Recovering A Master

Recovering A Master

Courtesy Yale University Press

The Architecture of Paul Rudolph
Timothy M. Rohan
Yale University Press, $65

Paul Rudolph liked to work and live in midair. His drafting desk at his New York office from 1965 to 1969 was perched on a cantilevered mezzanine platform overlooking the reception lobby 20 feet below. At his Beekman Place penthouse in Manhattan, his grand piano and drafting desk were placed on a balcony high above the living room, while his shower/ bath had a clear Plexiglass floor that formed the ceiling of the kitchen and guest apartment below. It was not just that Rudolph liked vertiginous catwalks, precipices, and rail-less stairs, but rather that he saw architecture as a physical and emotional stimulant. The designed environment, he believed, should quicken the pulse and awaken the imagination, reaffirming the humanity of the user by eliciting a sense of wonder and demanding active participation. That is one of the many ideas explored in Timothy M. Rohan’s The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, the first comprehensive and scholarly study of the architect’s five-decade career, and a lucid one at that.

Although Rudolph (1918–1997) has reemerged in our time as an important reference, his work and life have until now remained partially shrouded by the residue of old controversies that made it difficult to separate rumor from fact. Rohan, an associate professor of art history at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, researched Rudolph’s papers at the Library of Congress and interviewed many of Rudolph’s former associates to construct this systematic and readable monograph, which follows his 2001 Harvard Ph.D. dissertation. He traces Rudolph’s rise from an art-loving student who wanted to study architecture and design movie sets in the 1930s, to a designer of lightweight modern Florida beach homes in the 40s, to a “maverick” who challenged the international style in the 50s, to an inadvertent “Establishment Man” of the 60s, to a lonely master retreating to a world of private interiors and Southeast Asian projects in the 70s–90s. Yet Rudolph’s aesthetic brand of “humanism,” derived from the theories of Geoffrey Scott via Vincent Scully, seems never to have wavered.

Rudolph’s reversal of fortune appears to have climaxed in the 1969 fire that ravaged the Yale Art & Architecture building, his masterpiece, four years after he surrendered his chairmanship of Yale’s architecture department and six years after the building was opened. But as Rohan shows, this notorious calamity—which devastated Rudolph and left him unable to speak about the building for many years—was only one of several factors that contributed to his professional decline and loss of reputation. Critics increasingly accused him of prioritizing personal expression above function and economy (he countered that his search for architectural expression was not about personal expression, and that he favored economical materials such as concrete brick and prefabricated home modules). There was the problem of homophobia, exacerbated by the publication of photographs of his erotically-charged bedroom in the New York Times Magazine in 1967. Most ominous of all to his career was a larger sociopolitical change: the collapse of what Godfrey Hodgson called the “liberal consensus,” a dominant trinity of big government, big business, and big academia that was attacked from both the left and the right, resulting in a dearth of civic and institutional commissions.

Rohan wisely refrains from using the term “brutalism” except by way of reference to Reyner Banham and the Smithsons. This not only reflects Rudolph’s own distance from the term, but also allows Rohan to consider Rudolph’s work in light of more meaningful categories of analysis such as monumentality, urbanism, and decoration. The book reveals, with vividness and nuance, lesser-known but important projects such as the Jewett Arts Center (1955-58), Southern Massachusetts Technological Institute (1963–72), and the Hirsch House (1966–67). Although the narrative is consistently respectful, sometimes admiring, of Rudolph’s design intentions and results, it does not shy from describing how some experiments fell short of their mark, such as the Oriental Masonic Gardens modular housing complex in New Haven (1968–71) or the Boston Government Services Center (1962–71), whether because of poor construction or maintenance, changes in patronage, or misguided design. The chapter on “scenographic urbanism” is a fascinating case in point, describing Rudolph’s ambition to create lively public spaces by drawing upon historic 28  European plazas, the art of making stage scenery, and the scale of the modern city.

A portrait emerges of an architect who aspired to reshape the public realm with monumental civic architecture and urban planning, but whose ideas and talent actually translated best into rarefied spaces for self-selecting users. Perhaps Rudolph’s daring and masterfully theatrical spatial sequences, often comprising intricate changes in level and dramatic contrasts, were too mannered or confusing for the general public—or for the budgets of public buildings. The setbacks that can be attributed to flawed design come across mostly as variants of putting the art of architecture before the needs of a building’s occupants. As Rohan puts it bluntly, “it was difficult for [Rudolph] to imagine any user other than himself.” It follows, then, that the architect’s own Beekman Place penthouse (1977–97) could be seen as a “summary statement about his work, reiterating his belief that it was worth taking risks to make architecture and urbanism that provoked strong reactions.” At the same time, Rohan finds in Rudolph’s poignant manipulation of space and light an echo of religious architecture, particularly of the Baroque.

While the thrills of Rudolph’s intense, sectionally complex architecture are evidently not for everyone, many aspects of his work still resonate today. His concept of “topographical architecture” is an important forerunner of today’s landform buildings awash in ramps, promenades, and stepping levels. He strived to release the hidden potential of ordinary building materials such as plywood (Walker Guest House, 1952–53), concrete block (Crawford Manor, 1962–66), and acrylic (Beekman Place penthouse). Equally important was his ongoing attempt to recover ornament and a sense of history for modern architecture, for example through the sculptural shaping of a plaza surface, or the hand-finishing (bush-hammering) of poured concrete ridges to form a “corrugated” surface glimmering with an aggregate of seashells and mica. And Rudolph’s nonpareil perspective sections—reproduced in high quality in this book designed by Luke Bulman of Thumb, along with archival and contemporary photographs—leave no doubt that the search for architectural expression resides partly in the realm of representation.