|MICHAEL ROTONDI CONVOCATION SPEECH
GERALD D. HINES COLLEGE OF ARCHITECTURE, UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON
MAY 10 2003, 1PM
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Faculty and Students,
Soon to be alumni, family and friends-
I am pleased and honored to be here with you today, to give you my thoughts on
what it means to end one phase of life and begin another.
I have been a teacher for many years, and have witnessed many graduations. I have a profound belief that teaching and learning, which begins at the moment of birth, is the most fundamental activity of our species.
A graduation ceremony is one of the best times for everyone.
There are no complaints for the next three hours.
Best time to be a dean, for sure.
To be able to teach is a gift.
To be among students with such enthusiasm, motivation and innocence is a reaffirmation of something right and true in the world.
My colleagues at the University of Houston are committed to nurturing this.
I saw the exhibit of student work a year ago at accreditation and it was impressive--
I felt the positive form of jealousy, which is defined as sympathetic joy.
Graduation is honoring Completion
Commencement is celebrating a Beginning.
All of you are on a threshold.
I want to encourage you to be steadfast in staying on the trajectory you are currently on. And, as you grow older, recollect this moment, which is quintessentially one of great promise.
A. The Promise of Youth
With its ideals and optimism which keeps you believing that anything imaginable
B. The Promise of Architecture
Which gives form to life in the most positive ways.
Which keeps you believing that through architecture, it is possible to make the world a better place.
C. The Promise of Humanity (NOTE: the audience applauded here...surprised)
Which is to make choices moment to moment that reaffirms your faith that we are inherently good and generous.
That our imprint is to be ALTRUISTIC.
A SUBTLE PASSION FOR GOOD.
So this is what I wrote for you
All of you who are the winds at
The real people of ancient time,
said that ESSENCE and LIFE
should both be cultivated.
So, this work requires 2 stages:
The path of cultivating LIFE, is
The path of doing / of action.
The path of cultivating ESSENCES is
The path of non-doing / contemplation
The path of doing, is prolonging life, through creative activity
while in communion with others.
The path of non-doing is making the being whole, by
quieting the mind and,
stilling the body while in solitude.
Both are essential.
Our work, as architects, practicing in many different ways,
incorporates both these aspects and exists in two realms:
In solitude and in community.
The creative moment is an intimate and private moment.
We are alone in suspended animation.
We are in the zone of creation.
In BETWEEN all of the extremes
In BETWEEN one place and another.
-One thing and another
-One event and another
Where there is stillness
ideas emerge and most significantly,
This is where new life emerges.
This is the Horizon- The threshold where the sky and earth became one.
As the Lakota Sioux say, this is where you cry for a VISION.
VISION is the blessing of FORESIGHT- seeing the future w/ greater purpose.
and its twin blessing is INSIGHT- which has the power of penetrating, to a deeper reality within.
This is where you discover yourself in
A UNITY of thought
and compassion that goes beyond words, beyond analysis,
even beyond conscious thought.
As Thomas Merton said,
"In this moment,
We come face to face with ourselves in the
lonely ground of our being.
we confront many questions.
The value of our existence,
The value of our commitments
The authenticity of our everyday lives.
What we may discover, (As Paul Tillich said,)
is the 'Courage to be'
as we are, not as we think we should be
we discover our own voice, our sense of purpose."
What is your sense of purpose?
The first serious question.
1. Who am I, and what is my role and responsibilities in the world?
2. What type of life do I want for myself, and my children's children?
There is an ancient Native American traditional time scale for all
significant choices, of 7 generations, not 7 years. (the real estate cycle)
3. What type of society do I idealize?
4. To paraphrase Suzuki Roshi, can I retain the courage and intelligence of a beginner's mind, the mind you had as a student, that sees almost infinite possibilities and imagines all of them to be possible, and not become the 'expert' who sees few possibilities?
As we get older, the key to this place of optimism is to suspend disbelief and re-enter the zone where innocence, wonder and enchantment reside.
Where extreme intelligence is not preconditioned
by prior experience that tries to remind us of all our mistakes.
Be reminded of your discoveries not your mistakes
face forward as you move forward.
Be reminded of worlds within worlds
all existing simultaneously,
at all sizes and scales, with their
own cycles and rhythms.
That entrain through harmonic oscillation,
into greater wholes.
UNITY AND DIVERSITY.
The integrity of each part is sustained
as the greater whole is forming.
This is an aesthetic and a social model.
This is the world that you have imagined up until now.
I know this because,
it is the one I imagined
when I was your age.
And I know of the struggle to retain it.
You are the one; that can still imagine and actually participate
in manifesting a society, a world,
That is a new cosmology.
One that is based in values of joy
To try and make a world like this, requires FAITH in yourself and others.
So, in fact faith is an essential pre-condition for creativity to truly be present.
'Why do we create?'
This is an open question that is provisionally answered by experiencing the act itself.
One of my provisional answers is:
"We experience the most profound separation,
and sense of alienation,
when we are born from the womb into the world.
Our creative work,
which is predicated on integrating diverse
and disparate things, the abstractness of ideas
or the concrete-ness of matter, with the belief,
That this is our way of making sense of the world and our relationships with each other.
This is a way of re-connecting
of belonging to a greater whole.”
This makes me feel that,
We do our work, not for ourselves, but for each other.
Although we have our visions, when we are in solitude, when we are alone, we discover, by going deep into the realm of the unknown,
that we are in fact, ONE.
We have always been ONE
But we imagine that we are
What we recover in this moment of insight
is our original unity, as Merton said,
the one that we lived prior to birth.
This is what we can bring into the world
and work, to give form to it.
Vision is individually born, but community realized
This is the responsibility,
we have to ourselves and
to our families
to our communities
and to the world.
We are concerned about many things, above all our very existence.
But, in contrast to other creatures, humans are continually evolving through conscious existence.
We have a great capacity for choice.
We can choose poorly and suffer, yet we can learn.
But, I believe the whole purpose of the human story is to learn the good.
We self correct onto the path of right choice, which is to choose life.
It is a slow process as we have,
to be patient and practice forbearance.
Any age is measured not merely by technological proficiency or advancement.
It is measured by the quality of human conduct and social relations
By some measures we are living in a dark age.
But there is great wonder that lies within-- The wonder of compassion, generosity and sacrifice.
We have been witness to this.
My question is why, this imprint of altruism, which expresses such extreme value towards life, is not present everyday.
It is times like these,
that bring forth the latent powers that are within us.
The power that comes from our capacity to choose the good, and bring it forth
into the world.
Each of you, in varying degree, is on the path of what indigenous people call
the 4 fold way.
The way of the warrior
The way of the visionary
The way of the teacher
The way of the healer.
The quest historically was to bring forth each of these and nurture them.
They all have equal status and significance.
If you experience this type of wholeness, you then can see yourself as part of a greater whole, as some one who feels responsible to others,
and senses the joy that comes from being generous and compassionate.
At various times, you will need to be all of them separately or simultaneously.
If this happens,
then you will experience what is called the infinite power of the
'common ground of being'
---------simply stated, love.
From this threshold,
the one that you are on at this very moment,
until your consciousness is released from your body
you have the opportunity to give form to life, through architecture.
All of us,
who stand witness to your rite of passage
Say, with pride and love,
'We wish you well'
Your future, is the future, of the human race.
10 May 2003
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This is where everything begins, ends and begins again. It is the point of creation and death, no beginning or end.
Zero is infinity’s twin.
It is the point at the center of our being, untouched by extreme, yet embodying their pure essence.
Inner and outer worlds unite becoming one. For a moment everything is simultaneous and has equal status, in particular light and matter.
Here there is a perfect balance.
This is no place and
There is no time here.
This is where two become one.
This is the Stillpoint
of a complex and turning world.
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|INTRODUCTION – PART 1
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“How does an acorn become an oak?” we were asked.
This was the first time a question triggered our curiosity and visual imagination simultaneously. Systemic
thinking - seeing the whole, transformation - everything changed in that moment. The answer was
ultimately unknowable yet this was strangely reassuring. We understood that searching for the answer
would sustain our curiosity for a lifetime. Curiosity is the mental equivalence of inhaling and exhaling. The
question was intended to make us ponder the nature of creation itself.
“We can describe what we see, but we cannot really explain it,” he added. We were puzzled by this
statement. What was the difference? To us, these words were interchangeable, yet in fact they weren’t. Our
intellects were being both expanded and fine-tuned. It was a great feeling. Things changed from that point
forward. We began to think and talk a lot about PROCESS (impermanence), ORDER (inter-relationships) and
For the tree to emerge and exist, its internal code has to continually negotiate external forces and be
responsive, yet flexible, within the limits of its gene pool.
STRUCTURE AND FREEDOM
In its early phases of growth it changed more radically than it would when it reached a more mature, inevitable state.
In subsequent phases of growth it would reveal one of the wonderful truths of certain forms of organic life -
as it changed size, its surface area would keep pace with its volume. There was a relativity of growth and a
constant similarity of form. This recalls the logarithmic spiral of the nautilus shell: the golden ratio, the
system of proportioning that is one of the central ordering systems of modernism, and the basis of the
aesthetic system of our teachers.
