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The Practice of Delight

A Ramble with Michael Rotondi – 

Stylish and relaxed in his Japanese farmer pants, Michael Rotondi greets me from a slightly raised platform which serves as the reception desk, where he is working with the only two staffers present on a Saturday. I am directed to the library, an open space with generous windows spilling in light from the clear autumn afternoon, illuminating the cerulean blue painted plywood floor. The vast and impressively eclectic collection of art and architecture books surrounds a spacious conference table swept clear of all but a few random notepages. There is a huge open workfloor with dozens of project stations active, a creative hive of hands-on activity: models in various stages of completion; plans, books and sketches.

Mr. Rotondi walks me over to the wooden model of Zangdok Palri, the planned 3-D mandala (temple) for the mountain retreatland in Tehachapi, that was recently the subject of a brief  but very popular exhibit at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. Rotondi lifts the roof like a kid showing off his new toy. Inside is the radial ribcage of the mandala. The model shows only the bare structure of a building  intended as an expression of a complex cosmology which will be both elusive and accessible, both grounded in tradition and shatteringly new….

Through mutual friends, Rotondi met Ven. Lama Chodak Gyatso Nubpa in 2002, and the two quickly sparked to one another. As part of his dedication to conserving and propagating the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, Lama Gyatso aspired to build the Zangdok Palri, a painstakingly researched and precisely crafted work of art and engineering. The site is a picturesque and rugged canyon that lies in a north facing mountain at the southern fringe of the Sierra Nevadas, amidst a stand of Ponderosa pines and adjacent to a stream fed by natural artesian springs. Rotondi has partnered with Lama Gyatso and his team, and continues his consultation on the project, which is just completing its planning phase and is now seeking sponsorship. In addition to the contemporary work he is known for, Rotondi has a background working with Native Americans–who have suffered a similar fate to the Tibetans over the last couple of centuries–as well as other Buddhist groups and indigenous peoples. But at the heart of his engagement is a feeling of personal connection with Lama Gyatso…who passed away just last year.

What follows are excerpts from a long  relaxed audience with Mr. Rotondi, which wove through his personal and artistic history–a sort of mind-in-progress snapshot…


family structure

My father was the youngest kid in the family… my father and mother wanted to invent a life, not merely inherit one predetermined by family hierarchies and ethnic traditions, so they moved west to ‘the coast’. At dinner we were never required by tradition or my father to sit in the same seat–we sat down wherever we sat down. When I went back east the first time, to visit my mother’s family, I was 4-years old. The second time I went back east  I was 24-years-old. And I sat down at the dining room table, same people, just  twenty years older. I sat down, but no one else would sit down. Finally my uncle came over and said “Could you sit over here?” So I moved to the seat he showed me, and immediately everybody fell into place. And I realized that I was now sitting in exactly the same seat that I had been sitting in 20 years earlier.

teaching and learning

One afternoon as we walked the site in Tehachapi,  our conversation focused on the design of buildings on the site, and Lama Gyatso asked me, “What should they look like?”

Trying to help him understand the limits of  ‘style’ I responded,  “They should be invisible.”

He stopped and turned to me and asked me to explain how this was possible, and I turned and pointed to a huge extraordinary pine tree that we had just walked by without noticing, and said that this tree was an example of invisibility: this tree was hiding in plain sight and we had to look twice to see it once.

Again he asked me to elaborate. As I began to explain it, I realized that he understood it so quickly that he already knew what I was telling him but had not heard it expressed in this way. Through questioning and dialogue, he kept drawing things out of me; each thought was impetus for the next. It wasn’t the typical Socratic question and answer. I continued that this tree, in its full character, had become what it was because of its context, which created the conditions for this tree to manifest as it did. It’s size and character were inevitable.  Inevitability and invisibility are the same in this context, I said.

