Talk About It
Tracking Paul Rudolph
In addition to the review of the new book, The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, Columns also conducted a one-on-one interview with the author, Tim Rohan. Read on for both.
Critique | The Architecture of Paul Rudolph
The paradox of Paul Rudolph is a complex one of emotion and perseverance, profession and reflection, mass and light. From his life as the son of a travelling minister in the American south to the great architectural arena that is New York, Paul Rudolph had it all. Formal in his approach to late-modernism, he was constantly searching for that which set him apart while pressing the socio-political boundaries of 20th century America. With an intensely rigorous work ethic, Rudolph’s life and work is expressive of his time, bound by a professional context of successes and failures.
Tim Rohan, author of The Architecture of Paul Rudolph (Yale University Press), reveals to us—through nearly 20 years of research, interviews, cataloging, and writing—the ideas through which Rudolph practiced. From the early beach houses in Florida, to the lesser known Asian skyscrapers, Rohan gives a tremendous insight into the life and work of an American architect far too often overlooked. This book is a tremendous and critical examination of Paul Rudolph’s architecture from 1940-1995, at once reconciling Rudolph’s work with a technocratic culture for which it is all the more valid. Rohan carefully avoids biographical temptation.
Interview with the author: Tim Rohan
First of all, congratulations on the book. It’s well designed, well written, and it has a lot of meat to it. Often I purchase books and there are tidbits of good stuff and mostly pretty pictures, but this is truly thorough and well done. … Can you tell me a little bit about what you’re teaching and where you interests are right now?
I teach architectural history at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. I’m in the Department of Art and Architectural History. That’s the official name, but I’m affiliated with the architecture program. One of the reasons I came here was because we were starting a master’s program in architecture and I’m the architectural historian who instructs master’s students as well. I teach an introductory class for undergraduates—hundreds of students—that is about the entire history of architecture. I teach smaller classes on 19th century architecture, and a modern architecture survey class, and then I teach seminars for graduate students for both architecture and art history and other disciplines. They concern subjects that interest me and involve my research, like postwar modernism.
Tell us a little bit about how this started and specifically where your first interests in Paul Rudolph came from. Why him?
Well, it goes back quite a ways for me. One way—it certainly started because I was undergraduate at Yale University in the early 1990s. I was an art history major and I frequently went to the art and architecture library in Paul Rudolph Hall, Yale’s Art & Architecture Building, and I loved going there. I loved the building. It was in an advanced state of decrepitude and decay, but it was all the more wonderful for that. It had an incredibly interesting and dramatic feel to it … almost romantic. I didn’t really know the full story of what had gone on there; I just vaguely knew there had been a fire in 1969, but I thought you could still smell the fire from that. It also interested me because there had just been an exhibition of Rudolph’s drawings for the building, mounted by the graduate students at that time, so I saw that show and it was very interesting. I was interested in the building … because there was very much a feeling that you were not supposed to like it. It was somewhat forbidden and it was somewhat despised, but I just thought it was magnificent.
I also remember a revelatory day when I walked around New Haven with a wonderful guidebook written by Elizabeth Brown, and I looked at all the other brutalist buildings by other architects and I really liked them. I thought they had incredible plasticity and sculptural qualities … in contrast to what would be built at that time when we were still in the waning years of post-modernism. They seemed truly architectural.
After Yale, I worked at the Museum of Modern Art in the architecture department and I would see Rudolph at parties and various events. He was still alive and active and looked the same as he had always looked with his crew cut. He was an interesting and enigmatic figure, but I never talked to him at that time, unfortunately.
Then I went on to do a doctorate in the history department at Harvard. I was looking for a dissertation topic and I had always been drawn to postwar modernism. It was just becoming possible to re-engage with it. It was still not fully accepted, but that was the moment, and it was 1996-1997 when it was becoming possible to write about something for a dissertation that was so relatively new and had been overlooked and almost despised. My adviser was very supportive. He thought Rudolph was a great topic, and the more I looked into Rudolph, the more I realized that Rudolph just had everything. He was not an isolated figure. He touched on every major concern of the postwar era in architecture, including many cultural and political concerns.
Then I contacted Rudolph, I wrote to him, and he said come and look at my archive, and I did and I interviewed him. He was already becoming very ill, but he let me look at the archive in his apartment for six months, and I continued even after he died. I later helped the Library of Congress transfer the collection to Washington, DC, and I was very involved with the cataloging efforts. I spent several summers there, helping to catalog it and looking at the materials he might have researched. It was very fundamental to this whole project. That’s what took so long. The archive was there, but it was completely unorganized and it was 50 years’ worth of work.
Indeed, postwar modernism was a slow come-back. Like most things, it was quick to crash and burn and slow to be accepted again later on. The building at Yale is a romantic sort of experience and that probably draws from some of his personal visions and experiences with modernism and education in history. What about Rudolph’s personality resonates so much in his work? At times his career was wonderfully successful and yet there were moments of self-reflection or isolation.
Rudolph’s personality is extraordinarily complex. I did not set out to do a biography or a psychological study because I really wanted to focus on the architecture. At the same time, the paradox of Rudolph is that he says that his architecture is going to be an individual architecture and an architecture of expression and all about the artistry and the genius of the architect, and yet he does not want to say very much about who he is, or what he does, or how he feels about things. He’s very reticent. There’s a very strange line with him between public and private. He’s very articulate at times, and at times he falls completely silent.
