Michael Rotondi

Discussion with Henry H. Yang

This discussion took place between Michael Rotondi and Henry Yang on November 28th, 2016 at SCI-Arc in Los Angeles following other smaller discussions and exchanges of topics. Rather than base an interview on recent projects or a set of his past studios and knowing Michael’s dedication towards pure education, this discussion is outlined to understand his opinions as related to the education of architecture and contemporary discourse.

(Michael Rotondi): Let’s talk about ‘tolerance.’ How do you define tolerance? What does tolerance mean in the context of SCI-Arc? Words don’t just appear; they have to do with creative methodology and a philosophical approach. Tolerance is open-mindedness. Learning means open-mindedness; it comes from listening to others while taking a neutral position rather than always having an argument to prove you are right in a debate. We may think we are tolerant in certain ways, but we are not tolerant of making mistakes. We are not tolerant of taking chances and of failure. We are intolerant. Intolerance is impatience. There are two ways of discussing tolerance. The tolerance in sociopolitical relations, of all the human enterprises, must be broad. You are looking for similarity rather than being identical, not necessarily regarding personality or character. Similarities have to do with finding common ground. The common ground concerns core principles. Those core principles are related to how we deal with humanity as opposed to what you believe in. On the other hand, when humans make things, artifacts, you have to be intolerant because of the accuracy and precision. It has to be re-buildable and repeatable. We can have beliefs that come from core principles that are subject to change depending on new experiences. This change does not necessarily tie to core principles. It is like the core in a cloud. The cloud deals with all of the changes, but it has to be guided by the core.

(Henry Yang): Core principles and beliefs can be open-minded regarding tolerance. When I was researching American architectural theories and their relative importance in different pedagogical models, there were conflicts between the sciences and the arts. Science is the metaphysics and informational desire to understand the logic. The artistic side is the poetic desire to understand aesthetic values. This conflict still progresses today. What would be your definition of tolerance between those two and do you think we need to retain the same attitude?

(MR): There has always been a grand resistance to that kind of radical conflict between two areas of knowledge because it upsets the political system. When you look at the spectrum of the human enterprise, there is anarchy on one end and totalitarianism on the other end. The middle path is the most open-minded path. That is the point of equilibrium, where everything exists at that one point. That intersection is a sacred number seven when you draw the x, y, and z-axis. The seventh point is where all of them intersect. Number seven is the center that is imminent but never retainable. You always search for it, but it is never obtainable. Having that center, number seven, having that idea, is what keeps you moving forward in a positive way. Therefore, it is always good to have questions that are not answerable. So how does tolerance fit into architecture? I have grown up through many different periods of architecture where the architects were intolerant of each other. I think longevity has to do with the highest degree of tolerance, open-mindedness, and willingness to change your mind according to your experience. In creative lives, the creative process is at the most poetic and artistic level. You become opinionated. If you are interested in getting out into the world, you have to figure out how to negotiate all of those moments. It does not mean you are intolerant. Being tolerant and open-minded, you develop insight that allows you to understand, not just read, other people. It is always the question of how you adjust and deliver the message to interact and convince people to work together.

(HY): One of the problems in the architectural discourse is that there are too many other beliefs and values available for us to learn from. It becomes another question of how much do I have to adjust, how much do I have to deliver? I understand I am not changing my core principles, but there are still too many to convince of my vision about architecture.