When I finished my thought, his face expressed the joy of a teacher who was pleased by the student’s discovery.  I realized what I had just said, having spoken extemporaneously, was inevitable as well…the context of being there at that moment in that natural environment walking and talking with him created the conditions for these thoughts which I had the opportunity to express. Being around some people, you can not help but learn. This for me was a lesson on how to teach.  True learning is an act of discovery of something that was always present.


In the first four years of a human’s life, all of the cells in the visual cortex are waiting for the light on the outside to come through and basically trigger the light on the inside. We hold images in our visual cortex. After reading this I began to wonder,  “how do you actually see”? Where is the image? Is it the actual object we see or is a memory of the image of the object stored in our brain and retrieved at the appropriate time?  The eyes are just bringing the light in.

If you’re born blind, and you have a transplant anytime after four years of age, you only see in proportion to how much time has passed beyond those four years. If you have a transplant at 20-years old, you can’t see at all. It’s no longer possible because the cells in the visual cortex that ‘hold the images’ have disappeared and other senses have made up for what the eyes couldn’t do. The memory is formed by all that we see in our early years. This memory is selectively triggered when outer light ‘carrying form’  meets the ‘inner light’  and the image emerges from our memory into our ‘mind’s eye’.

So, images are stored within us and are retrieved when triggered by an external context. Is it possible that ‘all knowledge necessary’ for our survival is stored within us, transferred epi-genetically?  Is it possible that at the moment of birth we are potentially all knowing and our intelligence is latent within us and we are not born ‘empty’ as we are told, and the experiences we have, in context, determine the degree to which our intelligence unfolds? The cells in our body innovate in this way.

The concept of scale is essential to visual thinking.

Also, facts can not  get in the way of a fluid imagination.

ordering principles

What I didn’t know before I started this project is that a sand mandala [a two dimensional mandala] is actually the roof plan of a building. You grab the center and lift: it’s a pop up. Not literal in the sense that it is precisely what the building will be, but in the sense that the entire story is written down below. The size and the proportions of it are set by tradition and transferred from one person to the next by spoken word.  In a stupa–a common building in Buddhism–the structure is ‘regulated’ by numerical ordering systems that are based on sacred geometries and proportion systems. It’s generally two to one ratios. In western architecture, proportion systems which began in the Age of Faith bridged into the Age of Reason through all of the arts, but it was advanced through the harmonic systems used in music. The architecture of the Renaissance took it to a greater scale and purpose. Proportioning systems were understood  as both sacred and secular numerology.  The goal of a proportioning system is to produce a sense of coherence and harmonic wholeness on a site  or in a building. The human body has a capacity to autonomically sense this.


Beauty–thought about in a cursory way, you say ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’…I do not believe this is correct. There is something universal about beauty.

It’s presence can supercede the idiosyncrasies of taste or style. When a cross section of  people, with different ethnicities, educations, and life experiences, were observed identifying beauty, each had an  identical internal chemical reaction. Beauty seems to be biological necessity, not personal taste. So, what was their common ground? what did they all ‘see’? Perhaps we ‘see’ ourselves in a deeper way. We ‘see’ the  inevitability of form, behavior, and intentions manifest in material form. We ‘see’ proportion regulating the process of growth into form, we ‘see’ coherence as wholeness.

symbolic meaning

The entire mandala with all of its symbols, is a gateway for the consciousness through all time to come through into this time. So nothing is superfluous on [a mandala like Zangdok Palri]. Now, there’s interpretation involved; whether it’s this big, or that big, this color or that color, this material or that material.

Generally this particular mandala is about light, enlightenment. So, instead of just being symbolically about light, it is the experience of light as well. I showed Lama Gyatso certain materials, types of glass, and there was one called dichroic glass: when the light hits it, becomes prismatic from the inside and it changes colors, as the sun moves throughout the day.’ He says, “Wow! Can we use this on the building?” We talked about many different materials that could basically solve the problem. There are performance criteria, but then there is how you actually go about it, which is open. That openness was basically Lama’s M.O. You can interpret lots of things as long as  you can get to the core meaning of what we’re trying to do.


