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 a structure should determine its external form. However, despite the arresting profiles scenographic design could engender—perhaps most famously in modern architecture the sail-like rooflines of Jørn Utzon’s harborfront Sydney Opera House of 1957–1973—the practice struck some as a throwback to nineteenth-century Romanticism.
Another major difference in Rudolph’s approach was that instead of using poured concrete like his counterparts abroad, he chose a less demanding and more economical alternative—the rough-finished precast concrete blocks that became his hallmark. Poured-in-place concrete requires costly wooden forms to contain the material until it hardens, whereas precast blocks eliminate that expense and can be used like bricks.
Because he wanted to create more voluptuous volumes and richer surface textures than was possible with standard concrete blocks, Rudolph designed a range of precast components with curving surfaces that could be combined to make a variety of rounded forms. These pieces were fabricated with vertical ribs or flutes that mimicked the look of more labor-intensive bush-hammered concrete, which had been mechanically distressed to achieve a corrugated surface (and which he used for his Yale Art and Architecture Building). Whether handcrafted or prefabricated, these components gave the exteriors of Rudolph’s buildings a fuzzy striped effect often likened to corduroy.
The press lauded Rudolph’s increasingly bombastic institutional schemes, epitomized by his eerily cavernous, crushingly heavy Government Service Center in Boston of 1962–1971—a fortress-like complex with a swirling, multilevel interior that brings to mind the inner ear of some Brobdingnagian creature. The lack of critical analysis such overbearing works received at the time is doubtless attributable to the friendships Rudolph cultivated with editors and critics. Furthermore, his striking black-and-white renderings—meticulous networks of tiny lines that convey three-dimensional depth and look terrific in print—made him a favorite of the professional architecture magazines.
Perhaps prompted by the historian Sigfried Giedion’s influential 1944 essay “The Need for a New Monumentality”—which argued that modern architecture lacked the imposing presence of earlier building styles—Rudolph sought to make his designs more monumental. Like many other architects, he equated size with significance, and turned even lesser public commissions into major statements. A case in point is his Orange County Government Center of 1963–1971 in Goshen, New York, a grandiose pile-up of boxy concrete forms that seems overreaching for a small-town office building.
When Rudolph stepped down as the dean of the Yale School of Architecture in 1965, he grandly announced that he was moving to New York to become a skyscraper architect. As it turned out, he got to execute tall buildings only late in his career, but that did not stop him from fantasizing about mammoth high-rise projects until he had the chance to build them. Responding to the visionary megastructures proposed in the 1950s by the international collaborative Team 10, and in the 1960s by the Metabolist group in Japan and the Archigram group in Britain, Rudolph in the late 1960s and early 1970s devised hypothetical Manhattan schemes for gigantic agglomerations of mixed-use “plug-in” units that were to be inserted into elongated and towering frameworks reminiscent of children’s building kits like Lego bricks, Erector Sets, and Tinkertoys.
Though fortunately none of Rudolph’s New York City megastructures was ever built, he applied a low-rise version of the same concept to one of the more imaginative American multi-unit housing schemes of the period, Oriental Masonic Gardens of 1968–1971 in New Haven. Here 148 prefabricated shoebox-shaped units akin to mobile homes—which Rudolph dubbed “the twentieth-century brick”—were grouped in right-angled clusters around courtyards and stacked no higher than two stories. The barrel-vaulted roof of each “brick” gave a lovely rippling rhythm to the slightly inclined twelve-and-a-half-acre site. Yet as Rudolph later admitted, residents hated the place: their dwellings leaked, some felt the development was as déclassé as a trailer park, and only a decade after its completion this noble experiment was demolished.
In his excellent new monograph on this complex and sometimes confounding figure, Timothy M. Rohan, who teaches art history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, emerges as today’s foremost advocate of Rudolph’s works. Even though Rohan is wholly sympathetic to his subject, he is far from uncritical about the factors that contributed to Rudolph’s career decline. Rohan (whose acknowledgments include thanks to his male partner) offers credible insights into how Rudolph’s homosexuality was reflected in his work. He suggests that his subject’s characteristic juxtaposition of defensive, often concrete, exteriors and sensuous interiors parallels the dichotomy between his carefully maintained straight public image and his concealed gay private life. However, like several vanguard American artists of the 1960s—including Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol—Rudolph and his architectural contemporaries Philip Johnson and Charles Moore did not deny their homosexuality, although none of them openly proclaimed it, either.
