“Preacher, magician, and conjurer”
“The main entrance stair on York Street … lifts grandly … It is open to the sky between the towering, overhanging cliffs that rise on both sides of it: the body of the building to the left, the major stair and elevator tower to the right. … An exhilarating wind whistles through it and up as well. … This is the most dramatic entrance in the United States of America, bar none.” 1
So wrote Vincent Scully in the Architectural Review in the spring of 1964, in a critique of Paul Rudolph’s then new Art and Architecture Building at Yale University. Academic architectural historians don’t write like this anymore, not even when acting as critics. It’s not so much the descriptive immediacy or metaphorical aptitude that strike the modern reader, though these too are rare enough. Rather, it’s the author’s confidence, his presumption of irrefutability: the superlative “most,” the full national moniker, the conclusive “bar none.” To doubt him would be foolish or rude, possibly treasonous.
Vincent Scully often and unabashedly used such terms: the most, the best, the worst. But in recent decades we architectural historians have become a more cautious tribe, at least when it comes to separating personal opinion from universal truth. So the audacity of his pronouncements both repels and fascinates. Our declarations today, by contrast, are often as not painstakingly qualified, apologetically swaddled in our subjective positioning, held at arm’s length like someone else’s disagreeable baby. Such is not the stuff of spellbinding prose, but that was never Scully’s problem. Even when wrong he was stirringly, scintillatingly wrong.
Now 95, Scully is the most famous and influential architectural historian of the past sixty years. Born in New Haven, Connecticut, in 1920, he entered Yale in 1936, studying English literature and later art and architectural history. 2 After serving in the Marines during World War II, he returned to the university and received his Ph.D. in 1949 under the direction of Henry-Russell Hitchcock. 3 Upon graduation he became a full-time member of Yale’s History of Art faculty and there he taught for the next sixty years. As a lecturer Scully was legendary, acclaimed for his passion and theatricality, his rhetorical dazzle and interpretative daring. Said architect and former student Alexander Gorlin, “Scully was astounding. He commanded the audience, mesmerizing everyone with his language and intonation. He was preacher, magician, and conjurer.” 4 Upon retirement from full-time teaching in 1991, his final lecture was noteworthy enough to earn a story in the next day’s New York Times. Philip Johnson on that occasion called him “the most influential architecture teacher ever.” 5
That influence spread well beyond classrooms and academic journals. In fact, Scully was as much critic and activist as historian, a public intellectual interested in the present as much as the past. He played a seminal role in defining the character of architectural history during the second half of the 20th century, and ultimately had as much impact on designers as on scholars. Linking historical research to contemporary issues and debates around preservation, criticism, patronage, and design practice, his influence spanned professional fields and cut across continents and generations. His students included Spiro Kostof and H. Allen Brooks, Blair Kamin and Paul Goldberger, Robert Stern and Charles Gwathmey, Norman Foster and Richard Rogers, Maya Lin and Aaron Betsky. In the 1960s, he wrote with affecting insight on the emerging work of Louis Kahn, a friend since the late 1940s, and with equally affecting outrage on the depredations of modernist planning, the loss of historic buildings and townscapes. 6 He played a fundamental role in the conception and eventual preservation of “world heritage” sites. 7 In his introduction to Robert Venturi’s Complexity and Contradiction in Architecture, he famously called the book “the most important writing on the making of architecture since Le Corbusier’s Vers un Architecture”; a bold claim about a slim volume by a then obscure author, this statement struck many at the time as overblown if not outrageous, but has largely proven true. 8 Scully became a forceful advocate for postmodernism — the “gray” variety of Venturi and Charles Moore, whose “humane” contextualism he championed over the “cataclysmic purism of contemporary urban renewal” and the “terrifying vulgarization” of Le Corbusier’s ideas. He later did the same for former students Andres Duany and Elizabeth Plater-Zyberk, whose communitarian New Urbanist schemes were, he argued, “bringing to fruition the most important contemporary movement in architecture.” 9
Reading Scully today, one feels the still-live charge of his engagement with objects and audience.