Embedded within creation (and the creative process) is an implicit ordering system to guide the spontaneous
growth of an organism. It does this by setting internal limits (not boundaries) that inform each exchange that
takes place internally, with the interface and with the environment in which it was embedded. We had been
taught that every action has an equal and opposite reaction.
The overall system of choices essential to an organism’s survival, are part of its imprint. The more diverse the
system of parts and the more coordinated its response, the greater the duration of life. To ensure survival, it
must ‘remember’ all of its prior responses as a frame of reference for current and future decisions.
Memory and action need to be in balance.
Memory is slow.
Action is fast.
CONSERVATION AND CHANGE
All of this conjured (concurrently verbally and visually), the idea of a system of infinite relationships between all
things. Worlds within worlds; all with inextricable complexities and with the simultaneous presence of disparate
elements that converge to determine every moment. We imagined that the promise of architecture was to weave
it together into a manifold and multifaceted vision of the world.
UNITY AND DIVERSITY
We repeated out loud, “We can describe it but we cannot explain it.”
From the moment of conception to the moment of birth, we are the embodiment of creation. For the full
term we are in a state of perfect symbiosis. There is a preconscious unity with the environment, an embryonic
somatic memory of wholeness and unconditional unity are being imprinted.
Two as one. The womb is weightless. It is our “third skin.”
At the moment of birth, we experience a profound separation, the most fundamental discontinuity of our
lives and one that we spend a lifetime trying to overcome. Our creative work can be a way to reintegrate an
apparently complex and discontinuous world, giving us a renewed sense of belonging, a part of a greater
whole once again. The birth process can also be one of liberation.
The human body’s relationship to the universe may be equivalent to the DNA molecule‘s relationship to the
body. 15 billion years may be enfolded into us and a deep core memory of all that we will eventually need to
know to exist is present at the moment of birth. If so, we are potentially all-knowing. Through a mirroring of
the outer and inner worlds, triggered by light and enhanced by our other senses, an unfolding begins. Every
moment is a learning event and we are a learning organism. Our interaction with others and with the world is
a spontaneous experiment that enchants us and fills us with wonder. The body has the most extraordinary
abilities to sense, process, store, retrieve and act. We can describe it but we cannot explain it.
As it moves through space, a subtle transaction exists between the body-mind complex and the world.
Everything around us teaches us about the world we create for ourselves. Who we are and who we become
are inextricably linked to what we make and inhabit.
Our relationships are conditional. The observer is the observed.
Architecture has become a “third skin.”
Synthesis to Distillation
The projects selected for this book cover a period of 15 years; a full cycle of life experience and
expression and half of a generation. The works are products of the same gene pool and reflect
certain tendencies, but from the first to the last they represent an evolving world-view and life
The book begins with the New Jersey House, a work that explores formal and spatial propositions
within a conceptual framework that sees architecture as a semi-autonomous discipline with its own
history, theories, and logic. Our organizational strategies were directed by our curiosities about the
notions of order that extend beyond the confines of any particular theory and permeate the whole
infrastructure of concepts, ideas, and values. Specifically, we wanted to explore the nature of
complexity and our ability to be thrust to the edge where it meets randomness. Our formal interests
were focused on a synthesis of diverse elements into a coherent whole. The spaces were abstractly
figured and continuous throughout; they had limits but no boundaries.
We still practiced with the belief that architecture gave form to life.
The prelude to this project is CDLT 1,2, a house with the same intentions but at a much smaller
scale. The difference was primarily methodology. For the duration of the project, 5 years, we
worked improvisationally at full size and in real time with ‘no erasers.’ If we made a mistake, the rule
was to work on it until it looked intentional. We wanted to rediscover the ‘Beginners Mind' Suzuki
Roshi spoke of.
At the back end is Prairie View. Architecturally, it is a distillation of components into a coherent
whole. It is slow and implosive. The creative sequence begins with the body moving through space
and then form, back and forth. It is primarily conceived as a place where design is transparent to
experience, and all activities, informal and formal, are seen as a curriculum for learning in the
broadest sense. The spatial organization, which is primarily open and continuous, is intended to
promote cooperation rather than competition. Resistance and interference are the means for
The pivotal projects between the New Jersey House and Prairie View A&M School of Architecture
are the Dorland Mountain Art Colony, Carlson Reges Residence, Sinte Gleska University, Forest
Refuge, and Warehouse C. Dorland helped us develop what we call our teaching-practice, a
‘finishing school’ for recently graduated architects. Also, because of the extreme limits of budget
and remote location it forced us to make a building with ‘no body fat.’ The residential project was
a move towards a more straightforward and construction-based logic where intensity of spatial
experience took precedence over detailing. This was also the most fluid collaboration with a client
to date. We now believe, from that experience that the quality of the architect-client relationship
and the architecture are directly proportional.
The University project immersed us into an ancient culture searching for meaning in a contemporary
world. This was our first experience with a landscape that was beautiful, vast, and varied; one that
could be experienced simultaneously, directly in science and through storytelling. We learned the
meaning of a “spiritual landscape.” This project reminded us why we wanted to be architects.
The Forest Refuge project deeply immersed us into Buddhist practice. This was a necessity for doing
what we were asked. We had to merge knowledge and practice by ‘living the program,’
discovering through direct experience the middle path, the centerline of gravity, and the stillpoint of
a complex and turning world.
We searched for simplicity as it might be on the other side of complexity, one thing nested within
another, an implosion, an inversion of the big bang.
We began to search for an architecture that moved more slowly in proportion to the cycles,
rhythms, and variable speeds of nature and the yogis themselves. The architectural language shifted
from a synthesis of articulated elements to a distillation of ‘local’ potential ‘experiences.’ The extent
of the unfolding was solely contingent on ones’ consciousness, at any particular moment in a
particular place. Now, life gave form to architecture.
In meditation, when the mind is quiet and focused, and the body is still, the senses are acute, time
and space slowly shift from horizontal to vertical. The yogis in their solitude ‘go deep’ so visual
silence is essential. Warehouse C was a jump in scale, impacting the core sector of the city, where
people, commerce, government, cars, trains, ferry, and ships converged. Because of it’s size and
configuration, we conceived it as an “urban connector” extending from the city center across a
rooftop promenade, the length of the wharf to the ferry terminal with its constant flow of people. We integrated conventional land and shipbuilding construction techniques and logistics.
All the work we are currently engaged, whether it is large-scale planning, small design-build, or
buildings for education or prayer, has the social and aesthetic values and code of the recently
completed College of Architecture, which is an expression of ‘an architecture in slow motion’ which
is a distillation of life giving form to architecture. The projects for the next 15 years, will continue to
emerge out of a continually evolving world view but we expect they will have three things in
common: first, they will be our silent teacher, second, they will be a pretext for our relationships
with each other and the world at large, and third they will be vehicles on our quest to make an
architecture that recalls the deep imprint of our original pre-conscious experience of unconditional
As Thomas Merton wrote, “In the midst of a divided world we are called on to be instruments of
unity. If we can understand something of ourselves and of others we can begin to share with each
other the work of building foundations of spiritual unity. We are already one, but we imagine
otherwise. What we have to recover is our original unity. What we have to be is what we are.”
The promise of architecture is help us discover our common ground of being.
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|Freedom and Structure in Verona and Los Angeles
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Standing in the grand hall of the Banca di Verona was the best place to pause and look back. I had just walked the entire building with Arrigo Rudi, a longtime collaborator of Carlo Scarpa, the architect who had been commissioned to design the bank. Over a five-year period, Scarpa and Rudi had worked continuously on the project that was now finally complete. Five years of creativity and construction in a continuous feedback loop!
The project had begun in the usual way: the first sketch pure intuition, then a more precise drawing and a model. From that point on, the process was atypical. They worked at scale through drawings and models, defining the scope and function as an aesthetic emerged. Over and over again the process would be generative, analytical and critical, then back again, eventually reaching a phase of refinement and detail. When the creative work was complete, construction began. From that point on, decisions, relatively minor compared to the earlier phases of work, were practical and technical. The architect was expected to make periodic visits to the site to observe and clarify. Why, then, had it taken five years?
Thom Mayne and I built the houses in Venice, California, working with young builders, some of whom had been our students at SCI-Arc. We were adventurous enough then to not have figured everything out in advance. We designed as we went along. Since there had been many iterations of models and drawings, by the time construction began, most of the design work was done. We still made changes as we went along, using the building as our full-size model.
As familiar as these projects of Scarpa’s in Verona felt to me, there was something about them that was intriguingly elusive. Over the next few months, I was able to visit his other projects in the Veneto region and I began to develop a sense of what was different in his work, besides his obvious aesthetic predilections.
Scarpa’s work had a body language bearing a clear trace of his conceptual fingerprints. For me, this was a completely unexpected way to think of a building. Didn’t other buildings have body language? To some degree, perhaps, but these were distinct. These buildings were a visible record of all that they had been through in coming into the world. They held the memory of the creative process, particularly that of their relationship with the architect.
I had been told that Scarpa would start construction before the drawings were complete, while design continued on a parallel track. Each idea was tested full-size in real time, then becoming the impetus for the next set of ideas. The building, the architect, and the builders were all in a special dance with moves that mostly remained embodied in the building. This could be sensed. My body recognized it.
