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Hearts of L.A. / How the Quake Rocked Our Spirits and Changed Our Lives : MAKING SENSE : 'There's something destabilizing about having your body moved by the Earth.'

January 30, 1994|Michael Rotondi | Rotondi, 44, of Silver Lake, is a downtown architect who designed the new L.A. restaurant Nicola. Other than things falling from shelves, his home and office--in an old brewery near Chinatown--had little damage. He finds earthquakes more fascinating than frightening.

As an architect, I'm always interested in earthquakes and the academic level of just knowing how forces work. All our experiences with earthquakes are that they move laterally, but this one hopped--which is why a lot of things didn't fall off shelves. In some parts of the city, it's like it was as much vertical as it was horizontal.

When I came back, my desk had been hopping up and down and I could see where the paint was (damaged). Also, just to see the fatigue on some of the buildings. It works its way back into your mind that when you're designing, you begin to think about forces coming from every direction.

I've also worked in Tokyo, which probably has one of the strictest earthquake codes. I think that the codes here are going to become closer to those. They design buildings in Tokyo as if every building is the epicenter. They design completely rigid buildings and I think that's what is going to begin happening here. The building code is going to be rewritten structurally and so the cost of construction is going to go up. There's going to be a whole shift in the whole system of designing and constructing and all of that.

We have to be ready. Most places that we build are the places that are most likely affected by something. It's like we cut hillsides, then put houses on them and then are surprised that there are landslides. We build on the flatlands and then we're surprised that there is earth movement. It's all the flatlands, like underneath here and parts all over the city, wherever it's flat, there's water below the ground and it shakes like Jell-O.

Except for earthquakes, we're never aware that the Earth's crust is actually moving, that the Earth is an organism that is constantly moving just like everything else and, in the immediate sense, it affects us, shakes us all up. There's something destabilizing about having your body moved by the Earth. We're 75% water and so when you're shaking, your cells remember that.

Everybody was talking about the earthquake. Everyone I talked to, the first question they asked was about the earthquake. Everybody shared stories and the one positive thing about that is that there isn't much else that cuts through all the differences we have. It was something that affected the entire city.

It wasn't just a fire in Malibu or a landslide in some other part of the city. The riots almost did that, but they still had distinct lines that they were following. The earthquake hit everybody, and everybody, regardless if whether you were affected directly with major damage, knows somebody that was.

It was the first time that I was really struck with that if it's not this one, there will be another disaster that's going to make you have to live like a camper. I immediately started thinking about what everyone else was thinking about. You know, the long term, the next three to five days, water, food and all of that and how unprepared I was for that.

This happens at a time that one of the things that I've been working on for the last four years is the whole topic of death. My mother is slowly dying. Physically she is losing all of her strength, but mentally she is completely alert.

So, I began reading a book called "The Tibetan Book of the Dead"; it's a guiding mechanism that you read when someone is dying, as a way of helping them work their way--the spirit separating from the flesh--as the Tibetan Buddhists believe.

It also talks about life. But it primarily talks about the nature of impermanence, and how attached we get to everything and how we always want to turn everything back to its original condition and how resistive we are when anything changes--even the smallest things in our lives.

The thing for me is that the earthquake served as a kind of a lesson. We've got the disadvantages and the liabilities that come with natural disaster, but we also have the benefits of knowing that natural disasters are just that--they're not created by other people.

With an earthquake, you can't place blame, so you have to have faith. The whole element of faith has been missing across the board. The only time most people pray is when they get close to death or something traumatic is going to happen to them. I think all of this seems pretty clear to me, that this is some sort of precursor to all of us having to move back into a spiritual realm, not religious, and going inside ourselves and seeing what really matters.

There's something extraordinarily symbolic about being swallowed up by the Earth--ashes to ashes.

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