essays and talks
essays & talks

Michael Rotondi & Pema Namdol Thaye

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Michael Rotondi, RoTo architects

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Buddha Mind / Michael Rotondi Conversation


A Conversation with Michael Rotondi and Mary Jane Jacob

MARY JANE JACOB: Let's begin with your collaboration on the Verandah project as part of the public programs for "Awake."  How does it connect to your practice as an architect? 

MICHAEL ROTONDI:  Something that is difficult, but also a huge interest of mine, is to approach a project as part of my spiritual practice, not just part of a professional practice.  The long term goal is to integrate matters of the mind and heart.  This is tested most thoroughly, when working closely with others, in collaboration. In most cases, I think the word "collaboration" is used pretty loosely: people are basically negotiating to get their own ideas into a project. They are expressing private interests in a public forum. Something that came out of the experience of working with Hirokasu Kosaka on Verandah was the possibility of people working together as if they were both a transparent medium for each others ideas and imagination.

Not waiting for the other to pause and then in interjecting what you would have said regardless of what you heard the moment before.  When we do not listen, we do not learn.

The need to be acknowledged, continuously, is a type of mirroring that is instrumental in developing a sense of self.  This tend to get distorted with the perpetuated myth of the necessity to be original.  This can only be a myth.  At the scale of our existence, I think virtually everything at all scales, has always existed, prior to us becoming aware of it.  Our inflated self-interests also preclude out search for a non-competitive, common ground of being.

Collaboration has interested me since I was a student, working on research and design problems with others.  Professionally this has been how I always worked within the office, with partners and colleagues but not with clients.  It was not as deep a collaboration until I began working with Joseph Goldstein and Sharon Salzburg, meditation teachers and co-founders of Insight Meditation Society.

RoTo was asked to design a Forest Refuge for long term yogis (meditators) in silent retreat for 3 months to 3 years.  I could not recombine prior experience into an appropriate response so it was essential to create the atmosphere so the client could describe prior and potential spatial experiences that were appropriate to the problems we were exploring.  We realized we needed to teach each other.  I was wondering:  How do you do that and I thought:

What if I were to basically lay out all of my skills and al of my insights that come from those skills and perhaps work as a teacher as opposed to a ‘practicing architect’.

In the earliest phases of design practice, we were more single minded and confused listening with compromise.  Hormones and the perpetual identity ‘crisis of youth’ made us deaf in one ear.  We would talk and draw and model and do it again until the inevitable emerged.  You learn to listen in ways you never listening before.  Thomas Merton defined this as contemplative dialogue.  Listening without preconception or prejudice and then expressing new thoughts conjuring in your mind after hearing what was said

David Bohm, the theoretical physicist and J. Krishnamurti has extended dialogue over 30 years.  They referred t it as a creative conversation.  You keep it going long enough it becomes one conversation. 

the more unusual and profound awareness comes from this type of event- multiple bodies and one mind.  This was a phrase Joseph used.

6.) You’re not often in situations where you can do that.  Most clients expect you to come in ad tell them what they need.  It’s surprising; people actually want to be directed, and so it’s rare when you find people that want to truly participate.

It takes quite an effort and energy on both sides.

Initially with Verandah the idea was to make a tea house, so when Hirokasu came in with the verandah idea, my first reaction was, that's not my drawing. Then all of a sudden I think, let's explore this, because we both had limits in being able to execute this, not just technically, but there will be certain things each might not have thought about. We talked about a whole range of things and immediately, as with intelligent people who are open-minded and willing to listen, you don't have to say much, sometimes you speak in silence.  We would talk, sometimes about things that seemed remote from the project.   But the stories we told were analogic to the creative problem facing us.  Then I’d come back to the office and draw something, ok the design, and he'd look at it and tell me his thoughts, and then we'd amend the design.