This way of working was freer than any other I knew. It was also risky. What if you did not like what you had done the day before? What if all the decisions did not add up and the whole became incoherent? It was like a chess game that needed basic rules to guide the process without restricting it. In concept, this was how we worked in the studio, but if we did not like what we had just done, we had erasers and more cardboard. Working full size meant no second chance. I wanted to make a building using this process. I wanted to test myself.
After touring Italy for eight weeks, I spent the next eight weeks reflecting at SCI-Arc’s villa in the Ticinese portion of the Southern Alps, overlooking the Lake of Lugano. I studied my sketchbooks, and thought about this type of praxis - completely free from conventional working methods and sequences. How could the work remain coherent as a system, aesthetically and linguistically? I’d read as a student that architecture, like other human utterances, was a language and must be conceived and executed with the intent of communicating to others in an articulate way. It needed a “grammar” and rules. However, if an open-ended, spontaneous approach were taken, rules would undermine the process. But maybe not. I recalled that we had had the same concerns in the early days of SCI-Arc. Without knowing it, we had been embedded in a self-organizing system guided by rules that naturally emerged over time. If we paid attention and remained open to the possibility of changing our minds in light of new experiences, then we might be able to keep it both working and consistent. Now I know that everything has an internal logic that provides structure, as all the parts interact in apparently spontaneous ways. Pay attention and let it be.
Maybe a building had a DNA. I wondered, is it possible that freedom and structure are nested within each other? I’ve come to know this to be true.
Back from my four-month sabbatical, I settled in for a few weeks and then began to work in this way on my family house in Los Angeles, with a carpenter and his two assistants and with my ten-year-old son. We worked off-and-on over the next five years. There were no construction drawings, just sketches and a few drawings that set down the ordering and dimensional system for the surface and volumes.
The system was linear, circular, and sequential, all of which we embedded in the finished concrete slab for reference, if needed. The carpenter would build what was sketched. If it were unclear to him, he’d move on to some other part of the project and place lights on the areas that needed attention. When I returned home, usually after dark, long after they had left, I would turn on the lights and sit looking at the building, then sketch what was needed to keep them going the next day. If there were a “mistake,” we would work on it until it became intentional. Basically, there were no mistakes and no erasers. I discovered the relationship between freedom and fear.
Throughout the entire process, I was interested in my son’s ideas, which I knew would be fresh and radical, due to his inexperience. Not limited by prior knowledge, he would say things that I would not even have allowed myself to think. Working with a young, growing person showed me how we limit ourselves as we get more experienced. I began to remember things I had once known and ways I used to be. I rediscovered, in him, the deep intelligence of innocence. “Beginner’s mind” believes that anything imaginable is possible. Shunryu Suzuki wrote in Zen Mind Beginner’s Mind, “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”
“Dad, can my bedroom be like a treehouse? Dad, can the entire front wall of the room be glass and slide out of the way so I am sleeping out of doors? Dad, can we put a big opening in the roof and make a big telescope so I can see the stars at night when I am lying down, like the stars of my birthday constellation? Dad, can we make the concrete walls look like your photographs of the desert from the airplane?”
My first thought was always “that’s not possible,” but I would keep it to myself and, with some patience and drawing, I discovered that it was possible to accomplish what he suggested. Next, I would have to confront my ego, realizing once again that these were his ideas and I wanted them to be mine. How absurd was my need to be first and original? Who had given me that imprint? What better teacher to have and what better time to let go? Things began to change for me. I learned a lot from him and still do. He made me a better teacher.
I eventually stopped working on the house, and left it incomplete when I moved to another house nearby, but my son asked if he could stay in the unfinished house. I gave him a list of items to be completed and told him that the house would be his if he finished it. He eventually completed the work and added a few new features of his own. The house is now his home.
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|CENTER LINE OF GRAVITY – WHITE WATER RAFTING
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"A continuous line that runs through the center of every solid and void. In a river, this line is where the water flows fastest, with the least amount of resistance - fewer rocks. This is the center line of gravity. If you stay on the line you will remain dry,” the guide told us.
We were standing on a wide ledge thirty feet above the first rapids, on the Green River in Utah. Two hours earlier, we had entered the river on rafts and kayaks, beginning a seven
day trip down a deep, narrow canyon carved out by the river. The amount and velocity of water flow was sufficient for rapid down-cutting, creating gorges that varied between 1,000 and 1500 feet. The river flow alternated between an even, laminar flow that allowed us to see the unusual beauty of the canyon, and turbulent flow, which demanded the highest degree of concentration possible. If your mind wandered, even for a second, you would be out of the flow, literally. It was a very fast-paced relationship. You and the river,
mediated by a kayak and a long two sided paddle. As we looked down from the ledge into the turbulent, white water I noticed a tree branch turning over on itself as it was carried downstream. Suddenly it snapped in half and disappeared. I immediately lost my courage and was overcome with fear, yet determined to take this ride. It would be the only way to learn whatever the river was going to teach us. This was the first lesson; the river owns you - you do not own the river. This would be a trip of great humility. To make it through, I would have to strip away any behaviors that might inhibit the spontaneous and sublime play of awareness. Every moment on the water would require my full attention and open-mindedness.
The guide took us back down the path to the rivers edge about 200 yards upstream where we had left our boats. The water was glassy and calm there; a great contrast from what we had just witnessed from the overlook. Before I got in the kayak, I looked to the middle of the river and noticed where the sheet of water was beginning to fold in on itself. There was a visible double curling that produced a line, THE LINE. The line is where everything else is condensed; the eye of the storm. All the power is in the line but the paradox is that this is where there is nothingness and stillness. Then it disappeared in the mild turbulence that was a threshold to the white water. The river was revealing its mysteries to us. I thought of it as an act of generosity, of friendship. The river wanted to play - or was it deceiving us, drawing us in so it could swallow us whole> What an absurd thought.
Leave it all behind. Looking up I saw the gates of Ladore where two 800-foot buttresses mark the beginning of a series of canyons formed by a 71-mile stretch of river. There were no references to scale and the dimensions were massive. The entire region was a part of Dinosaur National Monument; they were the appropriate scale for these volumes. The small thoughts I came with began to evaporate as my courage returned. I looked over at my son, B-man. We smiled, climbed into our kayaks and moved towards the line. The line would keep us dry.
Each morning the guides would describe in detail the stretch of river we would be on for the day, and the best way to maneuver through the rapids. On the morning of the last day,
they explained the most difficult stretch. The river was difficult to read because of its changing widths and depths. The surface flow in some areas where it widened was almost
flat and appeared slow but below the surface the current was fast and spreading towards
a part of the canyon that opened into an immense grotto. In front of it was a whirlpool that was invisible until you were directly on its horizon. This whirlpool was called the black hole. We all knew the story of black holes. If you go in, you don’t come out. If you should happen to come out then there is a seven-foot fall down to still water. ”If you survive it would be a great story,“ the guide said, as he and the others laughed. The guides insisted we stay clear. B-man and I requested the only two-person kayak thinking it would be the most memorable way to fish this trip together.
“You take the back, dad. I will navigate and you can steer,” he said as we walked to the kayak.
“Stay on the line,” I said. “Remember, use your entire body as one sense to find it.”
“May the force be with us,” he answered back in his usual playful way.
It actually felt a little like going into the unknown, where the most useful tool to get through this would be simple, direct, concentration. Bare Attention.
We were the last ones to enter the water. As we paddled away from the shoreline, heading towards the middle of the river, I reminded B-man to stay focused, do what he had to do - I would watch him and follow suit. I would respond to him as he responded to the river. We didn‘t need to speak except in silence. We were practiced at this after so many years.
“We have to be alert and relaxed. We aren’t looking for any experience in particular.
We have to be simply wide awake to whatever presents itself,” I told him.
Something he already knew, but I felt it bore repeating.
“Dad, yesterday it seemed that we were old friends, the river and I,” he said as he extended his arms and the paddle directly over his head. “It was as if the river remembered me from the day before. It was easy to stay on the line, and enjoy the ride. I was in fifth gear most of the afternoon,” he said.
The guide was right; the river’s current could not be read with our eyes. We drifted toward the grotto and the blachole. Our paddles were too short to go deep enough to change direction. It would have made little difference - the river “owned us” at this point so we stopped resisting and went with the flow, paying attention to the river. Its shifting surface patterns formed a tense top layer moving in several directions at once. The overlay of patterns read like a moiré. We assumed that the currents below were moving in several directions as well; we could feel them through the bottom of the kayak. It is always a surprise to rediscover how sensitive the human body is in detecting subtleties the eyes are unable to see. For a moment, we were able to feel the layered crosscurrents and make slight adjustments in our direction and speed.
A year prior, we were in Hawaii visiting with some Native Hawaiians who had constructed a replica of the canoe that carried the first Polynesians 3,000 nautical miles to the island without maps or instruments. This section of the South Pacific Ocean encompasses the intersection of currents moving at different depths and in different directions. We were told that the navigators had special insights, similar to medicine men and priests. They were able to “read” the water’s surface patterns and color to determine the depth. They could feel the crosscurrents moving at various depths by lying on the bottom of the canoe and using the stars for positioning. These memories came and went in an instant but were reassuring.