(MR): If you look at a sphere as a total amount of knowledge, and you take all of that knowledge and smash it into a great sphere, somewhere within, you are going to find the very first principles. These first principles, which can be physical, social, ethical, or aesthetic, are a lot easier to remember than the full amount of knowledge represented metaphorically as a surface of a great sphere. Aesthetic principles can be tied to social principles, like the way six different people can come together; interface, interact, and exchange. I do the same thing for the six different building materials. In principle, the relationship has to be so that each element keeps its integrity, while at the same time, integrating into the greater whole. I have always seen it as a possibility to have core principles that have to do with both social simulation and aesthetic simulation. In physics, two photons can pass through each other's field of interference and not bump into each other. As they pass through each other’s field of interference, a third thing emerges from that relationship, light. When they continue outside of the interference, they are back to their original characters but with the memory of what they have experienced. So, each one can keep its integrity as it moves through the other’s field and something new comes out of that. Then, they remain integral in themselves as they pass out of that field. Now, imagine that as a social simulation model, where we are not required to be the same as everyone. If everything becomes the same, that is the heat death of the universe, complete entropy. Therefore, the way to keep the universe alive as long as possible is to see it as an infinite game of creative diversity, rather than a finite game. In the infinite game, the rules keep the game going. In a finite game, the rules are set up to have a winner and an ending. Two words that come to me when I hear the term ‘tolerance’ are ‘endurance’ and ‘longevity.' If you look from a Buddhist standpoint, everything is impermanent. The fiction that we create is for understanding the real and projecting into the future, the directions in which we need to be going and what we should be doing. There is a conceptual and philosophical tolerance that exists in your mind; you know the difference between the normative and the ideal. The question is whether or not you want to play by those rules, which is short term. If you want to win, you have to play by the rules or endure for the long term, you step back and may lose for a while. I think it is important to have the strength of character to lose for a while so you can retain the values that are important for the long term. In terms of fact or fiction, we have become intolerant of facts. We are intolerant of even relative truths. It is not about who is right or who is wrong. It is about finding the middle ground. If you look at a wolf pack, the alpha decides and behaves according to what the pack needs to move forward. Say there are fifteen wolves in that pack, and three of them are old, slow, and injured. You have the body itself of eleven, and finally the alpha dog. The alpha dog is at the end. The three slowest ones are in front. And the rest is in the middle. The alpha dog, at the rear, is making sure that everybody is protected. He can see both the head and the tail. The ones in the front set the pace because they do not want anyone to be left behind. Now, if this were humans, the three fastest ones would be in front, the ones in the middle would try to keep up, and then the slow ones would be in the back ready to die. And the alpha would be in front because he wants everybody to see he is the alpha dog. So, in this case, the alpha is not nurturing; he is controlling. Wolves are extraordinary creatures. We are currently working on a sanctuary for wolf-dogs and wolves. There is a lot to learn.

(HY): Do you think the architect should be nurturing instead of controlling? Architects do not deal with only what they imagine or only what they see regarding their beliefs in architecture; they have to work with various groups of people such as construction companies and other engineering groups in reality. I believe that a true leader should understand all levels of the creative process so they can see everything just like the alpha in the wolf pack. But now, it seems architects can be intolerant regarding their design visions and the design progress.

(MR): There is a project in Long Beach. I presented to the City Council person who was in charge of this project. She used to be a prosecutor. When I met her, instead of presenting three versions, as she requested, we presented and discussed the creative process that leads to one scheme. I explained how I interpreted the many different variables and the values placed on them. I asked about her process when she is deciding if someone is innocent or not, whether she comes up with three answers or one answer. She said she comes up with one answer, but she has to go through all the variables that are evidence. I explained that this was the same process for architects. I showed her the projects, she saw the process, and realized the options were based on problems, such as social, economic, and structural problems, etc. She realized that architects solve problems through the creative process. She asked me, how do you deal with all those variables? I said, ‘I have to be open-minded to all possible ways through the process.’ The creative process has a deep intelligence to it, but at best, it is propositional. The process is trying to get those six or eight things coming together. There has to be some intrinsic narrative about what is going on when all these things are coming together and connected. The further you move away from abstraction, sometimes, you become less tolerant.

(HY): Speaking of abstraction, at SCI-Arc the drawings, renderings, and other representational forms are pure abstractions of the architectural project. This is almost always different from professional work. Students improvise when it comes to representations because they only want to show the best part of the project regardless of what is happening. Therefore, it is hard for students to be open-minded to what is real and what is fiction. This is one of the political conflicts in architectural education. Up until what point is the abstract representation thorough enough to say there is a project?

(MR): Drawings, historically as a profession, were instrumental even though they are symbolic regarding construction. We started doing drawings that were intended to build. The intention of drawing was to show the aspects of a project that would not have been thought about when you are drawing. The drawings are, I still think this today, the architect’s poetic form. It is not about physicality. You can do drawings before the project, and you can do drawings after the project is done. It is like post-analysis. The post analytics was the way for us to understand tendencies. You would design the drawings to learn from the project. That is how poetry works. Poetry is not about the meaning of the words anymore; it is about the sound of the words. You can read poetry and bathe yourself with the sound. At SCI-Arc, if someone presents tennis shoes, they can turn that into a thesis. It is not just by drawing the tennis shoes. It is about throwing them up in the air, drawing as they rotate, cutting them in half, and taking that into a physical model and drawings from that and digitizing it. I think creative work is not about what we produce; it is about how flexible we can be, in anticipation of something unexpected. That is ultimately the greatest tolerance of all—how do we keep our minds open and working? I really think we created an ecosystem just for that. I think right now, whatever intolerance is in the world, it resides in all of us. Whatever we see outside of us is inside of us. There is an interesting correlation between being tolerant of others and being tolerant of yourself so you can work through all the issues you have without going into denial about them. If you are intolerant of somebody else, you can remove yourself and never see that person, but you cannot do that with yourself. So, you have to go into denial. If you go into denial, the game is over, and you are just hiding and waiting to come out, or you go deeper into denial until it comes back out. Even if you forgot things that exist, it comes back out, and it begins to affect you. There is a deep-seeded dis-ease that can happen to us mentally that becomes physiological. I think all the physiological diseases come, not from the mental craziness but profound dis-ease. When it comes back out, you have to figure out what to do with it. I believe that all humans are inherently good, and their context brings out the best and or the worst of them, maybe it is the same way that darkness is inside of us? You create the context for that darkness to become light.