We were interested in: what would happen if when people left the room and they could only describe the experience and not the ‘object’.  Their memory was of a process (personal experience) not the product (the constructed verandah) if the thing itself had presence but was relatively neutral, if it was a way of modulating space as opposed to putting an object in the space. We wanted to give equal status to the experience to matter and light.  Movement would be modulated, the body in space moving and at rest would be our frame of reference.  The thing doesn't really exist except for the reflection of the light off all the surfaces. And it worked.

Are there ways in which you think Verandah could be a proposition for museums and art translated to other institutions?  What else does it tell you about museum practice?

There's a sense in our society that slow is a liability and fast is a virtue. I think this is one of the biggest problems we face.  Consumerism is a symptom of fast.  I think it's a very difficult task for people to slow down. We think that when you slow down, you stop. But when you slow down, you're able to go deep.  There's actually a higher density of information when you slow down; you're taking a cross section through everything rather than merely skimming the surface.

Museum practices and experience is usually a horizontal one.

That's where the courage has to come out in museum practices. How do you dedicate a space to explore the nature of our existence now as opposed to just give people information about what's considered to be culture? We've conditioned our lives, convinced ourselves, that things are the way we want them to be. I think at the heart of the "Awake" program is an attempt to bring a kind of presence into museums where people can see things the way they really are to not only learn through acquiring knowledge, but to develop awareness and insight through direct experience of space and light and ourselves, exploring without interference, the zone in between inner and outer worlds.  And if people experience discomfort in those situations, perhaps it is a rare beginning for them to become more aware from the inside to ask: why am I uncomfortable and this will lead somewhere. This experience might need to be a guided process; people may need some suggestions. But is important to find your own voice, having the confidence to explore it, not only express it, but really explore it. When you're less confident, you're focused on outcome; then process just becomes just means to that end and the end is merely a re-affirmation of the status quo.  The potential is creation itself.

A phrase that comes to mind is the relationship of uncertainty and comfort. In the late 1980s I was getting lots of migraines, at a time when all the indications were that I shouldn't be getting migraines, because things were ‘going well’. I couldn't figure it out. Then I realized that I'd become comfortable with certainty: my comfort range was in proportion to certainty.  Even though I thought we were being really creative, we were basically repeating ourselves; we were doing variations on a theme and we were refining an aesthetic.  What I wanted to recapture was my comfort level in proportion to uncertainty: where you're not really sure what the next thing is, what the next project holds, even what your life holds.   And that's when I decided that I would let everything go…change my life, and ‘dance with the unexpected’  It's not easy.  But I figured that up to that point in time I'd had enough of a career where people could say, "He's gone crazy, but he did some things when he was younger." So I figured okay, let's just go for it. 

You felt you could take a risk.

Well, I knew that I could partially rely on was my intelligence and my skills and but my real challenge was letting go of all the things that give you identity.  And so I let go of a lot of stuff and started free-floating.  This is when I learned what great lessons there are in pain and suffering: that the darker you get, the deeper you go.  I discovered what the external teacher (life) was.

You're talking about your own suffering.

Yes, but what I also began to learn at that time was that the deeper I went into myself the more empathy I developed for other people, and the more insight I developed about other people.  As an architect, that's something that you need to have.  It was extraordinary to feel that kind of suffering, that kind of pain.  I would sit in my [R.M.] Schlinder apartment, which actually got me to appreciate Schlinder because the apartment was just the right size and filled with light… I'm sitting in this light, dealing with all this pain, and the light is soothing me, allowing me to float.  It was like being in amniotic fluid and in pain at the same time.  So it was very puzzling but incredible. I started looking forward to it. I would finish my day at work and rush to the apartment with this western light coming in.  I wouldn't leave from Friday afternoon to Monday morning.  I would just sit there and draw, basically full body drawings, ones that integrate precision and gesture.  They did not represent ideas, although they could be interpreted, they embodied slowly emerging inner realities.