Paul Marvin Rudolph was born in 1918 in southwestern Kentucky. His father was an itinerant Methodist minister, and as Rudolph observed when he was eighteen, “moving around and being a preacher’s son has been hard.” Yet the family’s fourteen changes of address during his peripatetic childhood also helped him develop an encyclopedic eye for indigenous southern architectural forms. Sensitive and introverted, the boy took refuge in art and music. He became such an accomplished pianist that he contemplated a concert career until he placed second in a national competition, an early indication of his need to be number one.
Rudolph studied architecture at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (now Auburn University), where at the precocious age of twenty-one he executed his first building, for a professor at the school—the redbrick ranch-style Atkinson house of 1940. His next project was his initial collaboration with Ralph Twitchell, in whose Sarasota architectural office he worked during a gap year before starting a graduate degree. The Twitchell house of 1941 in Siesta Key shows the clear influence of Frank Lloyd Wright, a prime example of whose residential work—the Rosenbaum house of 1939 in Florence, Alabama—Rudolph had visited and admired. The Twitchell house closely follows the economical formula Wright called Usonian—usually featuring low roofs and open living areas. The Twitchell house had low-slung massing, an overhanging roof, and concrete block construction, along with horizontal stained wood siding and a compact kitchen.
Three months after Rudolph entered the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1941, the US entered World War II and he enlisted in the navy. After taking maritime architecture courses at MIT he was stationed at the Brooklyn Navy Yard and put in charge of ship repair. The practical knowledge he gained there had a direct effect on his later work, and Rudolph’s mastery of low-cost techniques for lightweight framing for houses and new materials such as Cocoon (a spray-on plastic used to mothball disused ship components) resurfaced in his ingenious postwar designs.
When peace came, Rudolph returned to the Twitchell office and then completed his degree at Harvard, where he won a traveling fellowship that allowed him to witness firsthand the building boom in Europe. He was particularly taken by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’habitation of 1947–1952 in Marseille, with its monumental scale and expressive use of beton brut. Although Twitchell made him a partner in 1950, Rudolph later insisted that the designs credited to both men were entirely his own work. Never the most collegial of collaborators, he broke with his early mentor in 1952 and set up his own practice.
Eager to make a name for himself, to avoid being typecast as a regional residential specialist, and to establish useful contacts nationwide, the hugely ambitious Rudolph accepted teaching positions at architecture schools all across the country, including Cornell, Harvard, MIT, Penn, Tulane, UCLA, and Yale. He skillfully juggled his dual career, and during the academic year ran his small Sarasota practice via telephone and mail. In short order he was awarded such high-profile jobs as the installation for the Museum of Modern Art’s wildly popular 1955 photography exhibition “The Family of Man”; the Jewett Arts Center of 1955–1958 at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, a redbrick complex with modernized Gothic overtones reminiscent of Basil Spence’s concurrent work in Britain; and several building projects in New Haven, where he became dean of the Yale School of Architecture in 1958.
Ironically enough, the project that halted Rudolph’s rapid career ascent was the Yale Art and Architecture Building of 1958–1963, a commission he received soon after arriving in New Haven. This was the latest in university president A. Whitney Griswold’s admirable program to bring the best of contemporary architecture to the campus, which includes works by Kahn, Saarinen, Johnson, and Gordon Bunshaft. As a series of Rudolph’s preparatory renderings show, he gradually inflated the A&A Building (as it was known) from a relatively modest colonnaded structure in his initial version into the Brutalist behemoth that was erected—a nearly cubic core surrounded by a phalanx of windowless towers as forbidding as those of a medieval castle.
The building’s many functional flaws soon became inescapable—thirty-seven different levels were crammed into its seven stories—and as the social upheavals of the 1960s unfolded, the heroic ethos Rudolph tried to evoke came across as authoritarian posturing. His successor as dean, the scholarly postmodernist Charles Moore, held a view of architecture diametrically opposed to Rudolph’s, with far greater respect for historical and vernacular traditions. As Moore slyly proclaimed, “I disapprove of the Art and Architecture Building whole-heartedly because it is such a personal manifestation for non-personal use. However, I enjoy very much being in it.”
To improve the structure’s ill-resolved organization, Moore encouraged students to take matters into their own hands and reconfigure studio spaces as they saw fit. He turned Rudolph’s stately penthouse, which had been used for entertaining and as guest quarters, into a student coffeehouse. Haphazardly altered and poorly maintained, the A&A Building became a countercultural mess. Then, in June 1969, a mysterious fire gutted the structure. Though the cause was never determined, Rudolph went to his grave convinced that Moore had somehow incited the destruction of his misunderstood masterpiece. (The building was not completely destroyed and in recent years has been handsomely restored.)
