’s Five Points. What you learn from Frank is the confidence he has in his intuition. His work has intelligence and play, and it is about communicating ideas.

It also seems to be an apt progression of the work of such architects as Aalto and Stirling, both of whom had the strongest influence on Thom and me early on, as we searched for our own voices and skill sets.

VB: What building built in LA since 2000 would you say is the most exciting for you personally?

MR: Anything that Thom and Eric [Owen Moss] do is exciting. And I like what Wolf [Prix] does. They like to challenge the system with a great imagination, and they can execute.

VB: Does your work have a progression? Where are you headed?

MR: What I’ve been thinking about more and more is the space between the buildings where strangers can become friends, where people can feel like a part of a community, sharing their lives with others. Starbucks has done alone-together in their own masterful way and I want to keep proposing together-together in my own way. And then it is important to build things that people would stare at, not just from a distance but from up close. Details are important. I am interested in implosion rather than explosion. I am interested in creating buildings as diverse as possible but also as unified as possible.

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