It was like turning inside out, and experiencing sublimation if you don't resist pain, if you don’t judge it or even define it.  You go into it. All of a sudden it just becomes intense sensation, as opposed to "this is bad, this is good," and it passed right through me as if I was invisible. When the pain got really really intense it would sort of fade like a bubble passing through you.  That was extraordinary.  I started reliving this when I began getting deep massage at Miracle Manor.  (our retreat in Desert Hot Springs) I would tell the massage person, "go deep" and it felt like his thumbs were going completely through my body.  When I resisted, it hurt even more.  All of a sudden it came back to me, all of these dark moments: "don't resist it, no judgment, no blame, let it pass through." What I experienced through massage was that the intensity of the pain was equal to the intensity of the joy you felt after the release.  And then I began to think--it's all symmetrical, everything is the universe is symmetrical and it's all a mirroring.  All of life can be an Aikado move.

It all had to do with resistance to change and that turmoil when you're spinning around through all that and there is no precedent except the body-mind complex’s imprint to come back to balance. The way I survived it was to go back into myself.  I started to think about faith once again.  I really began to understand faith once again.

You came to enlightenment on your own through the conclusion that to embrace change was key to your happiness. So that's when you came
to Buddhism?

Well, what I immediately did after this "wondering what societies had a total ecosystem", one that did not segregate the artificial from the natural, the practical and profound.  I made trips to Indian country and read the creation stories in the physical place.  I wanted to feel the space of those stories and not just abstractly, not remotely.  I was on a parallel track reading Buddhist text, trying to figure out how to meditate on my own.  It was a search for personal identity in the context of collective meaning. 

RoTo began working with the Lakota at Sinte Gleska University in Rosebud, South Dakota. We began working with the Lannan Foundation and SGU, the first Tribal University in America, to masterplan a new campus and the first 2 new buildings.  Before we began designing, we requested meetings with certain elders, to teach us what they felt we needed to know, to do this work.

In one of our first meetings, we learned how to listen.  After our meal with the family of Edna Little Elk, a wise and resected elder, we began to ask questions that were intended to get as much information as quickly as possible.  We were impatient.  These questions were like machine gun fire to her.  I wanted to download as much information as possible.  After the fourth question she got up and left the room, and she didn't come back. So I asked her daughter, "Where did your mother go?" And she said, "She left."  And I said, "Well, I know she left, but is she coming back?"  And she said, "No." And I said, "Why not?" And she said, "Because you ask too many questions." And I said, "Well, how do you get information?" And she said, "An elder will only tell you things that are good for you."  And all of a sudden my whole body got warm.  So I said, "How do they know what you need to talk about?" And she said, "As soon as you walk into a room and elder knows why you are there, they know what you need to know, and they know how much you can possibly understand at that particular moment." And I just thought, my goodness, this is teaching! This is really teaching, where you teach what somebody is able to take in.   So you are basically helping them become what they would most naturally become opposed to filling them up like they're tabula rasa.  That's when it came into my head that we must be all-knowing, potentially all-knowing.  And great teachers are able to create a structured experience such that they can draw out of you what they know is inside you.  You're not empty.  Wow.  My questions would not have gotten me here.  Stories are the most fundamental form of teaching.  Patience and listening and trust are essential
to learning.

In 1989, to my great fortune, I was invited to observe a private tutorial of the Dali Lama, and that's still unfolding to this day.  So that's when I began to see that it's possible to bring spirituality back into your life without religion.  That it can be a practice.  In this particular meeting, there were seven neuroscientists.  His Holiness wanted to know more about the physiological state in meditation. I was an observer.  So I'm watching him the whole time and taking notes on everything that's being said (I'm so used to moving my hand while I'm listening, you know, making notes or sketching).   At the end of the first day, he says, "The things that you'll remember the most are the things you never have to write down."  He said it in such a poetic, profound way.  And my pen drops, and all of a sudden I realized: if I don't write it down I'm going to forget it. And then I thought, He's the Dali Lama, I'm going to listen to him.  So, I didn't write anymore.  And it turned out that everything he said I imagined that I'd thought before…on the tip of my psyche. 

