Interview: Michael Rotondi on Architecture Education

Given the state of the economy around the world, many people are returning to school in the hopes of acquiring new skills while riding out the worst of the effects of the global recession. Toward that end, ArchDaily has begun a College Guide to help people explore different educational options. There are many issues to consider beyond a school’s “name” such as the types of programs architecture schools offer. The Guide has highlighted schools with programs in Building Ecology, Forensic Architecture, and Human Rights, to name a few, while some of the practical issues have included cost analysis, financial aid, and access to cross-disciplinary training.

What has not been explored in the Guide because of its scope is a more theoretical examination of pedagogical strategies. What direction has architecture academics taken and where should it go in order to remain socially relevant, practically agile, and economically competitive? To discuss these issues, we interviewed Michael Rotondi, a founding student and current Distinguished faculty member of SCI-Arc and principle at RoTo Architecture. Throughout the conversation, Mr. Rotondi’s insight combine with a constant and voracious intellectual curiosity to provide visions that are important to both students and educators.

Read our interview with Michael Rotondi after the break

Still Points Installation, SCI-Arc

Q:  Can you first explain how you approach teaching?

A:  “Teaching is a lot of specific objectives, but for me it’s letting other people see what I see and know what I know. I remember giving lectures where my objective was to let people know how smart I was, how talented I was. If you’re still searching for an identity, that is one of the ways you do that. Now it’s about letting other people see how talented they are, how smart they are. And any feedback in that regard is vastly rewarding.”

Q:  What do you think are the most important skills architects must have and what do you  think is an ideal curriculum for schools?

A:  “As innovative as architects are, we’re still using an old factory model for education. One of the hardest skills educators haven’t taught is how to negotiate things that try to keep anything from maintaining its integrity. And we can’t just teach what we think needs to be taught in order to fill the spaces in the world based on the industrial, economic, and social models that are currently in existence. We have to teach students how to be entrepreneurial. Not in the sense of making money, but how to do the kind of work they want to do. How to pursue the kind of life practice and professional practice they want to pursue. There needs to be a place where people are guided through a process of inventing their own lives. 

The curriculum for architecture can be an experimental education if we see it as a platform rather than as a discipline. It’s a discipline and a profession, but if we see it as a platform, then the students who don’t really intend to practice will also be attracted to it. It gives them more options, more latitude. Realizing that so many people graduate from architecture are going to be working outside of conventional architecture is the first step in that direction". 

"We need to discuss and work on it by letting people come into the school who have no interest in becoming architects. Think about the way  the word architect is used: the architect of economy, for example, or the architect of a whole variety of things. It’s not about being a builder, it’s about being somebody who is able to synthesize different components and things based on bigger ideas. The education somebody can get at a school of architecture is expansive because you’re making things, it’s project based.”

Kalpa Set Design for PST Performance

Q:  What are the most prominent characteristics that define architecture schools?

A: “What’s more, the ideas aren’t proprietary in architecture schools. There are no trade secrets and no patenting. In the beginning of SCI-Arc for example, we weren’t consciously trying to keep ideas open source. Over time, we began to realize that that was what made the school grow as quickly as it did. And finally, this concept was, amazingly, spacialized. It’s open source and everyone can see what’s going on and that feeds back into their work in some way. Sometimes directly, sometimes very indirectly.”

Q:  What should architecture’s trajectory for the future be?

A:  “I think we’re on the cusp of a radical shift and it’s not just a shift because of ecology. When we talk about ecological issues, often that just has to do with making things sustainable or netzero. In fact, I’m a bit surprised that the ability to see things holistically seems to be diminishing. Right now we’re in a moment of  radical shift, the kind of shift that happens in geologic time. Everything is in transition. And architecture is part of it so we need mechanisms of change that are built in. 

"What qualifies as advanced in architecture now is basically formal operations. What has an impact is determined by the scale of the project. And that scale is driven by financial models, not social models. Instead  we have to measure things based on how much social influence they have. Steadfastness, patience, empathy, compassion, love, these elements make communal life more than just being instrumental in getting what you want. We have to become more selfless and we have to not just seek the endgame of private rewards. The endgame is the advancement of the species.”

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Cite: Rodrigo Frey. "Interview: Michael Rotondi on Architecture Education" 01 Nov 2012. ArchDaily. Accessed . <> ISSN 0719-8884

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