As prolific as he was passionate, Scully published over 200 essays (scholarship, criticism, reviews, introductions to others’ work) and around fifteen books (not counting revised editions). 10 Topics ranged widely, from ancient Greece (The Earth, the Temple, and the Gods, 1962), to 16th-century Italy (The Villas of Palladio, 1986), the Native American Southwest (Pueblo: Mountain, Village, Dance, 1975), modern Europe (Modern Architecture: The Architecture of Democracy, 1961), and North America from the colonial era to the present (The Shingle Style, 1955; American Architecture and Urbanism, 1969; monographs on Wright, 1960, and Kahn, 1962). “The primacy of the experience of the work of art,” wrote former student Neil Levine, introducing a collection of Scully’s essays in 2003, was “at the core of [his] writing.” 11 This is true but incomplete. Reading Scully’s work today, one feels the still-live charge of his engagement with objects and audience. He seduces and cajoles, demands and rewards. His ardent, evocative, intensely descriptive language foregrounds his own empathic involvement with sites and artifacts and, just as importantly, his efforts to recreate those experiences for readers. He analyzes a building’s broader architectural and environmental contexts and makes pointed observations about its cultural, social, and psychological ones as well. In this he is erudite but never oppressively so; where other context-minded art historians, from Erwin Panofsky to T.J. Clark, are dense and showy, Scully is nimble and fluid. His consistently lucid prose aims to put even the most esoteric material within reach of undergraduates and specialists alike.
For an academic architectural historian operating in the pre-Internet era, Scully reached out to a remarkably large and varied audience, and he was very well received. Long before the web gave almost everyone potential access to almost everyone else, Scully was a celebrity, and a populist too. He wrote for Life and the New York Times, spoke to museum audiences and television audiences, argued publicly with Norman Mailer (who is supposed to have said that Scully was the better writer, but that he [Mailer] knew more about architecture), was profiled in The New Yorker and twice recognized by Time as one of “Ten Outstanding American College Teachers.” 12 International prizes and endowed chairs have since been named for him, and a feature-length documentary about his life’s work is now available. 13 He shared stages with princes and presidents, and yet he remained the son of a car salesman and New Haven alderman, a first-generation college student who attended Yale on scholarship and complained of the snobbery he’d once faced from fellow students. 14 His relatively humble roots may have been an underlying reason for his populism, his avoidance of the jargon and theoretical obscuritanism favored by so many art and architectural historians. Treating the objects of high culture, he offered these as a universal human heritage, a common property rather than one exclusive to an economic or intellectual elite. His teaching and his writing used emotionally charged language to stir emotions, leading diverse audiences toward engagement and action, toward caring about and becoming involved with built environments, regardless of whose name was on the deed. 15
The Passion of Vincent Scully
His many accomplishments and honors notwithstanding, Scully’s status among architectural historians has changed since the 1990s — not declined exactly, but shifted in value, slowly but ineluctably. He has become a sort of national monument, and like any monument he is bound to disappoint some. Partly this is a function of his age and ever-receding publication dates. He is still immensely respected, to be sure, and he is still cited, though usually for one of a few pithy quotes or as an historical figure, rather than as a vital part of contemporary discourse. There has been criticism of his work — inevitable given his fame and wide-ranging professional activity — though this is more in the air than on the page. Anecdotally, I have heard colleagues remark on his “impressionistic” approach, his sometimes superficial or anachronistic analogies, factually thin interpretations, or other deviations from supportable, evidence-based practice. Occasionally such assessments appeared in print. Classicists objected to his reading of ancient Greek architecture, anthropologists to his outlook on the Pueblos, modernists to his views on modernism. 16 Other critics, for reasons of ideology or taste, have more recently questioned his zeal for certain postmodernists (Stern especially), his meddling opposition to Athens’ modernization, his outmoded American exceptionalism, or his embrace of a widely suspect New Urbanism. 17 Given his tendency to present opinion as fact, it is unsurprising that some would hold these enthusiasms against him.
Scully’s accessible language and celebrity status raise other issues more general to academia today. Within the university, writing as clear and engaging as his is not only uncommon but unwelcome — or so it often seems. Too often we (and here I refer very generally to contemporary academic historians) conflate clarity with reduction, obscurity with depth. If scholarly writing aims to give pleasure or stir emotions, it is assumed to lack substance, seriousness, or reliability; it isn’t scholarship, in effect. A colleague of mine, as we were leaving a lively and quite elegantly written lecture recently, dismissed it as having had “too many bells and whistles.” As one who gets drowsy in dark rooms and much prefers bells and whistles to hairshirts, I was perplexed but not surprised by his comment. Harvard historian Jill Lepore, writing about “the new economy of letters” and the grim quality of so much academic writing, put it thus: academic publishing “has not rewarded clarity or beauty or timeliness, and it has not made a priority of satisfying readers or earning profits because it was not designed to do any of these things: it was designed to advance scholarship. This … has produced a great heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.” 18 Those academics that do write for general as well as university audiences and gain some celebrity in the process [e.g., Simon Schama, Doris Kearns Goodwin) are chided for “popularizing” or “dumbing down” their subjects. Scully earned his celebrity at a time when fame was far more rare and less readily assailable than it is today (no blogs, Twitter, YouTube, comments threads, or reality TV). But in the new intersection of academic and media landscapes, even old fame raises suspicions that rigor or integrity must be lacking. Many among us might quietly anticipate and reasonably expect our moments on NPR or Slate.com, but we don’t much like it when others get there first. Envy and disdain are inevitable offshoots of fame’s democratization. Ask any Kardashian.