How did this experience with Buddhism impact your professional life?

It had an amazing impact on me and on my teaching.  I wanted to try to discover what people already know and try to say things in ways that they might have said themselves, so that it becomes their discovery as opposed to them waiting to hear something from me.  That's the kind of interaction I try to have when I'm working with clients.  But it's also how I try to make architecture so that the architecture basically helps people recollect what's on the tip of their psyche.  There was a time when I wanted people to know that that was my thought, my thing.  Now I wonder: Is it possible to make an architecture that is neutral but has great presence… like the wind?  There are the stories of indigenous Indian hunters: when they're hunting at night they know where everything is that's stationery, so when they hunt in full moon light they can tell where shadows aren't suppose to be; then when they look twice, if that shadow is gone, they know that that's what they're after.  So I began to think about looking twice at architecture: the first time sort of gets your attention, but then the second time, you come back and stare at it, and you begin to spend time.  It draws you in as opposed to "drive-by."  You go deep. You may see yourself and the world.

I realized that when your body becomes quiet and the mind focused, in the creative moment. you begin to get access to what was enfolded into the human body 15 billion years.  You begin to visualize and think about things you wouldn't otherwise.  I started to think that potentially we're all potentially knowing at the moment of birth and there are certain experiences that trigger the release of that information.  I began to think more about the subtle transaction that exists between the body and buildings, basically the body and space because space is the medium of buildings.  I thought of the body-or architecture-as a kind of third skin, that can metabolize information in physical and metaphysical ways with an open mind that suspends disbelief. I ask, why not? 

When my generation was being raised as architects, the phrase that we came to know was: "Architecture gives form to life."  Doing a lot of body work, and some meditation, you begin to realize that meaning is inherent in being, not applied.  So instead of saying that, "Architecture gives form to life," there's a way of reversing that and saying: "Life gives form to architecture."  You start with human activity, experience, and let the contours of that activity ultimately begin to configure the space in the building.  You're working from the inside to the outside.

But I also think buildings are instruments of teaching.  First and foremost, they need to operate like the elders.  They need to create the conditions for your own creativity.  And I think that's possible.  It could be in any situation…every moment is a sacred moment, every act is a sacred act.  Spiritual and intellectual…matters of the mind and matters of the heart: whenever both are involved, the world is whole.  We all know that from direct experience of love, which integrates- fear disintegrates.

Do you think there is architecture today that succeeds in this way?

I think the work that is most celebrated is the work that is fragmented, blowing apart. There's something about wanting the dark side to be present.  I'm hoping that this period that we're currently in right now, where it seems like the whole world is falling apart is a prelude to coming back together.  Two examples might be Liebskind's work, which I like a lot: it's about, among other things, angst, torment, the world coming apart, like the Imperial War Museum in Manchester.  All of that is in opposition to Frank Gehry's.  What came to me in Gehry's work, and what seemed to resonate in me, is that it's possible to make an architecture that's imploding - that's moving back towards singularity as opposed to away from it.  I feel that in Gehry's work, I’ve noticed there are places where you move naturally and places where you pause.  In those moments of pause it feels like I'm the focal point-all of those lines of the building come to me.  It is like being a focal and vanishing point.   Unlike the single focal point of the Renaissance, it's a multi-nucleated approach; there are multiple centers all interconnected. 

I think whatever the building type is, whatever the activity it contains, mundane or profound, it's possible to make buildings where people can experience wholeness.  You can experience being at the center, multiple times, as you move through all of the space.  Even though they may not be thinking about that, the body is incredibly intelligent.  The body picks up information. There is a very subtle, very intense transaction between the human body and everything it's moving through.   It stores it all in a holographic memory system, I believe, as Bohn speculated.

And does this aim--to make buildings in which we can experience wholeness
--have to do with your personal experience of suffering and your understanding of suffering in Buddhist terms?

