Conceptual Voyagers

Conceptual Voyagers

Michael Rotondi’s collaboration with Clark Stevens and two adventurous clients inspires an iconic constructivist dwelling.

by Pierluigi Serraino, AIA

Buildings are like cats. Sometimes they can have many lives, although rarely, if  ever, nine as the proverb goes. The Carlson-Reges house in downtown Los Angeles is the story of one of those lives, an architectural permutation of how a structure can morph to accommodate a new family narrative, shaped by the owners’ unique program making the house what it is as you enter the space. But if residential architecture constitutes the constructed autobiography of its patrons, it is also the personal itinerary of the architect that designed it. Those trajectories are fully intertwined and, as such, this is a tale with two plots.

Michael Rotondi, FAIA

The owners command the first plot. One day, a young married couple, Kathleen “Kathy” Reges and Richard Carlson, walked in the office of architect Michael Rotondi to design their home. This duo’s claim to local fame was the development of the Brewery in downtown Los Angeles as an art colony, location of both their dwelling-to-be and Rotondi’s practice since the early 1990s. The brief was as eclectic as the personalities of the owners that drafted it: a residence, an art gallery, and a kennel for raising dogs. The given was a 1920s industrial building in concrete, carrying traces of an urban decor that was part of a bygone era, the age of the good classicist manners. How to write the next chapter of this artifact was the task the architect was entrusted to attend to.

The designer is the protagonist of the second plot. For those steeped in architectural matters, the name Michael Rotondi is inextricably linked to the founding of the legendary firm Morphosis with Thom Mayne, currently at the helm of that practice. Rotondi’s singular trajectory escapes cursory summaries. If Rotondi’s most known contribution in the global scene is to have been an integral member of an elite group that transitioned design culture in Southern California from the stagnation of late Modernism to a new Renaissance (the once the highly influential magazine Progressive Architecture labeled it as the “Santa Monica school”), his footprint is deeper than architecture itself. Since his voluntary departure from that office in 1991, Rotondi has been a conceptual voyager, exploring the frontier of his inner self to generate an architectural output, whether a talk, an article, a course, a building, or the like.  

It was the marriage of these two unconventional parties that produced an environment defying boilerplate descriptions in the standard literature of the genre. The owners and the architect embarked on a relational journey where they shared and negotiated all aspects of the design that was eventually built from idea to execution. Both a highly complex optical apparatus and an uncommon setting sequencing events after events, the Carlson-Reges House was, and is, a landmark design for the L.A. of the mid-1990s.

In fact, it is the evocative effect that noted British architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner penned in one of his lectures that is particularly strong in this case. It gives off an industrial flavor, yet its look is unlike any other industrial building in the area, or everywhere else for that matter. It makes of its construction an architectural manifesto, while at the same time it lacks any affectation in a what-you-see-is-what-you-get type of experience. The Carlson-Reges house is, in no uncertain terms, an intricate three-dimensional entity, with labyrinthine qualities and provocative spatial conditions that are intelligible to the occupants as well as being open ended in their possible interpretations. It produces in the viewer a lasting impression when entering the premise and when leaving it. By all accounts, it is a memorable experience.

But back to the first plot, a few pieces of information add to the story of this architecture.

Decades prior to the commission, Reges’ father bought 20 acres of land in an industrial zone in East L.A. where the Brewery would eventually rise. His company handled the dismantling of large-scale equipment and machinery, by default filling his yard with a vast array of building components structurally integral but orphan of their original functions. Repurposing that material, carrying the patina of that utilitarian past, with the scars of its use left on its surface, was part of the brief for the new house. The dialog between the old steel and the new steel of the project Rotondi and his Roto Architects set forth, is a central element in decoding the story within the story of each of those elements as the visitor meanders in the space. Michael Rotondi opened RoTo in 1991, in collaboration with Clark Stevens and Brian Reiff. Stevens, a GSD-graduate who interned at Morphosis, turned out to be a powerful creative vector in the design trajectory of that open practice. His 15-year stint, 11 of which as a partner in the firm, are inextricably linked to the landmark projects Roto authored in the first phase of its existence.