With his reputation in decline as architectural tastes shifted to more user-friendly schemes, Rudolph pinned his hopes for a comeback on his largest domestic scheme, the Bass house of 1970–1972 in Fort Worth, commissioned by the oil heir Sid R. Bass and his first wife, Anne. The A&A Building went up while Bass was a Yale undergraduate and he deeply admired its architect. The feeling was mutual, and Rudolph referred to his patron as “my Renaissance prince.” Rudolph saw the Bass residence as his equivalent of Fallingwater, Frank Lloyd Wright’s most famous house, which revived the master’s career after a long dry spell. Rudolph’s scheme took many cues from that legendary prototype, most notably its stacked arrangement of deeply cantilevered balconies projecting outward from a central core like huge domino tiles set at right angles to one another.
In the arid terrain of Fort Worth it was harder for Rudolph to approximate Wright’s most audacious move at Fallingwater—placing the house directly atop a waterfall. Even the addition of an artificial pond by the landscape architect Robert Zion didn’t do the trick. However, thanks to the clients’ ample funding, Rudolph was able to use costlier materials and attain a much higher level of execution than ever before. The white-painted steel framework of the Bass house is as precisely crafted as that of its model, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe’s Farnsworth House of 1946–1951 in Plano, Illinois. And instead of the painted wood siding of Rudolph’s early houses, here he used white porcelain-coated aluminum panels, a deluxe cladding component favored by the then-rising star Richard Meier.
While the expansive (and expensive) Bass house is a far more pleasing composition than Rudolph’s Brutalist public works, it offers another example of his incorrigible urge to overcomplicate things, not least in drawing out the entry sequence to a tedious extreme. He calculated that a visitor would make eight turns and ascend fifteen feet in traveling from the front door to the living room. In contrast, at Alvar Aalto’s incomparable Villa Mairea of 1935–1938 in Noormarkku, Finland, visitors move directly from the entry to the heart of this extensive layout in a matter of seconds. Sadly for Rudolph, the Basses did not want images of their house to be published because of security concerns, and thus it did not have the restorative effect on his reputation that its architect had so fervently wished for.
Although the critic Michael Sorkin praised Rudolph’s own Manhattan penthouse of 1977–1997 as “one of the most amazing pieces of modern urban domestic architecture produced in this country,” I had quite a different experience when the owner invited me and my wife to dinner there in 1986, after a gallery opening of his drawings. Throughout that multistory apartment (built atop an existing townhouse that Rudolph rented out for extra income), surface finishes and details were astonishingly shoddy. For example, railings that in photographs seemed to be made of polished chrome were actually covered in peeling Mylar. Floor levels shifted up or down every few feet for no apparent reason, and narrow Plexiglas catwalks spanned chasms open to the stories below. There was so little continuous floor space amid the cavernous volumes that guests huddled on small carpeted platforms like Little Eva on the ice floes.
Odd sources of dim illumination—underneath stair treads and behind floating wall panels—made navigation treacherous, especially for such older luminaries as the designer Ray Eames and the architectural historian Vincent Scully. There was much stumbling and tripping as we tried to negotiate the labyrinthine circulation paths to and from the food and drinks, and even when we were seated mishaps continued. A large modular coffee table appeared to be composed of alternating cubes of reflective and matte black Lucite. But when someone set a drink down on one of the matte squares, it turned out to be a void and the glass crashed to the floor below.
The architect and his much younger Swiss companion, Ernst Wagner, proudly conducted a house tour, which included such unanticipated sights as a clear Plexiglas bathtub that was fully visible when viewed from the level below. This was a latter-day equivalent of the architect Stanford White’s notorious red velvet swing, beneath which he would stand and look up the skirts of young girls he fancied. Whatever erotic allure Rudolph’s exhibitionist showpiece might have possessed was subverted by deposits of unidentifiable green matter in the tub’s corners.
Understandably, the Rudolph penthouse has become a source of comment among queer theorists. The owner’s jaw-dropping bedroom featured floor-to-ceiling mirrors that reflected a white marble Roman torso of a male nude and, mounted on the wall behind the white-fur-covered bed, a superscale advertising billboard image of a shirtless, hirsute young man being pawed by a passel of adoring young women. When a story on this startling interior was published in The New York Times Magazine in 1967, some saw it as the architect’s inadvertent coming out.
But as Mahon notes, “Though highly self-aware and self-critical, Rudolph had several psychological or cognitive blind spots, such as believing that his homosexuality was not apparent to others.” He was of course entitled to create for himself whatever fantasy environment he liked, but the penthouse was dangerous for some visitors. As we bid goodnight to our host, Scully spoke for several of us when he said, “Thanks, Paul, it’s been a terrifying evening.”