Although I’ve never heard it said outright, I suspect that many academic historians also find Scully’s famous passion old-fashioned and out of place, maybe a little embarrassing. Emotions are fine for talk shows or talk therapy, sometimes even the lecture hall, but in academic writing they are often viewed as inappropriate and best suppressed. As one recently published student handbook advises: “Academic writing involves making points based on evidence. Clearly, then, you do not want to use emotive language in assignments. You must avoid deliberately appealing to the emotions of your readers.” 19 Such strictures will only tighten so long as the humanities are seen as a costly near-irrelevance by academic administrators focused on STEM fields and bottom lines. If they are to survive in the contemporary university — so the reasoning goes — the humanities must become more like the sciences: less fuzzy, more techie. Consider the dizzying rise of the “digital humanities.” 20
More to the point, the very passion that made Scully’s lectures and writing so moving and indelible served to undermine his credibility as a truth-telling historian. “He was properly more concerned about the passions connected with the discipline of architecture,” said former student Stanley Tigerman, “than with the Socratic distance one might expect from so distinguished a scholar.” As a result, he was criticized as “one more concerned with ‘tastemaking’ than with the more conventional ‘reportage’ of historical grist.” 21 Scully took a further risk in adopting the status of historian and contemporary critic-activist-advocate. His partisanship and pugnaciousness were assets in the latter roles, liabilities in the former. And in effect, he used his authority as a scholar to buttress his claims as a critic. Architectural historian Mark Jarzombek, analyzing Robert Stern’s decades-long project of professional self-fashioning — his creation, supported by Scully’s writing about his work, of a particular public persona — put it this way: “Scully is transferring some of his own autobiographical desires onto Stern, for is it not Scully who would like to go down in history as someone who does not twist phenomena to his perceptions but sees them as they are? After all, this is how we have already come to admire him.” 22
But let’s grant that Scully did “twist phenomena to his perceptions.” The real problem, as I see it, is that he did so by misrepresenting “perceptions” as facts. Scully’s is a humanistic literature having much in common with the “creative non-fiction” of today’s literary landscape. 23 He starts with actual objects, subjects, facts, and events, but he then combines and develops these with literary reference, historical analogy, descriptive exegesis, and his own ever-present and powerful authorial presence. At times he all but jettisons any pretense of objectivity and models buildings into things that didn’t quite exist before he recognized and activated them. This can make for thrilling and unforgettable criticism; it’s also understandably dubious to historians who regard themselves as social scientists, or for those post-postmodernists who conflate “the return of the real” with a “return of the verifiable.” It may be useful here (if mildly perverse) to draw an analogy from the hard sciences: at its most “impressionistic,” Scully’s critical-historical output — and by the 1960s there was little real difference for him between these modes — was more like speculative “pure” research than applied or directed research. One can imagine him thinking: What would happen if we tried this?
Or consider this: in her 1987 New Yorker review of Michael Fried’s Realism, Writing, Disfiguration: On Thomas Eakins and Stephen Crane, Janet Malcolm wrote, “only when criticism is radical does it stand a chance of being something more than a pale reflection of the work of art that is its subject. By disfiguring the work of art almost beyond recognition, Fried forces us to imagine it anew — not a bad achievement for a critic.” Scully, in both his historical and critical hats (and again, I stress the likeness of these), moved through similar, if less radical, terrain. He was at his most commanding in the realm of possibilities. This, I’d guess, is what ultimately made him so inspiring to so many young people. Regardless of its origins, he could spin architecture into existential drama — an irresistible turn for a demographic besotted with the drama of its own unfolding lives. And as much as he sometimes demanded readerly submission, he also opened doors and made way for others to pass through them. Said Richard Conniff, in a profile written for the Yale Alumni Magazine, “Scully doesn’t mind if students disagree with a particular interpretation; his purpose is mainly to give them the faith that interpretation is possible.” 25 Provided that it comes with one proviso — interpretation must be grounded in evidence: anything does not go — this seems a practical, honorable goal for historians still.
