A Shakespearean Tale Told in Buildings
When Paul Rudolph's Art & Architecture Building at Yale opened in 1963, architectural historian Vincent Scully wrote that the design “puts demands upon the individual user which not every psyche will be able to meet.” The building was gutted by a suspicious fire in 1969, and, though the cause was never determined, the incident has been interpreted, in whispers and in print, as a rejection of the difficult-to-parse architecture and the difficult-to-pigeonhole architect.
Much as the mystery or grandiosity or wit of the A&A Building may have been too demanding for some student or faculty psyches, an honest assessment of Rudolph's architecture—and the complicated personality from which it came—has proven too great a challenge for most historians in the 45 years since the fire.
Rudolph died in 1997. Finally, today, we have a scholarly monograph dedicated to his life and work. Timothy Rohan's book The Architecture of Paul Rudolph is critical, accessible, and comprehensive, which makes the long wait worthwhile—if no less telling.
That gap of nearly two decades is a measure of the lasting effects of the nearly universal critical shunning that took place after Rudolph—once a leader of the postwar generation of American Modernists—failed to adapt his forthright Navy-bred behavior and his deeply mannered personal forms to the times. It is a measure, too, of the effectiveness of Rudolph's own mostly silent retreat in the face of this rejection. First, he turned inward to lavish interior-design projects, evincing through the 1970s a comfort with the extravagant that was out of tune with professional norms. Then he turned away from the American scene altogether, to rework old ideas in a series of large projects overseas, such as the Colonnade apartments in Singapore and the Lippo Centre in Hong Kong, completed in the 1980s for clients in a part of the world where he was still seen in terms of his early fame. But historians' neglect of this once-imperial figure is also a measure of something much more intimate and universal in architecture: the inability of our most inertial and denial-prone of professions to face its own paradoxes in anything approaching the light of truth.
A genius? An apostate? A deservedly fallen star? To look closely at Rudolph, to examine the contradictions of his thinking and the imperfections of his work, to attempt to bring both back into the mainstream of debate—as Rohan has done here with exceptional candor and craft—is for architects, today no less than in the middle decades of the 20th century, a very demanding act of self-discovery.
How do we measure the legacy of a man who invariably thought of architecture—as Frank Lloyd Wright had done—in its impossible entirety? Who attempted in each of his buildings to rally as one all of the systems and techniques and effects available in his day? Who proposed a minutely personal style to resolve programs affected by sweeping social change? Who was raised to the very top of the field when attempting strenuous acts of synthesis, attaining for a time true cult-leader status, and who then disappeared—first from the schools, then from clients' short lists, eventually from history itself? To examine Paul Rudolph is to confront many of the unresolved questions that still bedevil the profession: questions of architecture's place in society and industry, questions of the place of the ego in this civic art.
Though he was eventually rejected for being an Establishment figure, Rudolph—as our stars still do—first came to wide attention as a rebel. In the 1950s, he rose quickly, developing a reputation as a straight-talking teacher and earning positive reviews for his work, including a suite of houses in Florida that introduced a shocking structural expressionism into the trabeated world of International Style consensus. By the end of the decade, he was appointed director at Yale. In his first talk there, he urged his students to consider four “forgotten fundamentals”—daring, anti-Modernist ideas like how a building relates to the ground and sky, how it creates and sustains a mood, how it inspires and even “delights” those who use it. Later, he would assert that the “wasted space” of a building, space that serves only the spirit, “that releasing space which dominates,” was the most important for architects to get right. This was radical stuff in a functionalist age, and is still perhaps jarring to our ears.
Even in his prime, as he received commissions for large public projects—including a megastructure that stamped out a large part of Boston's West End and one for New York that would have destroyed a slice of lower Manhattan—Rudolph was still most often depicted as a maverick, a rogue. Following him through the just-opened A&A Building, a writer for Time referred to him as a “Young Turk.” That reductive take—Rudolph-as-other—has been embraced by generations since; it allowed him to stand apart in his glory, and to be eased into ignominy when that was gone. It allows us to avoid facing the implications of his talent and his failure—on the lingering, profession-wide irresolution of cultural purpose and personal taste; on the efficacy of celebrity practice; on the limits of expression, and integrity, in the field; on the unstable distinction between practicing architecture and being, as Rudolph so fully was, an architect.
This clearly written, beautifully published, and long-overdue account now makes our avoidance of Rudolph's legacy impossible. The 17 years between Rohan's book and his subject's death appear to be sufficient to place Rudolph again firmly in the flow of 20th-century architectural history, a distant enough presence that he can be approached without ideological filters or kid gloves. When Rohan writes in his introduction that the “overwrought quality” of Rudolph's architecture is among the most interesting aspects of his work, he is taking a position that will be recognized as heretical by those readers spanning the lived and historic periods in question. But the author is also signaling that he will take full advantage of the critical distance Rudolph's fade into history provides.
Rohan delivers on that promise—not only in his rigorous debriefing of Rudolph intimates (the brave ones, he notes, who did not decline to be interviewed), but in his excellent use of Rudolph's papers at the Library of Congress, which he assisted in archiving. The great strength of this book is Rohan's willingness to engage in psychological speculation in the pursuit of cultural fact. He is bold in taking on that necessary work, fearless in examining how Rudolph's demons acted to shape his designs—the heroic attitude that blinded him to changing times and the private homosexuality that may have fed, in Rohan's words, his unending “search for expression.” Whether one comes to this book a Rudolphile or a Rudolphobe, we should all be grateful for the effort.
The Architecture of Paul Rudolph reveals the man, at last, to be something much more interesting than the carrot-topped imp or brusque Brutalist of common myth. In detailing Rudolph's struggles to balance individual taste with collective responsibility, to integrate technical and material novelty with timeless expression, to satisfy or suppress the imposition of will, to chase history, perhaps to make it—Rohan holds up an unforgiving mirror. To Rudolph, sure. And to every architect who cares enough to take on the full complexity of the problems a building presents, who attempts to resolve them in a synthetic whole, who may succeed and will also sometimes fail to do the seemingly impossible.
In other words, you can see in Rohan's unrelenting Rudolph—if you dare to look, if your psyche can take it—the fears and faults and dreams of every architect worthy of the name.
Philip Nobel is the editorial director of SHoP Architects and the author of Sixteen Acres: Architecture and the Outrageous Struggle for the Future of Ground Zero.