There was a point in time when I became interested for a number of reasons in integrating the mind and the heart. The question, ‘is it possible to integrate intellectual and spiritual activities’ needed an answer. Architecture is primarily an intellectual activity although throughout its history it has had a peripheral focus on matters of the heart. I was interested in the most fundamental type of integration. So I began to study certain precedents.  I got the American Indian  creation stories, and I drove to the Southwest, to the Canyon de Chelly. You read the stories there because then you’re in the spaces described in the stories and all your senses are present. During this process I started to understand how everything is integrated. It isn’t just a conceptual decision to integrate. There’s the land, the physical characteristics of the place, the power that resides in the unique landforms, the animals and vegetation, and humans. The stories describe how and why all of these parts co-exist  symbiotically, harmonically. These pilgrimages to particular places to read particular stories grounded in these place enhanced the world I already knew. Sacred events were place and time based. The practical and profound were the flipside of each other. Ideas and experiences enhanced each other. Everything was in motion yet in dynamic equilibrium. Everything was one thing.  This whole learning process for me was a reenactment of how I/we learned as children. Our body was present when our mind was engaged. Dewey called this ‘experience based learning’. Thoreau might call it ‘synesthetic’, all the senses, basically kicking in at the same time.

When I was telling a couple of new friends about my travels and what I was discovering, it happened that one of them was the head of a foundation interested in working with Native Americans. So, together we  worked with American Indians for some years. [Rotondi worked with the Lakotas, designing & building Sinte Gleske University on the Rosebud Reservation and designing the Oglala Lakota College Fine Arts Building on the Pine Ridge reservation.]

I  was taken to Wounded Knee with one of the women from the reservation and we walked around for a few hours…we weren’t talking the whole time, we were just walking and standing wherever she decided to stop, that’s how I figured she was teaching me. We finally stopped right next to the obelisk that has the names of all the chiefs who’d been shot down, and the most uncanny thing–and it’s the first time I’d ever felt this…I could feel–it was like the equivalent of cognac going down—except something was coming up through the bottom of my feet. And it hit me. And the most profound sadness that I’d ever felt came into my heart. It just–I couldn’t talk for the rest of the day. I looked over at her, and she looked at me; she knew that I’d gotten it, and she just said, we’ll go now.

It wasn’t physically painful. It was a different kind of pain, it was…I was sad for our species, just totally sad for our species and our capacity to let our dark side manifest so thoroughly.

And from that moment on, I was really clear that we/RoTo were on a mission…and we had to do the stuff that we would normally do but still had to dedicate a whole lot of time to doing other things to rebuild trust, and to restore our humanity.

Over time, that led me to American Buddhists and the Tibetans.

dividing and connecting

The East and the West is not, for me, the dichotomy. The east is where the wisdom resides and the west, in its youth, is where inventiveness resides.  I began to define it as  earth-based societies (east) and sky-based societies (west). We’re sky-based, basically. Sky-based societies see the mind–or what we think–as independent of the body. Then, all the technology that we produce–all of society is structured on that technology, and you are further and further  removed from the earth. Take telecommunications–a sky-based technology. Totally conceptualized. Now, what is rarely talked about is that any of the technology that we produce  comes from intuition about how the body works. All knowledge is primarily body-based. The fact that this is an arguable point among intellectuals is the crux of the problem.  And now  digital technology has been amplified out to the conceptual body, the ‘global community’ through what we define now as social media. There’s an upside and a downside. The upside is that in a fractionated society–we’ve become more and more fractionated– social media is connecting people, at least technically. The downside is, because there’s no gravity in the computer, literally and figuratively, people think they actually have friendships when they don’t. I mean it’s kind of weird to be calling people “friends” when you’ve never met them before.

If we know we are being surreal then it is okay but when we actually believe it, the term friend is seriously diluted.

In earth-based societies, there were consequences when you made decisions that were based on lies: things didn’t grow. You didn’t have storage…especially if you were nomadic. There were no stores. There was no Costco. You basically had to live the right life in order to be in the kind of intellectual, and emotional, and spiritual zone to get return from your efforts. You had to walk the talk. Negotiating with God is not an option. The practical and the profound were connected in their stories so they were connected in their lives.