Yes, I think I'm trying to, at least for a brief moment, eliminate suffering.  When you experience this, in that moment the body recollects what it already knows: that it's whole, it's a unity, and you basically are at one with everything else around you.  When you go back into the world, gravity takes hold, who we are and what we manifest are the same.  If we are feeling balanced so does the immediate world around us.  You affect the world around you.

So architecture can participate in a healing process?

Not just visually but as a total emersion. I'm interested in trying to slow people down, re-center them, get them really feeling healthy and whole.  Going back out into the world, they can spread some of that.  How do you create a total experience where people can now renew their spirit and  recharge their batteries?  That's what we attempted at Miracle Manor.  The objective is to make a total aesthetic where people are completely immersed for a couple of days.  Then you go back out into the world, and you are in as good a mood as you can be in, for as long as possible, you can spread some of that good feeling,.  Then you get wound up again.  And, if you're able to, you go back and soak and get a massage, or do it in any way you possibly can.  I think that's what meditation practice is about.  Re-centering and balance.   But since most of us can't be in that state forever, so we are continuously practicing. 

Have you arrived at a new way of making architecture?

It's basically just one big exploration right now.   When you look at our body of work, as it has emerged over the last twelve/thirteen years, there are no two projects alike.  Now, there's a liability in that; you don't bring your car to a mechanic who says, "I'm absolutely confident I can do your car, even though I've never worked on one like this before."  The up-side of it, though, is when you do find a client who's willing to hire you because you haven't done the same things twenty times before and has the capacity to be comfortable in proportion to uncertainty and truly enjoys the creative process. That is the kind of person you want to work with because you are both on the same trajectory for discovery. 


Q&A: Michael Rotondi


By Sherin Wing

Michael Rotondi, prinicipal of RoTo Architecture, is well known for his architectural work and intellectual rigor. One area of his expertise is the design of sacred spaces. Curious about his thoughts on designing spaces for some relatively unknown religions, how he finds information about the religions themselves and their traditions, how or if he approaches the design of sacred spaces as opposed to secular spaces, Guy Horton and I designed some questions for Rotondi.  Here is what he had to say.

Sherin Wing: First of all, do you engage in spiritual practice?

Michael Rotondi: I came back to spiritual practice but not religious practice. I started reading [again] a lot about any society that had figured out how to integrate matters of the mind and matters of the heart because in our Cartesian world they’re really separated out. I don’t think it was so much Descartes’ doing, well, it was, but it was also that he had to separate the body from the mind so that the church didn’t burn him at the stake.

I started reading a lot about mostly American Indians and made pilgrimages to Indian country and read the creation stories in the places that were described. I tended to do this in the past when I read Baudelaire’s Le Spleen de Paris, to become embedded in the place that was being described. I spent a lot of time with American Indians and that led to Eastern philosophy and at the same time to how to integrate it with the stuff I grew up with. I read a lot of Thomas Merton. And then I began working with American Indians in South Dakota. I was going back and forth for six years working on projects and spending time sitting with the elders.

I worked with an American Buddhist group in Barre, Massachusetts for a couple of years. And I would practice. I practiced all through that period in a more formal way. But vipaśyanā is somewhere in between formal and informal practice. It’s really a meditation practice so I took to that. I also began spending time with Tibetan Buddhists for six-seven years. Taking projects like that on is an opportunity to spend time with the lamas. Practicing so I could know in a more intimate way what needed to be designed. There are things we can extrapolate from a number of other experiences and recombine them. As architects, to design things, design houses, I mean whatever we design, we’re really good at recombining things. But there are some things you have to experience firsthand, like religious practice.