We drifted nearer to the cave while searching for the line in the current that was moving in the opposite direction. Without a word, we put our oars in the water at the same time on the same side, pushed once and the cave was behind us. A moment later, we were pulled forward and suddenly our kayak was spun around 180 degrees and sucked into a vortex of water. It felt like we were going down an immense drain. We had just entered the black hole and were deep in a funnel-shaped volume, a void. Our kayak spanned the space like a beam, perfectly level, suspended, silent, and timeless. We had the extraordinary sense of being in a gateway to another universe. The silence was uncanny. We could see the spiraling current, the smooth texture of the water, the perfect form of the volume that had momentarily seemed like a solid. We were weightless.
As quickly as we entered we exited. The kayak shot up and out of the hole and spun 360 degrees as we ascended. I noticed the other members of our expedition standing on the river’s edge watching in anticipation and disbelief as we landed flat in the still waters on the downside of the falls. We were awestruck as we sat there speechless. We each knew what the other was thinking. I could see from behind that B-Man was smiling as contentedly as I was.
We had just been somewhere unexpected and indescribable. We had just made friends with the river. It had revealed some of its mysteries to us. The experience would remain our secret for some time.
With our backs to the shore, I whispered to B-Man “let’s paddle in backwards in synchrony. It seemed like the right thing to do. We slowly moved transversely across the river until we felt the bottom of the kayak meet the sand. What a wonderful sound it was. We were both quiet the remainder of the evening, periodically looking at each other, speaking in silence.
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Baile de quinceaños in the Citizen’s Hall at 5pm today. Maria read the banner to her mother as they entered into
the plaza. Rebecca, her mother, looked at her with a big smile. The Zocalo and palco were festive. Balloons were tied to handrails and children were playing in the background.
In all directions
It’s June 1st and Maria has just completed the 5th grade and her first geography class, which she enjoyed. She especially liked looking at maps. Cities, roads, and mountains could
be seen in relationship to each other and each place held
a story. Her teacher liked to tell stories. She told Maria and her friends many stories, some imaginary, and some real.
All were about people and places, past and present. Maria was excited to see the map embedded in the plaza. There was Pacoima, where she was born and there were the other cities she remembered from signs she read from the car. Her friend Emily’s grandfather was now telling stories about the history of Pacoima. There were a dozen children sitting around listening
In all directions
Maria looked over and saw other children playing in the cooling mist that came up from the shadows of the garage. This wet cloud was the attractor of children seeking relief in the mid-day sun, and the summer heat.
There were sounds of other children playing and people talking at the weekend farmer’s market, where the cars park during the week. Maria wants to eat a plum.
In all directions
Elders sitting on benches in the shade, talk to each other and greet the passersby, they remember when they were in a hurry. Now they mostly recollect other things without a sense of urgency. Mr. Echeveria explains why the color of light changes 11 times throughout the day as he gestures towards the orange sky. “Think of a prism,” he tells the young ones. Mostly he sits quietly speaking in silence. Sometimes his long-time friends tell stories. Maria always learns something new when she really listens. Elders are the best teachers, she thinks.
In all directions
The meeting has begun, Rebecca is on the neighborhood council and they will meet tonight with Councilman Padilla in the Citizen’s Hall. Maria is excited to be here with so many others. The room is filled and there are others standing outside on the PALCO looking in. “I’ve never seen such a big door,” she says to her mom who explains it is to make the room bigger.
As Mr. Padilla speaks she sees him standing in front of the city and the mountains. She likes this view. She can see close and far way at the same time. Her mom tells her the Hall is where democracy is kept VITAL. Maria asks, “What does that mean?” “Alive and healthy,” it is explained.
Maria also likes to listen to her mom and the others talk about how to make Pacoima better. They do not all agree with each other but they always work it out. Maria tells her friend, “This is just like my house.”
In all directions
Maria and Rebecca have come to the City Hall to meet some friends. It is Saturday and the farmer’s market has ended and the Zocalo is filled with people on the Palco and bridges, the plaza and the café, where students are doing homework, and sending e-mail in the Internet café. Everyone is here to watch a movie on the WALL. It will be a documentary about the murals of Diego Rivera. He was a great Mexican artist who was married to Frida Kalo, who was also a great Mexican artist, and his inspiration. The wall is a big attraction in the plaza. There is always a new mural on the WALL. Four times each year it changes. Local artist and those invited from other countries come to paint while we watch Maria tell her friend, “I want to paint a mural one day.”
In all directions
Maria likes to come and watch the parade. There used to be only one each year. Now there are two. Sometimes they stand on the street and other times on the PALCO, the skybox. Maria helped her brother get his car ready for the Parade of Cars. There are so many beautiful ones, some dance, some make sounds, some move like a magic carpet. I am so proud of my brother, Maria thinks.
In all directions
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School of Schools
by Albert Pope
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Buildings do not instruct, they only accommodate and, hopefully, inspire. Such was the common wisdom up until the mid-seventies when Michel Foucault re-introduced us to the Panopticon and suggested that “disciplinary” institutions constructed our social existence, if not our very selves. The prison, the factory, the hospital, and the school all functioned as social “technologies” in which instruction or training was implicitly encoded in a sequence of spaces tied to a program of normative behavior. Foucault’s disturbing idea that institutions form us, rather than we them, was outrageous in its time. It effectively turned our ideas regarding “functionalism” inside out. No longer mere accommodation or use, function came to stand for something that was wholly contrived, if not outright manipulative (and something that was politically and economically motivated). Foucault’s description constituted an inversion of our understanding of functional accommodation, an inversion that we are still grappling with today.
We have largely grappled with this redefinition of functionalism by assuring ourselves that Foucault was a historian researching conditions that existed at the turn of the nineteenth century, on the other side of the modernist divide. Modern architecture dispensed with the overt social agendas that were built into traditional architecture—such as the monumental expression of authority—and attempted to reestablish architecture as functional accommodation driven by its own autonomous logic. As a result, we have been able to conveniently neglect Foucault’s disturbing analysis. Modern buildings are imagined to be ideologically transparent containers, more or less functional, more or less beautiful, and more or less grounded in the art of the discipline. Modern buildings influence and inspire and they do function, but they do not instruct. They are not the purview of politicians, or behavioralists or social engineers but of the creative imagination. The idea that a Modern architecture could manipulate the behavior of its inhabitants or otherwise “construct” its subjects calls into question its very existence.
I would like to draw attention to a flagrant contradiction in what one might call the naïve functionalism of Modern architecture: the School of Architecture. In the School of Architecture, the idea that buildings themselves “instruct” is unabashedly pursued; training is the order of the day and the idea of (re)constructing the identity of the student/architect forms its overt logic. As opposed to a lecture, a book, or a practice session, the idea that an institutional building would serve to indoctrinate a student is often accepted without question. Spatializing an overt program— the distribution of students, for example, in a series of partitioned workstations—is intended to construct new subjects as only buildings can. We routinely call this built-in, disciplinary logic “studio culture.” It remains in effect (as those of us who teach would have it) 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
This training function is on the agenda of some of the most important buildings of the twentieth century, including the Bauhaus, Taliesin West, Crown Hall, and Carpenter Center. These acknowledged “masterpieces” function in a unique dual role, as both canonical works of architecture in themselves and, at the same time, the institutional means by which the canon is imparted to future generations. In other words, these buildings function on two somewhat incompatible levels; they are both the content and the vehicle for the delivery of that content. They are not only the books in the library but the library itself, they are not only the paintings in a museum collection but the institution that exhibits art, they compose not only the musical score but the concert hall in which the score is received. As canonical works they are meant to inspire, enhance and influence; but as institutional buildings—schools—they are also meant to indoctrinate vis-à-vis studio culture. Because of this dual role, architecture schools can be said to form one of the most significant subsets of the modern canon. The Architecture School is, in effect, the institution that produces other institutions; it is a school of schools.
While it is clear that the propagation of a canon and the propagation of disciplinary training constitute two different forms of social interaction, it is unclear as to whether these two functions could ever be reconciled to each other. Most schools manage to train, fewer manage to inspire, and those that inspire often do so by suppressing the training function. While you can certainly study architecture in a cathedral—Crown Hall has proven this—you can also study architecture in a spec office building filled with partitioned workstations. The point is that neither solution is adequate in addressing the problem that the School of Architecture poses and the potential that this school among schools actually possesses. This potential can be described as that specific interaction of building and program wherein that which inspires—the canon—comes to sublimate the idea of programmatic “training” that Foucault introduced so many years ago.
This brief analysis of the School of Architecture will serve as both the introduction and the critical lens though which I will look at a recent addition to this most significant subset of the Modern canon: Roto Architects School of Architecture at the University of Texas at Prairie View. I believe the building directly addresses the problem posed by the School of Architecture. It speaks of an informed functionalism that goes beyond the limitations implied by the school-as-cathedral and the school-as-spec office block.
Earlier I defined a Modern building as transparent accommodation driven by an autonomous logic. I hope it is clear that the accommodation or function of a building is often far from transparent; that it possesses institutional agendas that go beyond the workings of a naive functionalism. Too often it is the institutional agenda alone that constitutes a school. An obvious example of this would be an elementary “school” consisting of trailers set out on an asphalt parking lot. In a School of Architecture, the institutional agenda might consist only of partitioned workstations spread across standardized floor-plates. What Modern architecture added to the institutional function, of course, is the autonomous logic that is inherent to its practice. This logic constitutes the substance of the canon and, conversely, the canon subsequently constitutes the autonomous logic. What this means, simply, is that the rules/logic by which we develop a project are partially encoded in the canonical works of the discipline itself. This rigorous, inbuilt logic is characteristic of Roto’s architecture in general, and of their Prairie View school in particular. I would now like to explore how Roto used these rules to sublimate the institutional imperative inherent in the program type and to resolve the contradiction between the reproduction of the canon and the training function inherent in the program type.
