An Architect Who Plays at Work

<i> Architecture critic Leon Whiteson has contributed widely to the leading architecture magazines and is the author of two books and a documentary series on the subject</i>

Architect Michael Rotondi is serious about play. “I’m a subversive,” he says. “I consider it my responsibility to turn society upside down, by treating work as fun and play as work.”

Last September, Rotondi became director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-ARC), one of Los Angeles’ most influential and innovative design schools. Described by some of its graduates as “an adult version of a Montessori school,” SCI-ARC was set up in a collection of old Santa Monica warehouses in 1972 by a breakaway group of discontented Cal Poly Pomona faculty and students.

A SCI-ARC founder member and early graduate, Rotondi, 38, gained early acclaim in the United States and abroad as a principal, along with partner Thom Mayne, of the architectural firm Morphosis.


Designing Restaurants

Morphosis has won awards for a series of highly original houses in Venice and for its designs for several fashionable new L.A. eateries, including Angeli on Melrose Avenue, 72 Market Street in Venice and Kate Mantilini in Beverly Hills. Current projects include an imaginative Comprehensive Cancer Center at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, due to open in February.

Examples of Morphosian playfulness are most publicly seen in the architecture of the restaurants. In 72 Market Street, the front section is dominated by a cut-off bronze column, designed by sculptor Robert Graham, which stops short of directly supporting the ceiling and thereby subverts the structural function of the typical Venice colonnades outside. “We didn’t mock the colonnades so much as refer to them lightheartedly with our sawed-off pillar,” Rotondi commented when the restaurant opened in 1984. “We wanted to recall the building’s historical context without lapsing into gush.”

In Kate Mantilini, the playfulness is even more multi-layered. The restaurant is inserted into the curtain-wall skeleton of an old savings and loan, an architectural Faberge egg intended as an ironic gesture to the building’s history. It also refers, Rotondi said, “to L.A.’s evolution from a first-growth city, where the buildings you see are the first to actually cover the ground, into a metropolis in which a more sophisticated second and third design weave is being threaded into the texture of an often tacky original urban fabric.”

Rotondi was born and raised in Los Angeles, in the east Hollywood area not far from the home he shares with his wife and son in Silver Lake. Though he has traveled extensively in the United States and in Europe, and has spent time teaching at Harvard and the University of Texas in Austin, he remains quintessentially Angeleno, particularly in his seriousness about play.

“Play has long been serious in L.A.,” he says. “Look at the history of Southern California architecture. Angeleno designers have always enjoyed toying with eccentric structural shapes such as flying saucers--John Lautner’s Chemosphere house on Mulholland--or Frank Gehry’s Aerospace Museum, with the fighter plane hanging from its front. You can find a witch’s house complete with rooftop broom, a Coca-Cola plant disguised as an ocean liner and small buildings in the shape of Brown Derbys, hot dogs and pianos. The unraveling of the mundane through the magic of fun is dear to our designers’ hearts.”

Influence of Films

Local architecture has also been deeply, if unconsciously, influenced by movie set design, Rotondi points out. “With its power to conjure any scene, from ancient Babylon to sci-fi fantasies, Hollywood has made its mark on our collective imagination.”


Rotondi brings his playfulness home. In his small hillside house that, like many architect’s homes seems to be in a constant state of unfinished renovation, he is helping his 11-year-old son, Benjy, create a bedroom loft topped by a stellar telescope set in a rotating steel drum.

“Benjy has his own ideas for his space, which are often better than mine,” Rotondi says. “I learn a lot by watching the way he figures things out. We share a passion for ideas, but his are usually fresher and more direct than my own, which have been overlaid and maybe constricted by experience.”

Rotondi’s “passion for ideas” carries over into his new role as director of SCI-ARC. “SCI-ARC and L.A. are on the crest of the same wave,” he says. “The city is a giant laboratory, where civilization will either be pushed a little further, or crippled. I want to make the school a major player in the metropolis, part of a positive push.”

As director, a role he diplomatically describes as “more a facilitator than a leader,” Rotondi plans to broaden the school’s scope both internally and externally. Internally he wants to “add a spectrum of the humanities to the study of architecture” by bringing writers, musicians and other artists into the curriculum. At the same time he wants SCI-ARC to reach out by creating continuous linkages with the other architectural schools in the city and by becoming “an advocate for ideas in Los Angeles.”

“The time for ideas has arrived,” Rotondi said. “Having developed the basic first-growth economic and cultural biology of this amazing metropolis, it is time for us to question our values. The city’s second-growth stage, which will offer us our very own historic resonance, must refine those values and make them manifest.”

Claiming that “we have created our own cultural clues, that are seriously playful and playfully serious,” Rotondi added, “we have here invented a unique urban character that, like any fully rounded personality, is both real and fantastic, funny and violent, solemn and silly. L.A., unlike most large cities, has access to a wide range of expression in both its built and its human environments.”

Collective Endeavor

Rotondi emphasized that architecture is a collective endeavor. “No one mind is responsible for any act of design,” he said. “It is my continual dialogues with Thom (Mayne), and all the talents I’ve collaborated with at SCI-ARC, that have made it possible for me to develop and contribute whatever ideas I may have had.”

It is this rare combination of scrupulous honesty and sure sense of purpose that has made Rotondi his prodigal reputation and has earned him the respect of his fellow professionals.

“Mike’s kind of modest arrogance is most unusual in the ego-ridden practice of architecture,” noted a prominent architect, who prefers to remain anonymous. “While maybe a less imaginative designer than Mayne, he has a sharper mind. His head is synthetic--he brings unusual ideas together and mixes them without fear, even though they may seem quite disparate. He is a very serious player in a way that is profoundly Angeleno.”

“Mike is an excellent choice as the new SCI-ARC director, to succeed (previous director) Ray Kappe’s 15-year reign,” said UCLA architecture dean Richard Weinstein. “Apart from his own reputation as a first-rate designer, he is aware of who is doing the most creative work, here and abroad.”

Hothouse Atmosphere

“SCI-ARC’s great advantage has been its wonderful hothouse atmosphere,” added USC architecture dean Robert Harris. “Its drawback has been its seeming disengagement from our more serious public issues. But this, I hasten to add, has been the problem of all our schools, and perhaps the profession at large.”

Rotondi said the school would “strive to expand the boundaries of the SCI-ARC community” by opening its often-hermetic borders to a wider range of people. “And we need money,” he added. “All the funds we have at the moment come from the fees of our 400 students, which average around $8,000 a year, including course supplies, et cetera. The old warehouses we work in are freezing in winter, boiling in summer, and often a semi-shambles. But we want more than walking checkbooks. We want contributors who are also participants in the life of the school.”