We don’t have practical and profound being connected. You can’t make these connections  conceptually. In an earth-based society a building or an object, or piece of clothing can have very practical applications but at the same time, the way it was made, the material that was used, and the particular aesthetic, is profound. And so every day, you’re reminded that every moment is a sacred moment.


The contested territory of what’s sacred and what’s profane is always a big debate. It’s not a debate when for example the U.S. government put Mt. Rushmore on the Black Hills–knowing exactly what they were doing.  The Black Hills in South Dakota were the main sacred spot for the Lakota. Like every other emperor or power that takes down this temple and rebuilds it in another way, this was the U.S. government’s way to finalize its dominion over these peoples.  The ultimate dominion of one civilization over another is always spiritual. It’s never political. And spiritual is where you rip the heart out.

giving back

Instead of prayer being something to put you into an altered state, we’re raised to think you have to be negotiating with God all the time. I was invited to the most sacred of ceremonies at the reservation — and you find enlightenment here only exists in giving it back to everybody else. That’s what you read  about in the Vision Quest.  The vision–which should happen individually only by one person facing four directions over four days–if he has a vision–the only way that vision could ever be realized was for it to be enacted  as an opera with the rest of the tribe.

It wasn’t proprietary. The greatest period of invention in America was when Ben Franklin was alive and nobody patented anything. Why? Because people were putting ideas back out into the community, and they were growing, everything was growing on itself.

That’s what  barn-raising is. That’s what cooperative living is about. We see it primarily as competition. The question is, is it possible to have competition and cooperation? Yes: you cooperate with each other to raise the standard and then you compete against the standard instead of each other.

When I started to change everything in my life,  it came to me that my body was an encyclopedia of 15 billion years folded in. I wanted to know, how do you get access to it? And now, what I’ve learned…it’s not out there. It is all stored here. And when your body becomes utterly still, your mind becomes totally quiet, which happens for a nanosecond. That’s all you need. You can see all the way to the core of the earth. And you become weightless for a moment. Something happens. It’s not something you can even describe or say what you’ve learned from it. You can’t describe it, but you’ve basically evolved to the next level in terms of the inside. The index of this is how your relationships with other people change.

There are certain kinds of projects that allow you to evolve as a person. You have to become transparent. So I have to bring my consciousness as opposed to personality. It’s not about me. It’s about this: whatever we’re doing becomes a medium for establishing a relationship with somebody else who can teach you. And I’m most interested in learning right now.

The Zangdok Palri project  has to do with cultural sustainability. When you’re doing work like this mandala, it’s cultural sustainability that leads to the regenerative…as Pema Thaye would say. The only way you can do this properly is by trying to lose yourself. So what this helps me do, what it forces me to do is to move further along in my own practice, my own personal practice. The work is not about producing a building, the architecture becomes a pretext for the relationships.

Ven. Lama Chodak Gyatso Nubpa —Like thousands of other Tibetan monks, nuns, and lay people, Lama Gyatso, a Nyingma lineage holder, survived a forced and difficult journey out of Tibet as a small boy with his family. After extensive education and training and a distinguished career with the Tibetan government-in-exile as representative of the Nyingmapa community, he came to Los Angeles at the request of His Eminence Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche. He established a center in Los Angeles to teach the Dharma and to preserve truly traditional Tibetan culture in ways that it can no longer be preserved in Tibet.

Michael Rotondi —Co-founder of the renowned architectural firm, Morphosis, and SCI-Arc School of Architecture in Los Angeles, Michael Rotondi is now the principle of RoTo architects, a firm located on a top floor loft space in the Brewery.


  1. Thank you Rita and Michael. I appreciate these wonderful + lingering concepts.

  2. Thank you for this article. Beautiful, clear, simple truth.

  3. A universe of truths and possibilities. Vivid, evocative introduction.

    Thanks for a great read, Rita.

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