The intrinsic logic of our architecture is best revealed by hypothetically reconstructing the development of the building’s design. The clarity of the logic, as well as its didactic character make this a relatively easy task. This reconstruction will be divided into four discrete stages. Imagine the
starting point of our school as a simple H-shaped block turned on its side. This serves as a distillation
of the massing as two parallel concrete framed blocks with bridges crossing over a void between them. From this starting point one simple operation sets the developmental logic of the building into motion. This operation consists of the orthogonal shifting of the south block one bay to the east. This shift does several things at once. It responds to the entrance of the Prairie View campus and the building’s important corner situation. The shift also sets up the logic of a front or “head,” building at this strategic location. The shift also sets up a spatial condition at the two ends of the buildings creating a formal courtyard at one end of the building and a service plaza at the other. The shift also has a significant effect on the interior. It creates a sheared space between the blocks prompting the complex play of stairs, bridges, and ramps. We refer to this interior volume as an “exchange space,” and it figures prominently in the programmatic operation of the building.
Following the slippage of the two blocks, the second stage of development concerns the relation between the concrete frame structure of the primary massing and their associated brick skins. (The craft of these skins are amazing, the subtly corbelled construction results in an animated surface module that is almost alive in its effect.) As in the center space of the building, the initial shifting of the blocks seems to activate the building skins setting up a complex frame/skin relation unique to each block. On the northern block, the skin lies loosely around the volume; its wobbly geometry gives it the appearance of a billowing fabric tacked down to the frame at strategic points. This brick fabric covers the entire volume creating a lateral façade facing north toward the bulk of the campus.
On the south block, the relation of the fabric to the skin is entirely different. Here, the shifting of the block to the west seems to have torn the skin from the block completely. The displaced skin is thus free to form the complex sheathing of the head building leaving the concrete frame of the south block almost entirely exposed to the elements.
It is the formation of the head building or auditorium that constitutes the third stage of the building’s diagrammatic logic and what is perhaps the most significant design feature of the project.
In their descriptions, we refer to this appendage as the origin of the primary ordering lines. This does not mean, however that the auditorium is constituted as the dominant element within the project. I put “head” building in quotation marks because it is ambiguous whether the auditorium is the primary focal point of the building or merely a secondary appendage shot out from the south block. This ambiguity operates to the benefit of the building; it solves a major programmatic contradiction. The appendage contains a separate institution called the Cultural Center for African American History in Texas. Located in the “head” building it must exist both as a separate entity and as part of the larger complex that includes the School of Architecture. This equivocal status of the appendage is important because, despite the significance of the Cultural Center, it is not the programmatic driver of the building. Seen in this way, the logic behind the auditorium’s ambiguous connection to the main mass becomes clear. It is shifted off the central axis and only tentatively attached to the south bar by the brick skin as described above. This plastic tour-de-force precisely mirrors the complexity of the relationship of the two programmatic entities.
Finally, the fourth and last stage of design development concerns the metal cladding of the building that occurs on the south elevation as well as on the eastern wall of the treed courtyard. Though made of metal columns covered by a perforated mesh skin, these screens are not an extension of the frame and skin logic already discussed for the rest of the building. As the brick skin slipped off of the southern block to form the appendage or head building, it exposed the elevation of the block to harsh environmental conditions. The response to this condition appears at first glance to be of an ad-hoc or provisional construction. I call it provisional because the material and geometry of the steel framed cladding is altogether alien to the rest of the structure. This difference is highly exaggerated. The frames appear propped into place against the side of the southern block. It is also important to note that they are made out of standardized steel tubes and corrugated metal sheets that contrast the customized fabric of the rest of the building—the brickwork for example, and the idiosyncratic shapes of the appendage. This pragmatic solution to the problem created by the exposed elevation shows an entirely different sensibility at play in the building.
The autonomous logic of the two slipped blocks and the subsequent deployment of bridges, ramps, skins, appendages, and cladding, constitute the formal devices that animate the building but do not encompass its logic. If this were the case, we would be examining an exercise in formalism, and formalism always comes at the cost of a naïve understanding of function. It is in the handling of the deeper implications of the training function that Roto’s building makes a significant contribution to the School of Architecture.
The autonomous logic of the building constitutes the formal devices through which the training function is constructed. They are also the devices through which that function is ultimately sublimated. How do you both construct the institution and overcome it at the same time? Not by resorting to irony, built-in contradiction or any other forms of logical confusion built into the form of the building. The answer lies in the creation of subjectivities, specifically the creation of subjectivities that exceed those produced by training. I will explain what this means.
In spite of our naïve understanding of Modern functionalism, buildings construct us as subjects. To repeat, buildings produce us as much as we produce them. This is done by encoding institutional programs into forms—forms that are calculated to produce a certain range of practical behavior. This understanding of subjectivity led Foucault to an appreciation of the built environment as a distributed network of power relations capable of creating, in its entirety, an extended social field. While this may summarize Foucault’s analysis with regards to the built environment, it should not limit the implications of his analysis. While the buildings we make do produce subjectivities, it is important to remember that they are not necessarily the docile and defeated subjectivities produced by the disciplinary logic of the prisons, the factories, the hospitals, and the schools discussed by Foucault. In this regard, the projection of alternate subjectivities becomes our principal concern. This concern cannot be addressed until we are willing to concede the powers at play upon us. And while it is true there is hardly anyone outside of the discipline who is prepared to grant such importance to the built environment, the designers of this environment must nevertheless be willing to take responsibility for it. They must, in other words, be willing to address the problem of subjectivity. Roto’s school does this. It creates an alternative to the subject called “architect” in a remarkable way.
The construction of an alternate subjectivity would seem a huge task were it not for the fact that we do it every time we design a building. That we often do this unawares does not change the fact. The problem is how to set about creating subjectivity in a more determined fashion. This is where Roto’s building becomes instructive. To begin, we might ask: what elements of the building contribute to the construction of a subjectivity that exceeds that which is produced by mere training? Here we can return to effects produced by the school’s formal devices. Examining the building from a broader social perspective, we can see that its programmatic logic is organized around two significant axes. These two axes produce circuits of interaction within the structure around which specific subjectivities are formed. The first axis is the vertical axis that establishes an above/below organization of the building, and the second is the horizontal (longitudinal) axis that establishes its back/front organization. I would like to look at the programmatic development of both of these axes in turn.
The institutional program of the School of Architecture develops floor-to-floor around the vertical axis of the building moving from bottom to top, one program built upon the next. On the ground floor, public entry spaces, administrative offices, lecture hall, fabrication shop and formal galleries, give way to a second floor of classrooms, faculty offices, library, and a digital lab. This stratification forms an integrated vertical machine devoted to the various stages of architectural training. This stratification has as its destination the largest spaces in the building, the studio/loft spaces that occupy the entire third floor floorplate. These spaces are ultimately bound for subdivision into cubicle cells or workstations, one cubicle per student. With the studio loft space as its destination, the section transforms programmatically as it moves upwards from the associated collective spaces at the base of the building to the individual cubicles at the top. This upward movement can be seen to finally focus architectural training directly upon the individual activities of the student. While the size of the lofts gives the studio function its importance, their subdivision gives it an individualized or personal significance. In this manner, the program built up along the vertical axis constructs an individual subject in a progression toward the cellular subdivision of the studio. As a consolidated block, housed in the top-most reach of the building, these cellular spaces constitute an incubator of the famous architectural ego.
The horizontal axis functions in a similar, cumulative way by transforming a sequence of programmatic layers into a machine-like apparatus. Cutting across the grain of the vertical movement, the horizontal axis structures a program that pulls together diffuse and various activities into a promenade that moves from the back service end of the Architecture School to the front ceremonial end of the Cultural Center. This promenade is drawn toward the theatre or head building that serves as a focus for the organization of the ground plan. At a pragmatic level, the axis connects the public elements of the Architecture School and mixes them in with the Cultural Center creating a sequence that unifies these two incongruent entities. The sequence of lecture halls, two galleries, archive, offices, ceremonial courtyard, and finally the theater, create out of the two programmatic entities a third. Yet this is secondary to the main objective that is to shape for the occupants of both institutions a collective identity. As opposed to the individually focused subject construction developed along the vertical axis of architectural training, the horizontal axis produces its adversary and complement, a collective subject.
The movement along the two axes, from bottom to top and from back to front (from private to public, individual to collective) suggests an older mode of subjectivisation, the architectural promenade. The architectural promenade was invented by Corbusier as a didactic mechanism to instruct the inhabitant about the world around her, whether that world be a historical worldview (Mundaneum) or an idealized landscape (Villa Savoye). In Roto’s building, however, I employed the linear schema for descriptive purposes only. The building does not operate along one sequential path, or even two. Instead of a promenade, circuits of interaction structured by horizontal and vertical axes are a function of the bridges, ramps and stairs occupying the sheared space between the primary blocks. More than a scripted promenade moving from bottom to top, these circuits form discrete patterns of movement that are sequential and cumulative but also eccentric, random and intermittent. They are given added force by being not only ceremonial, but habitual, repetitive, and routinized. The programmatic components of the building are inscribed and reinscribed by the patterns of movement through the building’s so-called “exchange space.” I would argue that these habitual patterns produce a kind of subjectivity in which we can recognize the education of an architect.