I tried to thread this through the book, even beginning in his early years from what I heard from people when I could visit some of his friends in Alabama. … He was extremely shy, yet he was able to make great friendships, but he would withdraw completely at times. When he encountered a situation that was stressful, and a lot of people do this—a psychiatrist could tell you more about it—I think he shut down, and that’s what happened. I was amused by people in his office who would tell me that when things got to be too much, he would walk out the door and go to movies. Several people said this independently, so the movies were a great refuge.
Well, the book does a good job of keeping the reader tuned into the architecture. Sometimes it is the other way around. Perhaps that comes from your experience cataloging the documents, reading letters, drawings, and sketches. Oftentimes it’s not the drawing itself that is most important but the back of the drawing or the margins where interesting information lies. Was there anything that ultimately surprised you?
There weren’t any major surprises. Rudolph was extraordinarily consistent; he would just work out an idea. He was a hard worker. He worked almost constantly. I think when he designed, very often the basic idea, the kernel of the idea, came out very quickly and very soon, and he just elaborated upon it. He made many changes, but the basic idea remained, and that’s true with the Art & Architecture Building. Despite the many different versions of it, the basic idea was there from the very beginning.
Have you visited any of the projects here in the DFW area—in Dallas or Fort Worth?
[Paul Rudolph has to his credit five projects located in DFW. The Dallas property is Brookhollow Plaza (also called Pegasus Villas). The four in Fort Worth are the City Center Towers Complex (now called the Wells Fargo Building and the D.R. Horton Tower), the Sid Richardson Physical Sciences Building at Texas Christian University, and the Bass Residence.]
I have, and in preparing for this interview, I’ve had a wonderful time reminiscing. I looked back into my files and I’m amazed at what I kept. I’ll tell you, the very first professional talk I ever gave was in Dallas for the Dallas Architecture Forum, on Thursday, April 2nd, 1998. I gave a talk about Rudolph, and Ed Down from UT Arlington invited me to come down there with another friend of mine and we both gave talks—I don’t think it was a very good talk [laughs]—and then we drove around.
I had met Anne Bass in New York, and she said, “If you ever want to see my house in Fort Worth, you’re welcome to.” So I called her up when we went out there and we saw it. It really was amazing. It’s a really great house and it’s really noteworthy. I think it’s historically important in that it’s a wonderful balancing act when Rudolph brings together so many different things. It’s Fallingwater on a Texas hillside. It’s really a great house.
We saw the buildings for the Basses downtown. We saw what was then Brookhollow Plaza, but couldn’t go in that. What I think is interesting about Brookhollow and the towers in Fort Worth is that it’s an interesting episode for Rudolph. This is his last stand in America: his last opportunity for large-scale work. He did adapt and change. It says in the book he accepts this reflective glass curtain wall which he would have otherwise spurned. What I call Brookhollow, or Pegasus Villas, I feel is a fragment of his Lower Manhattan Expressway project, which in the book is called City Corridor, and there are some buildings there that look like they’re made out of a prefabricated metal panel system very similar to Brookhollow. I think that was a big project for Rudolph. It was like Broadacre City by Frank Lloyd Wright, and then he was building fragments of it here and there. The towers in Fort Worth are connected. There’s a fountain. There’s the underground and raised bridges that make is somewhat mega-structural. That comes out of Lower Manhattan Expressway, and then he further explores this in Asia, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Jakarta.
Is there a legacy of Paul Rudolph that lives on? Is there something that we can all learn from Paul Rudolph that is more than just precast bush-hammered concrete?
Yes, I think so. The interesting thing about Rudolph was that he was an educator. He taught people who are at the forefront of the profession today, but they’re all very different. He didn’t leave a Rudolph School behind him. He didn’t leave people behind him who would emulate his architecture directly. Part of it was the time—there would be different directions that people could go. Rudolph was coming up in the world when modernism had just a few paths you could take, and by the 1960s and ‘70s more paths were developing and Rudolph’s students would follow divergent paths. Some would be classicists like Allan Greenberg or Robert A.M. Stern. And then you have architects like Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. The reason why they were able to pursue those paths, and I think would do quite well, was because Rudolph was a tolerant person. His tolerance for different types of architecture and people was one of his better qualities. In the ‘50s and ‘60s—and you can see this in the book—he likes traditional architecture. He’s even tolerant of a collegiate gothic at a time when most modern architects despised it. You can see that at places like Wellesley. So tolerance, openness, and diversity are things to be learned from Rudolph.
He died in 1997, so he died at a time when sustainability and green architecture is just getting off the ground, but his early work and all of his work has a real love and appreciation for warm weather climates. He was always interested in integrating greenery and water features into his buildings and that makes someone quite interesting. I think there’s something to be learned from the low-tech ways that Rudolph pursued this without any access to science or very advanced methods. Especially for tall buildings, he designed open spaces 20 to 30 stories up, dripping with greenery and water in these Asian towers in the ‘80s and nobody paid any attention.
I think Rudolph’s model for working is very interesting. There’s kind of a notion that still persists that I’m questioning that Rudolph was a failure. Actually, Rudolph was a tremendous success. He designed a lot of buildings, much more than most of his contemporaries: around 300 buildings. At the time in the ‘70s and ‘80s people thought the way he ran his practice reflected his mismanagement because he didn’t have a big office like Philip Johnson or Marcel Breuer, but he kept his firm small, kept control of the projects, and did collaborate with other firms as necessary, and he got a lot of work done. He maintained a fairly agile outfit, so I think there’s something to be learned about that approach.
Ryan Flener, Assoc. AIA is an intern with Good Fulton & Farrell Architects.