Discover more from The Horizontal Fault
This is the fourth interview in a series of posts based on an exhibition I co-curated at SCI-Arc in 2005. I have lightly edited it and added a series of images not included in the original exhibition catalog.
Some architects are more comfortable in practice than in academia. So, naturally, there are other architects for whom teaching is the more comfortable setting. Michael Rotondi is neither. He is a unique figure in Los Angeles’ architecture scene, in the sense that he is a hybrid: a consummate architect/academic and a remarkable academic/architect.
Rotondi has advanced both practice and academia, in parallel, not just here in LA but nationally and internationally. As the second director of SCI-Arc, the Southern California Institute of Architecture, he shepherded the school into a new home. At the same time, he grew SCI-Arc’s academic programs, student body, faculty, and reputation. As an architect, Michael was a partner at Morphosis (1975-1990) and founded RoTo Architects (1991-present), two remarkable practices that have redirected the flow of architecture in LA and elsewhere while influencing generations of students and practitioners everywhere.
Although I don’t think I ever told him this directly, Michael — along with his friend and peer, Coy Howard— has profoundly affected my attitudes around teaching and practice.
As a teacher, from what I have witnessed, Michael sees his primary role as an ever-curious mentor and not a know-it-all guru to his students. More often than not, his teaching has always been open-ended and not doctrinaire, inquisitive, and not dogmatic. Unfortunately, I suspect that sometimes a few peers have misunderstood Michael's motivations, focused as he is on his students’ emotional well-being, personal interests, and self-development and not their teacher’s academic “project.” Perhaps this is because sometimes, rightly or wrongly, architect-teachers tend to hone their teaching around their own needs and not their students’ needs, assuming that somehow what is good for the teacher is good for the student. Michael operates with the opposite idea: what is ultimately good for the student is always good for the teacher, in the sense that a teacher can only bring wisdom, not explicit instruction, acting as a light, or a guide— but not the path itself— along the way towards the student’s process of self-learning and self-development.
As the Director of a then-emerging school of architecture, Michael presided over a decade-long period (1987-1997) of time in SCI-Arc’s development when the school’s diversity of competing opinions, personalities, and pedagogies mirrored Los Angeles’ emergence as a global capital. From what I know, it was a sometimes tumultuous period, in the sense that Michael encouraged debates that were often heated and not canned. Indeed, he promoted SCI-Arc as an academic setting strong enough to hold many competing voices together under one umbrella without tearing itself apart. “City-hating socialists" taught next to esoteric formalists and poets, insiders sat next to outcasts, etc.
As a practitioner, Rotondi has operated with an unflagging curiosity and a very evident kindness towards his clients, not seeing projects as a means to an end or a vehicle for self-advancement but instead as vehicles for collaboration, a process of discovery, not the endpoint in the client-architect relationship. Michael might disagree with me here, but I think that one reason his practice has been so aesthetically eclectic is that he probably believes, as I do, that every project should be a portrait of the client(s) and not a self-portrait of the architect.
As a result, his work does not seem built around creating a fixed aesthetic or signature architecture. But, on the other hand, RoTo’s work has always struck me intellectually curious, open-ended, and provisional, like a light scaffold or framework to be inhabited and adjusted, flexible, not monolithic, and certainly never megalomaniacal, much like Michael himself, a true Mensch if there ever was one.
On the prospects of urbanism in Los Angeles in the 1970s and 1980s:
Do you think it's possible to be an architect urbanist in Los Angeles?
Michael Rotondi (MR): The first big urban project we did was the State Office Building competition up in Sacramento. We were not pleased with what we were able to explore there that we took a big site down next to the Hermosa Beach Pier, and we did another project down there. Then we tried to get the city to hire us- they thought we were sort of wacky, but what we did is that we saved the site from becoming a parking structure.
That was the beginning of really exploring the city. I think that even with the alley houses, we thought about that. We were probably a little too self-centered to think about anything more than having an impact in the same way that a bomb has an impact.
But what we got quite good at was combining a lot of ideas.
We always thought that if there was a Morphosis bird, it would be the magpie.
As single-minded as we probably were, we were also open to everything that was going on. Because we had limited experience, we rarely had a single image of what something should be. The alley houses were a little different because they had such clear programmatic and site limits.
Since this exhibition covers the period 1970 to 1990, ending one year before the founding of RoTo Architects, would you like to speak about your experiences during that period?
MR: When Thom [Mayne] and I started working together, I think we were just interested in getting things built.
We definitely had strong ideas about how we thought people should live. Actually, the projects that you are showing occurred when the practice got more DNA injected into the Metabolist work—there was a lot of metabolism in the early days. But in the early days, the way we talked about the city was part of imagining this sort of big implosion of information depositing itself on the site and then trying to figure out what to edit out. First, we would read the site, then the neighborhood, then the district, and then the city. So the buildings actually became a sort of manifestation of all that information. We were trying to make the projects a lot more complex than they were programmatically.
Part of it had to do with the fact that we had more ideas than we had buildings. It was hard to get work. Friends would say, I need a garage, and then you'd say, well, let's put a room over the garage. The alley houses emerged out of that. Or you had other friends who asked for a kitchen addition, and you'd try to talk them into doing a duplex. Or people would sneeze, and you'd build a model.
What else were you looking at during that period? What inspired you?
MR: We were always talking about the same architects.
We were always talking about Aalto and Stirling, Aalto in particular. Aalto, as opposed to the German guys, was really formidably free. He could change a structural system because the structural system didn't make sense—he didn't have to be relentless all the way through a building. It fit with the sensibilities that we had here in LA.
Schindler was, for me, always more compelling than Neutra. Neutra brought his ideas pre-formed, and then he would just land them on the site to keep the ideas intact. Schindler basically took the universal ideas, and as soon as they grounded themselves on a site, they became more particularized. I just loved that—it was very opened minded.
On SCI-Arc, then and now:
What do you think has changed at SCI-Arc in the past 20 or 30 years?
MR: What was really serendipitous was that we were coming of age, SCI-Arc was forming, and the city was really beginning to come of age. Everything was not just in a state of flux but really in transformation. You could actually start to see the city going from second to third and then fourth growth cycles.
The school itself was really just a bunch of people coming together, trying to figure out how to live together—even though we didn't think about it at the time. We were making our own kind of society which was a melting pot, just like LA. We were starting to practice, and within the school, we were trying to figure out what kind of projects we wanted to do because there was no curriculum in the school, there was virtually no structure in the school, so some of us basically tried to take on the problems that were confusing us the most. Which were: "Why do people come together?" And then specifically, "What keeps them together?"
But Urban Design really wasn't on our radar. It really wasn't part of the history, and it wasn't part of the curriculum. It was an elective when I was in school. Later, when Thom and Eric [Moss] and I were teaching, we sat around and talked about it, and we started looking for all the things we wished we would have done as students. So the city became a major part of the curriculum, but it also became much broader in terms of what happens in the city: physical design, economics, and then eventually we brought developers in to teach between '87 and '97.
In the days when we were coming of age, the role models that we had were Hejduk doing the poetic, Eisenman bringing intellect back in, and eventually Gehry with the use of just pure intuition. But early on, it was pretty much the stuff that was coming out of New York at the Institute out (IAUS), and then throughout the history of the school, we were also looking at the AA, the open school system in London. The biggest thing that was present in the school as well as in our own lives and our emerging professional practices was that the ultimate test of any idea that formed out of teaching was to build it. You tested it full size in real-time, and if it worked, great!