To briefly recap the argument, two axes form the social organization of the school. These axes generate circuits of movement that produce individuation in the loft, and collectivisation in the theatre. It is the organization of these subjectivities by the autonomous logic of the building that allows them to transcend the subjectivities produced by institutional programming or mere training. What is the difference between subjectivities produced by Roto’s building on the Prairie View campus and those produced by a spec office building filled with workstations? The answer can come in the form of another question: what is the difference between an architect and a CAD operator or, alternately, what is the difference between a sensibility and a ten-step program? In other words, the answer is that difference.
It would seem that there is much we can learn from a School of Architecture—the school of all schools— not the least of which would be the limitations of our routine practices. The assumption of a transparent or naive functionality has obscured the survival of disciplinary programs well into the modern period. It has also blocked a clear understanding of the potential that exists in the production of subjectivity. Soon, there may be no other logic with which to defend the School of Architecture, or any other school, against a functional deployment of standardized spaces. Everything will become the equivalent of trailers in the parking lot. At that time, the need to construct that subjectivity called “architect” will have to be understood clearly if it is to survive. Crown Hall and all the other cathedrals of learning will be of no help. Architecture that addresses the problem of subjectivity, like Roto’s school, will hold the key.
How SCI-Arc Began
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Why don’t we start our own school?
Did anyone actually say it? Was it a voice we heard in our heads? The thought took us beyond the frustration and anger we felt at our misfortune. The president of Cal Poly Pomona University had removed Ray Kappe as Chair of the School of Architecture – a program Ray had founded three years earlier, in 1969. We were some twenty to twenty-five students whose lives were being wrenched around without any warning by administrators obeying injunctions that American universities in the late sixties sought to enforce. We were meeting twice a week in the evenings, discussing angry strategies of revenge. At least another hundred and twenty-five students shared our concerns.
Why don’t we start our own school?
A silence fell over us. A moment before everyone had been talking in a composite of voices full of frustration and urgency. The silence was empty and calming. Suddenly a path had opened to a future that beckoned. It was May, 1972 and SCI –Arc was born.
Under Kappe’s direction, the School of Architecture at Cal Poly Pomona had been young and adventurous. It experimented with curricular and avant-garde approaches to architecture, such as working on projects at scale and full size. It was socially and environmentally aware. A number of us had transferred there, attracted by things we heard and things we had seen. Ray had assembled a young and dynamic faculty with many points of view. All of them seemed to have equal status. We saw no antagonism between them.
The place was a laboratory, a human petrie dish. Students and faculty worked long and productive hours exploring a wide range of ideas and the strategies to implement them. We worked like kids experimenting in the garage or backyard, taking risks without fear of failure. Our process was defined as trial and error. If we hit a dead end, we turned back and went in another direction.
For the first time, we had discovered a life for ourselves. There was no other place we wanted to be. Without realizing it, we were already on a trajectory that was preparing us for the high adventure of creating our own world. We would no longer waste our zeal on trying to change the minds of people who had a different worldview. We would now spend 100% of our time doing what we really needed to do: construct our own school, “the New School.” Of the many lessons we learned at this nexus, one of the most important was how anger could be transformed into joy.
1972 was a good year for us, after the darkest period of our young lives, the sixties. Our own revolution was just beginning and we were optimistic about the future, unafraid of the challenges we faced. We didn’t know how difficult they would prove to be. We were going to be responsible for our own lives. Each day, we could decide what we wanted to do. We said our comfort level was proportional to our uncertainty. Years later we would reverse our opinion on this. The most significant change for all of us was that we felt empowered to make our own world without having to conform to a preexisting one.
The Formative Sixties
In 1963, the world we had known had changed forever. We had seen President John Kennedy assassinated, the image of his skull shattering was shown on television over and over again, as if the reality of it might be erased the next time. We were in shock. The next phase had just begun, without warning.
In 1968 a series of violent tragedies unfurled:
The Reverend Martin Luther King was assassinated.
University students rioted in Europe and America.
The Vietnam War was building.
Students at Kent State University were killed by police for demonstrating against the War.
The Democratic national convention was the scene for riots and police brutality.
JFK’s brother, Robert Kennedy, a presidential candidate, was assassinated.
Marcel Duchamp died.
John Steinbeck died.
Thomas Merton died in Bangkok on Dec 10, the day he had entered the abbey at Gethsemani 27 years before.
Richard Nixon was elected president by the narrowest margin in 100 years.
The conflict between generations had grown exponentially in a decade, and it had hit the streets. My generation came of age in the sixties, as the world we were to inherit fell apart in every way, at all levels, as far as we could see. A new era was beginning but we could not project its future. The world was more than just evolving. We thought of evolution as gradual, sequential and consistent. What we were witnessing was a radical shift. It was a non sequitur as far as we were concerned. We had not been taught to deal with this much change and uncertainty and were unprepared for the upheavals we were experiencing. This was spontaneous combustion or a fire ignited by lightning. It was much bigger than us. The loss of a sense of control was staggering.
Our rights of passage had been brutal and frightening. Yet the more we talked, the more we began to see the wonder that lies within. Maybe life’s mysteries were being revealed by this inversion and, if we remained steadfast and non judgmental, we might discover something new about the world and ourselves. If the world was unpredictable, we had to find new things to value and new ways to be. Bob Dylan sang for us, “the times they are a’changing.”
In 1969, we knew a moment of optimism as we looked to the sky. On July 21, 1969, Neil Armstrong was the fist human to step on the moon and Apollo 11 then returned safely to earth. The My Lai massacre in Vietnam brought us down hard.
“Do joy and pain always come in pairs?” we asked one another.
“The good and the bad, it seemed, are not in opposition, they are two aspects of one thing,” Ray told us.
In 1971, the Cal Poly Pomona architecture students and faculty started a velvet revolution.
In 1972, fifty students and faculty left Cal Poly to start their own school. Our motivation was intense. We spent one half of the summer looking for a building, finding a 20 000 sf warehouse at 1800 Berkeley Street, in Santa Monica, and the other half turning it into a laboratory for our work. In one year the community was to grow to a hundred.
In 1972, Richard Nixon was re-elected by a landslide, as the events of Watergate were beginning to unfold.
Belief and disbelief seemed to come in equal doses. Life was, apparently, a zero sum game. We accepted it without complaining. After all we were on an adventure and there were always hardships. Life was a pilgrimage.
Life at “The New School”
Potluck dinners brought us together over food, all-school meetings brought us together over issues, presenting our projects brought us together over ideas, and work parties to improve our building brought us together over construction. We seemed to spend as much time together as we did alone, constantly trying to understand our roles and responsibilities to others and ourselves.
At first, SCI-Arc avoided conventional institutional structures. There were no “professors,” just students with various interests. There were no classes, no curriculum, no central administration, no assigned spaces. We set up our own place to work. Each one of us would decide what we wanted to do, based on our own curiosities, as long as we contributed to the general debate which was as much social as architectural. The main rule was that we had to participate in the ‘family life’ of the school.
We negotiated everything. The rules of engagement were being invented from moment to moment, and if they worked we remembered them. If not, we modified them and moved on. Things were open and fluid. Confusion led to conflict, which led to creative dialogue and action. We accepted all of this without hesitation. We thrived on it. Later we would realize the great advantages of being young and inexperienced. We worked all of the time. We all grew close. There was nothing else we wanted to do and no other place we wanted to be.
The biggest challenges were twofold: knowing how to take full responsibility for our own lives, and how to be an active part of a community that was simultaneously defining itself. Change was constant and continuous. Previously, parents and teachers had done most of the work for us. We realized that responsibility required experience. We re-read John Dewey, which had a huge influence on the concept and structure of teaching and learning practices at the school from that time to the present.
Theoretical Aspects of Our Educational Practice
The school, in all its confusion and good intentions was our first great teacher. Science defines this type of free-for-all as “self-organizing.” The relationships between each of us and the environment that was emerging was mutually defining.
It was also autocatalytic. Everyone was experiencing the same feelings of confusion, hope, fear, joy, anger, elation, jealousy, respect, fatigue, and excitement. We were all on the same life boat. We developed affinities for each other’s differences, knowing that our diversity made us a more complex and stronger organism. We depended on one another. It was not only a necessity, we came to the awareness that we wanted it that way. We had become a tribe.
What we knew least about was the history and theories of constructing an alternative education practice, which is what we were doing. After four months of discussions, and debates that came out of the big question we asked in so many ways “What is SCI-Arc, and what is our role in this community?” I decided that one way to answer the question was to take it on as a creative design problem. I would try to design the school we were trying to manifest. The next question I was compelled to ask was “who else had worked on the problem of alternative education?”
As I did my research, I began to see familiar patterns and recurring themes, three in particular. First, there was the relationship of freedom to structure. We had convinced ourselves that they were in conflict. We were wrong. They were two aspect of one thing: life. The issue was one of balance. This is always the issue.