I was surprised the first time I did a retreat when I spent two weeks with a hundred other people. Two weeks with a hundred other people and there’s no eye contact, no words. And after a week, it became really evident that I was in solitude while I was in community. And I’d never had that experience before. I may know what it’s like to move through a crowd and have nobody talk to you, but to be consciously in solitude and community at the same time was an unusual experience. This was a new thought for me. And I began to understand that that’s what meditation is really about. Going to a place to meditate is like going to the gym: you work out, you build your muscles, and you use your muscles in the world. You’re supposed to get really good at meditation so you take it into the world and you reach high states of concentration when you’re driving, when you’re talking to another person, when you’re giving a lecture, when you’re drawing, whatever it is, you can be in solitude and community wherever you are. And you don’t have to go to the mountaintop to reach that state anymore. That was a big revelation. And the conversation I had afterwards—the guy I was working with was pleased that I figured that out so quickly—and that’s exactly what the design problem is, which is also at the heart of spiritual practice. It’s not that you turn it on and off, you try to stay in that state of being all of the time.

SW: What sources do you turn to when you’re designing sacred spaces?

MR: There are certain things that we can’t know anything about until we’ve had a direct experience of it. It wasn’t just knowing intellectually, I had to know in my body how to get really slow. When you’re designing for people who are trying to get their body to a very high level of concentration, which is basically a state of tranquility and alertness at the same time, you have to eliminate as many moves as possible, as much noise as possible. That means literal and figurative noise, which is usually the architecture. At the same time it can’t be reductionist because the body begins to pick up everything that is going on around it and if you have a reductive building you begin to have a reductive imagination.

I’ve read a lot of opinions on religion. For the most part I’ve focused on creating spaces that bring your mind to rest and invigorate your body. These trigger the deepest intelligence of all which allows you to make contact with everything that exists. And that can happen through meditation or prayer.

I try to listen with my own body, with whomever I’m working with and then try to jump over my own shadow when I’m designing. So I don’t repeat myself. The first thing was to stop thinking about designing signature architecture. I love people, I love listening to their stories, and sometimes it can be better than books on tape. You get a lot more information from people when you ask questions to listen and not turn everything into your own story. Like you listen and say oh, that reminds me of the time, and you’re off talking about yourself. If you really want to learn, that’s the last thing you want to do is talk about yourself. You want to listen to what other people have to say. There are times when you have to talk about yourself. But I find I learn a lot from listening to other people. A whole lot, actually.

SW: What were the goals of the different religious institutions you were designing for?

MR: When I was working with American Indians, the elders made it clear that I was there to listen to their stories and convert their stories into buildings. And the objective wasn’t even the buildings, it was to help them rebuild their nation. That was kind of shocking to hear at first because it seemed too big a task. I was up there to do some building and didn’t think there was anything that I could. Anyway, it put building into the biggest context.

When I started working with the American Buddhists, it wasn’t rebuilding a nation, it was trying to bring back into the world whatever I experienced when I was in that world. And started to have a different impact on students and coworkers. I see it as a kind of evolutionary imperative. I see that the role of humans in the universe, because we can think about things and because of the consciousness that we have, is basically to push back against entropy—where everything becomes the same. So humans are not only responsive and adaptive, we’re also constructive. We make things. Just like bacterium make their own environment. Ants, worms, all the way up to humans. We’re constructive as well, not just adaptive. Which means we have an effect on the environment we live in. We shouldn’t apologize for reconstructing the world if we’re doing it in a way that nurtures the world and how it grows. And that can be how we construct the artificial world for humans to inhabit as well as how the artificial world interfaces with the natural world. Instead of stopping nature in its tracks is there a way to enhance it or amplify it? In turn, it’s not only just a nice thing to do for nature; it allows us to stay around a little bit longer.

So you have the creation stories, the myth, which is a story, you have the ritual, and then the space. The myth is basically the big story, the ritual we can say is the program, and the space is the medium for the body, either moving or at rest. The practical problem to solve in meditation space is making it as quiet as possible, making the architecture as quiet as possible. The architecture has to come to rest if you want the mind to come to rest. And the architecture has to be, doesn’t have to be, but it’s best if it’s holding you to the ground as opposed to ascension. Ascension is a Christian thing. In meditation, it’s not about ascension, it’s about groundedness. You don’t want compression, so then the question can be, how low can this space be and how high can this space be.