Original model of RoTo Architects’ design.

In a parallel mode, the second plot thickens with the concurring personal circumstances of the designer of this architecture. In those years Rotondi lived through several private and professional changes that profoundly affected his work. In divorcing his first wife, he left the family home and rented a place in the Manola Court apartments-—also known as Sachs apartments. Set in Silver Lake, Manola Court was designed by Rudolph Schindler between 1926 and 1940. While residing there, Rotondi was exposed to the controlled articulation of the Austrian master, whose three-dimensional imagination continues to enchant the audience of our time sixty-six years after his passing. He left Morphosis, whose dominance was growing among architectural critics and the general public alike. His quest had expanded to raise larger questions about his own conception of life and space that necessitated a different setting for their development. Lastly, he became director of the Southern California Institute of Architecture (SCI-Arc), a revolutionary design school he helped Ray Kappe, a well-known architect, to found.

The site during the RoTo Architects design regenesis. Roof systems were fabricated on the ground, and craned into place.

In this leadership position, Rotondi tackled the very conception of growth in education in architecture. He and his faculty cultivated a focus on examining how the discipline could be a vehicle for understanding the human condition as it relates to shelter, dwelling and a sense of belonging to the environment. For Rotondi, architecture was clearly an instrument of existential awareness. His teaching consistently reinforced the micro and macro realm at which architecture operates. While the majority of other architecture schools in the country concerned themselves with the building and its appearance, Rotondi’s interest was in establishing architecture’s position as part of a much larger human enterprise.

In approaching the site, it is immediately clear that what lays before the eyes is two buildings into one. The old and the new coexist in an open-ended formal solution, with the earthbound shape of the former being inhabited by the skin and guts of a new artifact. This shape is absent of any familiar association. The closed and open form consistently reinforce their inherent diversity, while being locked in a new position generative of powerful spatial moments. This is an architecture of circulation affording the gaze to navigate and experience the original space that at the onset was never intended to be internalized as such. Such visual displacement is part of the building’s appeal and mystery. The concrete enclosure of the pre-existing structure is a foil pierced to let the vectors of human movements redistribute the perceptual path of an otherwise inconspicuous massing within the industrial landscape.

Broadly speaking, this architecture consists of a covered steel cage inserted into a hollowed-out concrete body. The connection between these two entities is a circuit that affords the visitor to go in and out of the 1920s structure at various heights to terminate in a sheltered observation platform. There, a master bedroom allows a view of the long horizon of Greater Los Angeles. The spatial negotiation between these two physical entities is what singles out this design from even a luxurious remodel. Its interior is an open section with a commanding vertical axis drawing the occupants to its summit. The controlled clash between the gentle geometry of the concrete boundary, with its rhythmic openings and classical decor, and Rotondi’s constructivist fantasy, with flying surfaces and imaginative level changes, is at the core of its formal dynamism in its interiors as well.

Past this area, through a custom-designed corten-steel front gate, the old and new skin are staged and perceived. Everywhere the eye lays its gaze is designed. The relentless focus is reminiscent of the work of Carlo Scarpa, the Italian maverick whose landmark design, the Bank of Verona, Rotondi visited while working on this project. It is clear that this building greatly influenced him.

Once within the liminal zone between the site boundary and the house itself, the hovering building dominates the visual field. The visitor is then coaxed into an architectural promenade filled with many turns, punctuated by innumerable vantage points from where to live its spatial richness to the fullest. The front door, another essay in design inventiveness, faces a grand stair leading to an open kitchen, living room and dining area. From that same entry vestibule a short link leads the way to a triple-height space, a grand void with floating machine-like objects leaving people to wonder about their function and how to they got there. Here, art is displayed in a generous expanse. A large industrial roll-up door offers the opportunity to bring in larger artwork.