Second, there was the nature of change: types of change, rates of change, and frequency of change.
Third, there was the relationship of part to whole (one to many). Each part had to have an imprint of the purpose of the whole system, an internal logic that would set its performance criteria and establish limits as well as the discretion to assess and respond to unexpected new conditions. Everything at all scales is interconnected and interdependent. I re-read The Federalist Papers, in which James Madison makes a clear and convincing argument about the necessity for giving equal weight to individual rights and communal responsibility. This is what all of us in the SCI-Arc community had to come to terms with.
We had to see the whole thing
We had to think systemically
We had to see the value of interdependence.
The Sequoya Educational Research Project
I was now clear about what my final project would be. I would design an alternative school that was at once a social and educational experiment, housed in a “machine” for teaching and learning. I would explore the architectural equivalent of these thoughts. I called it “the Sequoya Educational Research Project.
The program was an alternative high school for the arts, situated on a pastoral mesa overlooking the Pacific Ocean north of Los Angeles. The students and faculty living and working on this large site could be part-time nomads. This type of site offered wonderful places to spend time, and its geographic conditions with several microclimates allowed for a variety of design responses.
Teaching and Learning
It would have an industrial aesthetic. I thought of it as a “machine for learning.” The more I worked on this, the less confused I became. This discovery stayed at the heart of my architectural practice.
The work brought me together with three others, one who would soon become a professional creative partner, two who would become lifelong friends. The four of us came together on a regular basis to discuss, argue, and critique the project. It was completed by the end of the first year of SCI-Arc, presented before the entire school at the very end of one-week-long marathon of presentations. Pumped by adrenalin, my rapid non-stop talking went on for an hour. Discussion continued for another hour.
I now realize that this was the first draft of a vision that would evolve over the next fifteen years and unfold at full scale, in real time when I was elected to be Director of the Institute in 1987. In 1974, the project was submitted to Progressive Architecture Awards Program. The divide between modernism and post-modernism was becoming a more public confrontation. The jury divided and contentious, granted an award.
The year SCI-Arc was born
we were enthusiastic about
starting a new school.
We were motivated by
the idea that this might be possible
We knew that it would
be a creative process
in which we would learn about ourselves and each other.
We experienced fear and conflict
but sensed that this was a positive thing,
an inherent part of the process.
Most importantly, we learned what it meant
to be a collection of individuals
coalescing into a community,
aware of the uncertainties of change and the
belief that it would make our lives and, in turn,
the world better.
I've thought and said,
SCI-Arc is the story
Lord of the Flies
with a good ending.
Change and uncertainty were our new medium
We were living it.
They were not conceptual but real.
The school was the
It was THE PROJECT.
Our words and ideas
were tested almost
immediately, at every moment.
Everyday our survival was contingent on our ability
to be open to possibilities.
Why were we doing this?
What would we achieve?
What would our payback be?
What were our guarantees for success?
We did not know,
but one thing we knew:
IT WAS THE RIGHT THING TO DO.
It was a time of:
1. Boundless optimism
2. Extreme motivation
3. Intense conflict
4. Great learning
5. Immense fun
How could this be?
How could our comfort level be equal to the uncertainty?
What gave us the strength to move forward?
Our faith in the
The experience of renewal and rebirth
was almost as familiar as our own heartbeat.
We were experiencing the ACT OF CREATION itself.
SCI-Arc grew and learned.
Like any organism,
its evolution was influenced by its parts--
all of the individuals that made it up.
People were the MOLECULES and
SCI-Arc was the BODY.
It finally stood erect
and took its place
in the world
and spoke to anyone
who would listen.
It was a place of freedom,
a place where people could invent a LIFE
that was uniquely theirs.
It taught us, by example,
that anything imaginable was possible.
The fact that it existed, was evidence of what is possible with FAITH.
SCI-Arc not only talked about change,
it has lived it. Walked the talk.
And in the spirit of its first moment of life,
it has always been willing to engage the world as it is,
in an unconditional relationship.
SCI-Arc is a complete invention,
constructed full size, in real time.
The ultimate collective thesis project
expressing the ideas of people with strong wills,
who believe it is their mission to change the world
in constructive ways.
SCI–Arc encouraged us to live the life
we want to create for others.
SCI-Arc was the first place we could imagine the world
as we wanted it to be and would try to make it.
We were convinced that the best way to test an idea was to build it as close as we could to the ideal.
We knew this was as close as we would ever get to the ideal.
Knowing what was possible
was the motivation to do it again and again and again and again,
until it was time to go.
SCI-Arc is both a particle and a wave.
2A International Conference
DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES, 'BOUTIQUE CITY: DESIGNING FOR SALE'
NOVEMBER 17, 2008
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Good evening everyone.
I am pleased to be in Dubai and speaking at this conference.
Thank you to the sponsors and to 2A magazine and it’s editor Ahmad Zohadi for the invitation. When I arrived Sunday evening, it did not take long to see and
hear about how the realities of the global financial markets had begun to affect this part of the world. This rc-confirms the indisputable fact that we are indeed one planet, one world, and one people. If our markets are global then all of the human institutional structures that support them are Globally one interdependent system, expanding and contracting at variable speeds and rhythms, but as one entity. It is no longer tenable to think we are immune from anything that happens in a distant places where different languages are spoken. I must say we also share in the good things that are happening as well. Considering these current events, the growing number of critiques focusing on the UAE and Dubai in particular, and a wonderful wide ranging conversation that I had last evening with my friend mark bethel, director of development for Nakheel, I decided to adjust what I was going to talk about. I will express my thoughts in 3 parts;
A. ideas about cities and people, and places
B. urban projects RoTo (my design studio) worked on with
mark bethel, and then
C. concluding positive thoughts in elliptical prose
I am asked 2 questions whenever I meet someone for the first time.
“is this your first time to Dubai?”,
“no,” I answer, “this is my second. The first was one year ago.”
“what do you think about Dubai?”
“it reconfirms that anything imaginable is possible, in the right circumstance.” I answer.
Re: Current Impressions
I see Dubai through the lens of Los Angeles, which is my native city. The author Italian author – story teller, Calvino, in a book ‘Invisible Cities,’ placed the explorer Marco Polo and the Mongol lord Kubla Khan in a palace room Talking about many of the cities in Khan’s empire. Polo described them vividly and imaginatively, in detail as Khan listened, until he stopped Poloand asked if he was describing each city or was he describing Venice, Italy in different ways. Polo said, “I see each city through the lens of my native city, Venice, but it is transformed by the uniqueness of each new city.”
I see Dubai through the lens of Los Angeles, which serves as a reference, but Dubai helps me see my own city in new ways. Los Angeles is still trying to make a livable city after 100 years and we are asking, once again, Is a city for investment and wealth creation, for people, or both.
Is it possible to strike a balance between financial and social modeling?
There are still many buildings searching for a city, for connectivity, for the unimpeded flow of space and activities equal to other invisible flows of
currencies and ideas.
Looking out from my hotel room window, on the 38th floorfacing easterly, out towards the sea, I am in awe. The amount of work completed since I was last here 1.5 years ago, it seems like 10 years ago. Out my window I see many projects in different states of start and completion, with thousands of workers moving about, as cranes and cars move around one place to another. It takes me back to my childhood and my ant farm.
The work moves at the speed of money, which is a bit faster than thought. People keep pace, almost.
Is it possible to move fast and think deeply?
All of the work in various phases of completion looks incoherent ‘on the surface’ but I know that creative work is whole and coherent in the minds eye to the people with vision. Patience is required to stay focused and calm, and to see what is not present yet.
Re: RoTo’s Context
I am a teacher who practices architecture. 2 aspects of one life. I look at the world with wonder and ask, why is it like that? This is not a criticism, it is
I want to learn, and to know. Everything about everything, although this is impossible, it motivates me.
I ask fundamental questions about context and purpose and the nature of the problem at hand.
I see all of the parts in relationship. Everything I see, know and make is informed by the belief that,
It’s all one thing.
We are a unified whole and the primary reason we are here is to re-enact this undisputable fact,
Over and over and over again
Through the work we do together.
The work that we do together is a pretext for the relationships we develop
Re: Endurance and Creativity
The body-mind complex is the most extraordinary medium of creativity that exists.
Our routine conventional activities are not always the best evidence of what we have a capacity to do.
But the fact remains that physiologically
We have a deep encoded imprint to create. Creativity is an expression of our survival instinct for endurance. It is life’s resistance to entropy. To endure we must innovate. Why? Every organism is embedded in a context of probabilities and
uncertainty. If it merely acts repetitively, as if to reaffirm status quo, the organism will not endure and will surely become extinct in short order.
In turn, it cannot act randomly or spontaneously without the guidance of memory.
Memory and Creativity
Conservation and Change
Tradition and Invention
This relationship is the basis of continuity, connectivity, and coherence.
We are hardwired to search for wholeness in a world of disparate things.
We must see the world as one.
Re: Fast and Slow
As children, we were told a story about a turtle and a rabbit. They challenged each other to a race. This seemed odd since the turtle moved slowly and the rabbit moved fast. How could they race? They turtle moved deliberately in a straight line with consistency and a steady pace and focus. The ground below him
was rich with detail and pattern, he almost saw into the earth, it seemed – with the description he gave.