It is one thing to be uncomfortable in someone else’s house, but quite another to feel not at home in your own. Alexander Hirsch, who commissioned a townhouse on Manhattan’s Upper East Side from Rudolph in 1966–1967, never fully acclimated to that twenty-five-foot-wide structure, which he shared with his companion, Lewis Turner. To be sure, it is a handsome design, fronted by a brown glass façade framed in a Mondrian-like pattern of brown-painted steel I-beams. Visitors enter through a low-ceilinged vestibule and thence into a dramatic double-height living room with a balcony that surrounds its upper periphery. This raised level is reachable only by a flight of floating stair treads that jut out from the sidewall without risers or a bannister. The two original inhabitants, then in their sixties, felt this was an accident waiting to happen and stayed away from that part of the interior.
Soon after the couple moved in, Rudolph took it upon himself to add a large mural to their living room while they were away on vacation. His campy composition was based on an Italian quattrocento painting that, as Rohan writes, “depicted stylized men in tight-fitting renaissance costumes with leggings and codpieces.” The owner bridled at this unauthorized imposition and refused to pay Rudolph’s $1,500 fee, the two stopped speaking, and a few years later Hirsch sold the house. Stories such as this, as well as press reports of several lawsuits lodged against Rudolph, made potential clients think twice before hiring him, and his career went into free fall.
As Rudolph’s American commissions dried up, this already solitary figure retreated further into himself. Though his prospects in this country never recovered, he found a new constituency in Southeast Asia. The glitzy high-rises he erected there during the 1980s and 1990s—typified by his Bond Centre of 1984–1988, a mixed-use office and hotel complex in Hong Kong, conjoined twin towers bulging with “saddlebags” and clad in mirror glass—gave him the semblance of renewed success, but he never stopped believing he’d been robbed of his rightful place atop the hierarchy of modern architects. In his seventies Rudolph was diagnosed with mesothelioma, a cancer caused by asbestos—an occupational hazard in the building trades—and he died in 1997.
Rudolph’s diminished posthumous stature is reflected in the unusual number of his buildings that have been destroyed in recent years. To highlight this predicament, the photographer Chris Mottalini documented the ruinous state of three Rudolph houses (including the Twitchell residence) before they were torn down in 2007. Collected in After You Left/They Took It Apart, Mottalini’s moody images only intermittently indicate what made Rudolph’s residential designs so special. There are far too many banal views of decrepit details indistinguishable from any other abandoned midcentury wreck.
The most regrettable loss thus far has been Rudolph’s Riverview High School of 1957–1958 in Sarasota, which was demolished in 2009. This early essay in what we now call green architecture—building design that takes regional environmental factors into account, especially for climate control—was a sprawling low-rise complex with an excellent natural ventilation system. However, because the school could not easily be retrofitted for mechanical air conditioning, now considered essential in Florida, it was needlessly trashed, instead of being converted to another use that could have borne the cost of the renovation and upkeep. Happily, a plan has lately been floated to save the endangered Orange County Government Center by converting that dilapidated structure into a community arts center, with the addition of a new office building alongside it.*
I was very sorry to find missing from The Architecture of Paul Rudolph what I consider to be his finest work, the Tuskegee University Chapel of 1960–1969 at the historically black college in Tuskegee, Alabama. Rohan says he omitted it for reasons of space, although I can think of no better evidence in support of higher regard for his subject. The nondenominational chapel’s angular redbrick exterior, unusually minimalist for Rudolph, conceals one of the most impressive twentieth-century religious spaces in America. The wedge-shaped, brick-walled nave tapers slightly as one nears the chancel, which is configured like an African-American gospel church with risers for a choir, instead of a conventional Christian altar. Most prominent is the pulpit, raised high above the congregation and surmounted by a sleek projecting canopy that signifies the importance of preaching in the black religious experience. Most affecting of all is the supernal illumination that pours down from lateral skylights and imparts a spiritual aura like that achieved by Aalto in his magnificent postwar churches.
Above all, the Tuskegee Chapel exudes an embracing quality conspicuously missing in so much of Paul Rudolph’s other late work, and hints at what he might have accomplished had he stepped out of his defensive shell more often. His now passé Brutalism was less a factor in his professional decline than his innate inwardness. Louis Kahn, a Brutalist as well, was far more adept at imbuing his monumental concrete forms with a nobility and humanity that eluded Rudolph. That crucial difference largely accounts for the vast but not unjust disparity in their historical standing today.