The Hard Case of Paul Rudolph

Peter Aaron/OTTO
The living room and upper level of Paul Rudolph’s Beekman Place penthouse apartment, New York City, which he renovated during the last twenty years of his life, from 1977 to 1997


A fall from critical grace is not uncommon in the arts, but somehow seems more surprising in architecture than in literature, music, or painting. Buildings tend to remain in the public realm longer and more conspicuously than books that go out of print, operas that languish unperformed, or paintings relegated to storage. By and large, architecture is simply too expensive to destroy for mere matters of taste. Indeed, the benign neglect of unfashionable architecture in economically marginal areas has long been an inestimable boon to historic preservation.

Among the most acclaimed mid-twentieth- century American architects, none experienced a more precipitous reversal of fortune than Paul Rudolph. During the late 1940s and early 1950s, Rudolph attracted well-deserved attention for the more than two dozen houses he built on the west coast of Florida. These small, sprightly structures displayed what the architectural historian Robin Middleton aptly termed “a very bright-young-boyish charm.” Rudolph’s informal, lightweight houses demonstrated his dynamic manipulation of space, inventive use of new materials, and rejection of rote domestic conventions. It was easy to imagine what he might do on a larger scale with bigger budgets.

At the peak of his career, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Rudolph was widely deemed destined for greatness. With the death in 1961 of Eero Saarinen, the preeminent architect of his generation, Rudolph appeared ready to lead the American architectural avant-garde. (Louis Kahn, who was considerably older than both men, began to be perceived as this country’s most important contemporary architect only in the late 1960s.) As Rudolph’s renown grew, he became preoccupied with two concerns—self-expression and monumentality—that were fundamentally at odds with the empathetic touch and humane feel of his early works.

The extent to which modern architecture had become formulaic by midcentury led Rudolph to ponder how he could stand out from the crowd. His quest for a distinctive stylistic manner led him to adopt the tough vocabulary of New Brutalism, an architectural movement that emerged in postwar Scandinavia and Britain. Inspired by the rough-finished poured concrete (beton brut, in French) that Le Corbusier made his main structural material from the mid-1930s onward, New Brutalism became a worldwide architectural phenomenon during the postwar rebuilding of Europe and East Asia.

Architects from Alison and Peter Smithson in Britain to Kenzo Tange in Japan created boldly sculptural Brutalist compositions that made the modular steel-and-glass grids of the Miesian school look somewhat anemic and routine. Rudolph’s Brutalism diverged from that of his foreign peers in his attraction to scenographic design—architecture that begins with a preconceived idea of how a building should look from a specific vantage point, in contrast to the modernist belief that the internal functions of…

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