The rabbit on the other hand moved fast in many directions, without particular focus, stopping and re-starting multiple times. He moved across a wider territory and saw so much – but without detail or depth.
To our surprise, both finished the race at the same moment.
We always felt like both of them. And we always wondered if they ever shared their different experiences and what the benefits might have been.
Could both be one?
Is it possible to move fast? In slow motion? And, is it possible to go deep and wide simultaneously? We wondered.
Fast acts, slow recollects. The creative act is one of the intentionality
Dubai is a grand experiment, it is constructing a new world at
an accelerated pace never before imagined or undertaken at this
magnitude or in this way. And to do so it has called upon and
opened its arms up to a most diverse human population from
around the world.
They have been asked, implicitly to accept this grand vision
with the optimism and confidence of pioneer explorers. What
is unprecedented is the speed with which this extremely diverse
population, speaking almost as many dialects and languages that
exist on the planet, has incorporated to work in relative peace
This human diversity makes me feel at home. It seems, in
some ways, like my city, Los Angeles, where 130 languages
are spoken within a 7-mile radius of my home. People living
within their communities keep their own traditions and customs
alive while forging new relationships in innovative ways for a
common purpose, to create, and to build in real time. It is as if a symphony orchestra were asked to play
Yes, there are problems and differences that lead to conflict and
leaking roofs) But if we act in the present with an eye to the future,
with aspirations of constructing better worlds for the children
yet to be born, we will continually resolve our conflict, solve
our problems and develop affinities for each other’s differences.
Why? Because we believe in our heart of hearts, we must carry
on – together if we are to succeed. We cannot do this alone.
The vision is too grand, the world being constructed, too
complex. And simply, it is a great joy to play like this, in a place
like this, with kindred souls like you. All in the memory of one
of the greatest adventurers of all, Ibn Bauttuta.
26 February 2001
Revised 28 February 2001/ March 5 2001
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R.M. Schindler's American mentor F.L. Wright often said "when designing a building on a hillside, it should complete the line of the hill or be placed below the crest". Schindler remembered this throughout his life. The houses and apartments he designed in the foothills surrounding Hollywood were always carefully oriented for light and view and were set into the natural topography of their site, grounding them. The relationship of building and land appeared to be inevitably correct. I have always thought that the point being made by Wright and interpreted by Schindler was about this formal relationship. While living in one of Schindler's designs, I realized that Schindler's interpretation of this principle had to do primarily with the spatial relationship between the human body, moving and at rest, to other things in space. Where the buildings were placed and how spaces were configured, were carefully considered.
The body's sensuous engagement with its surroundings began within the room, unfolded beyond it continually extending the dimension and scale of the space the body occupied to the extent that the mind was engaged. It was a magical experience. It was an architectural sleight of hand.
Between 1990 and 1992, I lived in the Sach's Apartments, situated on a west-facing hillside in the Silverlake district of Los Angeles. The 10-unit complex was terraced on the hill with the building mass moving along the edges of its square site. The center was open and was filled with a terraced garden bisected by a staircase going from street to street connecting the large landings that served as front porches to the units. It was an American version of a Mediterranean hill town where private buildings form public spaces. These porches were the shared communal spaces where the residents spent time together.
The units were cleverly situated so from within they could be quite open with visual privacy from other units. We saw only treetops or the city below. I did not ever enter into anyone else's private space. I lived alone during a time of personal transition. Change and uncertainty are normally a part of the creative process at work. As conceptual propositions, they had become a real part of my life. I needed a place to retreat to, and this was it. In a way, it was
While living here I discovered what it meant to be in solitude, yet living within a community. At the time I found great comfort and peace of mind living this way.
I looked forward to spending time alone there. It was a place where experiences of the moment triggered my memory of events from long ago. How was this possible?Perhaps this quiet space silenced my mind enough to allow the deep cellular memory within me to unfold.
My first experience of this was probably during the first 3 months of my life, which I spent in an incubator. I was born prematurely. My transparent shelter made me an observer and participant in my new world. This awareness informed 2 monastery projects we worked on a few years later.
The apartment was a small 5 room flat of 600 S.F. Simply detailed, beautifully proportioned and filled with balanced light.
The two main rooms of equal size and rectangular in shape were adjacent to each other. Their end wall faced to the west and were entirely glass. The refracted orange sunlight at dusk filled both rooms almost everyday. The hillside position provided a long view over the city below to the horizon. Whenever I was deep in the space, I felt like I was in a cave nesting and when I was at the front edge of the glass wall, I was flying, in the middle zone, in between. Both places and sensations was where I would work, recording thoughts and images. The zone in- between is what the Lakota Sioux call the Horizon:
The line of creation is in between
one place and another
one thing and another
one event and another
where there is stillness and silence
where new life emerges
this is the zone where you cry for a vision
I spent many hours sitting at a low table reading, writing, and drawing. All of this work was preceded by sitting in silence doing and thinking nothing, just being in the space, and catching the light. There were times that the floor, walls and ceiling planes felt like a third skin, protecting me by metabolizing the streaming information moving into and out of my body.
Who we are, how we see the world and what we know are interdependent.
J. Krishnamurti described the process, as the observer is the observed. Physicists called this the uncertainty principle. As children, we are filled with wonder about all of life's mysteries and are enchanted by seeing aspects of the world around us for the first time.
Our innocence is our greatest asset because it keeps us open to a way of seeing, the almost infinite possibilities in every moment, with limited prior experience or knowledge to mediate or even pre-edit new experiences we can get closer seeing things as they truly are. We know what things are before we know what they truly mean. Whether we are moving or pausing, we are learning about the physical world and in turn ourselves. When we learn to walk, we experience balance and learn about gravity. When we see, we experience color and form and learn about light. Everything our body senses is stored in deep cellular memory. This becomes our own natural intelligence, which we eventually define as intuition.
The body language of Schindler's architecture was most likely that of Schindler himself. Who he was and what he made were one and the same.
I believe that while in his spaces, one's intuitive sense is heightened to the extent his was operating when he was designing the space.
The sensuous experience precedes the definition and meaning of the experiences. The body apprehends the world and the mind deciphers it. This understanding of the body-mind sequencing was something Schindler knew intuitively; after all he was Viennese.
Schindler was drawn to Los Angeles. Specifically to work with Frank Lloyd Wright, but I believe his real purpose was to find his creative freedom and in turn, invent a life. He wanted to be free of all of the conventions of the longstanding traditions of Central Europe. As my father told us, Los Angeles was America; an open and progressive place with no traditional limitations. This was so, because the European umbilical never made it over the Rocky Mountains. History was internalized like DNA. It would be a less than visible structure that would guide the quest for unconditional freedom.
This was evident to me in Schindler's work more than others. Schindler was a student of early modernism, which had established a clear and unyielding architectural program that defined architecture as formal art, with humanist under pinnings. This meant that the aesthetic explorations moved into the realms of abstraction with a high degree of focus on new concepts of space, order, form, structure and construction technique. It was a new age, which required new ways of living. Order had to do with the new interpretation of geometry as well as human interaction. Los Angeles attracted those with the personality of a free spirit. It was a place to explore new types of social relationships.
After he completed his academic training and professional internships in Vienna, he was filled with ideas, skill and extreme optimism about the promise of architecture. There were strong feelings about coming to America. Believing that architecture gives form to life, meant in turn, that he could invent an architecture that emerged from within the aesthetic ecosystem that included the place, the people and the culture. Albert Frey, another great mid-century architect, who practiced in the desert communities surrounding Palm Springs, came to America for its warmth, (literally and figuratively), open mindedness, and technological capabilities. In Western Europe at that time technological ingenuity applied to architecture was a central concept but the machine for living in was still constructed of concrete, bricks and plaster. America was the country where McGraw-Hill published the single book Sweets catalogue of building systems, that were predicated on building assembly emulating automobile assembly. Schindler's own house is a brilliant example of technology in the service of living on a specific site with unique qualities.
Universal principles were applied to unique situations. This was the way in America. We existed somewhere between the idiosyncratic behavior of anarchists and the standardized habits of communitarians. In Los Angeles, this was not a conflict; it was the hybrid outcome of a complex ecosystem with a benign climate. Schindler flourished in this place.
He built a lot. Mainly houses that were a testing ground for architecture. Each building recognized and accepted what was in orbit of the project. He was inclusive. They were not pre-determined by a signature style. The site and building organization's spatial relationships and the construction methods and materials all worked together usually with such success that the overall solution seemed inevitable yet still novel.
The ideas and experiences of architecture were merged. Historically, these two modes of knowing were separated into discreet realms. It seems that an objective of his was to search for a way through architecture to bridge the divide, to find a way to experience ideas. In reflection, I have learned that to merge idea and experience requires a reciprocal enhancement of both natural phenomena and an observing mind.
His motivation to search for ways to realize his insights and his skill as an architect produced works of profound beauty, where experiential phenomena became transparent to an ideal. Sitting in the spaces for a long time helped me learn that under certain conditions and through a disciplined practice, anyone can have their own epiphany into nature's ways, revealing some of life's mysteries. Through all of this, I now understand that doing architecture is a process of exploration and discovery, which ultimately serves as a medium of teaching and learning. R.M. Schindler must have known this. His completed works are a testament to the full promise that architecture holds.
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