In their yard, the owners had gas tanks eight feet in diameter by 20 feet in length. The architects made unexpected use of them. One was cut in half, lifted 16 feet above the ground. Its long side was positioned to point directly toward the Los Angeles Public Library. It was then transformed into a pool.

The owners wanted to be able to walk around the outdoor deck, which wraps around the house, and sit. The circuit exploring the inner and outer layer of the concrete skin is a powerful device, displacing the familiar pattern of building elements. Like a temporary scaffold, catwalks slope, latch onto other levels, reach intermediate landings, and even take the owners to outdoor balconies at different levels within eyesight. It is a Romeo and Juliet like metaphor, the balconies suggesting a place where a couple could come together after an argument.

In this custom-made universe of found objects, scrap material, and new surfaces, playfulness reigns supreme. There is neither the mechanical austerity of engineering construction nor a sense that the designers and owners relish the aesthetic of abandoned places. This is a comfortable environment. Here, Rotondi expresses his fascination for the imaginary urban scenarios of paper architect Lebbeus Woods, a contemporary Piranesi. Of a mechanized world of ambiguous use, Woods made a total environment exhibiting unsettling credibility. Many of his visions were of metal structures emerging out of existing buildings, not unlike the vision Rotondi puts forth for the Carlson-Reges house. These artifacts appear as assemblages of compound sheet metal surfaces, tubular elements, and anchorages suggesting an architecture in motion. It is as if they are giant robot-like creatures, materializing from a seed in incubation.

The mid-nineties saw the renewed interest in object-making across the country. The shop was the center of that exploration and the making of things through welding, sawing, cutting, and soldering became a form of thinking in action. The driver behind this approach was that by feeling the material response, the architect would develop an awareness of how the natural world reacts to human intervention. This is an altogether different attitude than an architecture coming out of the drafting table, with its built-in concerns for measurements, proportions, and order. Therefore, uncommon spatial configurations and unprecedented joinery was the outcome of an unrestricted exploration of material juxtapositions. In this respect, the physical model as opposed to orthogonal projections was the primary tool for architectural investigation.    

If the shop is a mini-construction site, by the same token a construction site is a large shop. That mindset was behind the construction of this scheme. Much of the steel structure was built on the ground, lifted by 60-foot cranes, and then inserted into the concrete perimeter of the industrial facility. By extension, the custom-made frame on casters holding the king-size bed in the master bedroom allows constant reorientation of the bed toward ever changing points of interests—another creative decision. The corrugated metal roofs lap onto each other to secure enclosure, but never in a pre-determined Platonic form.

The Carlson-Reges house is a piece of architecture that, at its core, challenges visual perception and set associations, leaving the visitor in a state of constant wonder. It reorganizes the patterned conception of what a house is, what retreating is, what living is.

Standard readings of residential design hardly apply here as there is no conventional front and rear elevation, no main floor and no private level. Everything is fluid, interpenetrated, and challenged in its typical function. It is an architectural microcosm that is complete and coherent. And yet, the project could continue to grow without altering its architectural fundamentals.

Process over product is Rotondi’s mantra. Signature process as opposed to signature style could describe how the Carlson-Reges House came about. A great many of the decisions were made on site by common agreement. The starting point was a set of schematic drawings and maquettes, more specifically, a site model and a sectional model cutting through the triple-height space. Site sketches were used to advance the project in construction and deal with field conditions, in the absence of working drawings. From concept, to form, to built outcome, the thought process is the linking thread of these phases. Inherently, there is no architectural a-priori, but a mode of discovery of the architecture itself as it happens by constantly asking questions.

Photographs simply cannot tell the full story of the building. The difficulty in photographing this building is that it inevitably yields a storyboard approach where images, like bread crumbs on a trail, array visual cues in an orderly fashion. The viewer is then asked to reconstruct the nature of the space framed. But that visual approximation does little justice to a setting that is arresting in all its corners. The Carlson-Reges house is a startling reminder that architecture is an art form to inhabit in person; only then can its transformative power to be felt. And this project fully delivers what it promises, in photographs and otherwise.


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