(HY): There was an interview on NPR with Rick Bell, who was the chair of AIA in New York City. He was presenting the controversial issue about locating an Islamic Center a block away from the World Trade Center, the site where 9/11 happened. He was talking about the whole issue of social acceptance and how people cannot see this Islamic Center next to the devastating site. Rick suggests that we need to embrace what has happened in the past and what would happen in the future because of conflicts that have developed from intolerance and rejection. We only see how media portrays it. We only see what culture tells us to believe in. This is one of the serious problems today regarding tolerance. This makes people untrue to their personal opinions around others. A recent example would be the poll count differing for Brexit and the U.S. election in 2016. People are afraid of showing what they truly believe, and they just lie in front of the camera. But, when they are actually inside the voting booth alone, they go with what they believe in. Rick Bell does not dumb down the seriousness of 9/11; rather, he opens the question so we can see what is going on in our society by juxtaposing the differences in beliefs, the World Trade Center site and the Islamic Center.

(MR): One people, one planet is something my son often says to me. I am working on an urban project, and there are different collaborators; a composer, scientist, economist, urban performers, and a world-builder, all who see and measure different things. All of a sudden, the conversation becomes much more broad and richer. Imagine how all those different people can create something in the city that can bring life back into a city other than shopping or go to the museum. The conversation is different because you are working with a much broader topic with people who are not used to thinking architecturally and urbanistically—other than they have the specific location, they have to do the performance, and that is what they might do. Whenever you can, make something as creative as possible, and a surprise if possible. If the city can be as creative, if the city can be open-minded enough to allow the creativity that would make your generation want to be there, then you are going to solve the problem. I think architecture has to be more tolerant. It has to be more open-minded. The place to do that is here at SCI-Arc. When the institution turned 40, it is as a person turns 40; somewhat, the same kind of pressure is applied. Can you still have the mind of a beginner when anything imaginable was possible? That is the big question. SCI-Arc has done it before and is re-inventing itself over and over just as before. But if you are focused on the prize, then you will never be able to do it. Your motivation has to be beyond the prize. I think, eventually, you have to be tolerant of yourself. When you become tolerant to all the things in your mind, the different points of view, they may conflict, but in silence you say, give me a chance to integrate these disparate thoughts and emotions into something fluent and coherent. Let’s see if I can make this work, and I discover, it usually does work out. After all, we have an Architectural mind that can synthesize the most unlikely ingredients.


Michael Rotondi, FAIA, principal of RoTo Architects, is internationally recognized as an architect/educator. He has practiced and taught architecture for 35 years and defines both as one activity. He has always been based in Los Angeles, co-founding two international practices, Morphosis (1975-1991) and RoTo Architects (1991-present). In 1972, he and 50 colleagues co-founded SCI-Arc under the direction of Ray Kappe. He started and was the first Director of Graduate Programs (1978-1987) and for ten years (1987-1997) served as the second director of SCI-Arc. He currently teaches as a Distinguished Faculty and is an Honorary Trustee. RoTo Architects works range from contemplative, to cultural, to commercial. The works have received many awards and have been widely published. Rotondi has lectured and taught worldwide for many years. At SCI-Arc, he teaches thesis students, design studios and a lecture-seminar of creative imagination. After so many years of teaching, he believes he is in the 5th phase shifting his approach and delivery from that of a teacher to a mentor.

Henry H. Yang, Associate AIA, is a designer and educator based in Los Angeles. He is currently in the postgraduate program at SCI-Arc, Masters of Science in Design Theory and Pedagogy, which is to develop a hybrid career, architectural educator and practitioner. He completed his Bachelors of Arts in Architecture at the University of California at Berkeley and his Masters in Architecture II at SCI-Arc. His graduating thesis at SCI-Arc was “Irony of Irony,” which questioned the problem of imagery and simulacrum in architecture.