“The greatest American architect of his generation”
In Paul Rudolph, Scully found his temperamental counterpart. Just two years older than Scully, Rudolph began working as a visiting critic in Yale’s Department of Architecture in 1955. He became chairman there in 1958 and stayed in that role for the next seven years. Timothy Rohan, in a recent monograph on Rudolph, calls him the “foremost postwar advocate in the United States of a subjective approach to modernism emphasizing dramatic expression.” Born from an “empathy-based” design methodology, Rudolph’s buildings were “intended to affect the viewer physically and emotionally.” 26 Like Scully he was drawn to themes of humanism, individuality, archetype, and American character. During the late 1950s, he also shared Scully’s admiration — then rare according to architectural historian Richard Pommer — for certain late works of Wright and Le Corbusier, designs that provided an “assertion of eternal rather than merely modern architectural values.” 27 In direct opposition to the scientific, objective, research-based ethos then prevailing at Walter Gropius’s Harvard GSD, Rudolph and Scully made Yale the place to study architecture as a humanistic discipline centered on individual experience and creative expression.
The Yale Art and Architecture Building embodied and exemplified that approach. Rudolph received the commission just after being appointed chair, meaning that he acted, as had Gropius at Dessau and Mies at IIT, as his own client, “designing a building to house the department he chaired.” 28 The building was completed in 1963 and was an immediate sensation. By February 1964 it had appeared on the covers of Architectural Record, Architectural Forum, and Progressive Architecture. New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable called it a “winner,” claiming that it met the “great expectations” it had raised, and that it answered “some of the major questions facing the art of architecture today,” questions of urbanism, symbolism, decoration, and monumentality. 29 The building made Rudolph famous and was always closely identified with him, not least on a personal, psychic level. Recognizing this connection, Progressive Architecture’s cover for February 1964 featured overlapping images: the architect with his crew-cut and the building with its bush-hammered concrete, the one’s vertical corrugations borne on the other’s sober visage, both evidently made of the same hard, linear stuff. More recently, Timothy Rohan identified the building as part of Rudolph’s “working-up into form … [his] anxieties about methods of architectural representation, competition with other forms of modernism, and the Oedipal struggle with the first generation of modern architects.” 30 Said Rudolph himself in 1988, “I’ve never worked on a building that affected me as much as that one does.” 31
The A&A’s effect on Scully is evident in the brief essay he published in Architectural Review in May 1964. Founded in London in 1896 as a monthly Arts and Crafts forum, Architectural Review became a leading interlocutor of modernist architecture by the mid-1930s. With its decidedly artistic and literary bent, the journal had always emphasized high-quality, fiercely positioned prose, so Scully fit right in. Writers over the years included critics and historians P. Morton Shand, Nikolas Pevsner, Colin Rowe, and Reynar Banham, as well as Cyril Connolly, Hilaire Belloc, D. H. Lawrence, and Evelyn Waugh. J.M. Richards was Executive Editor when Scully wrote, as he’d been since 1937 and would remain until 1971, and he’d worked with Scully before. 32 Scully’s review of A&A appeared under the journal’s “Criticism” heading, a then regular, feature-length section pairing significant writers and architects with prominent new buildings from around the world. 33
With just over three pages of text (plus drawings from Rudolph’s office and photographs by Cervin Robinson), the essay is a compact tour de force, bearing all the hallmarks of Scully’s distinct and impassioned approach: his precise, visceral descriptions of space, form, and design process; his alert reckoning of formal ancestors and immediate urban context; his unflinching assertions of quality, meaning, and effect. Linguistic and rhetorical flourishes abound. A classroom in the basement is “entombed,” “terrifying,” compared to a chamber in Khufu’s pyramid. The sculptors consigned to the lower levels bear “troglodytic resentments” toward their new quarters and the architect who made them. A neighboring revival-style building is “flatulent, if heroically scaled.” As a whole A&A is “furiously ambitious,” “protean and elusive,” “violent” and “dangerous.” In Scully’s handling the building becomes a willful thing — oppressing, releasing, pushing, demanding. It poses like a dancer, stamps and rears like a horse, its lurching forms representing Rudolph’s own “embattled command.” The tone throughout is nearly operatic as two creative wills — Rudolph’s and Scully’s — collide and collude upon the page.
After this, ever in tandem, Rudolph and A&A’s fortunes would fall and rise again. Already at the gala opening ceremony — and to Rudolph’s visible dismay — keynote speaker Nikolas Pevsner rebuked him for making a building that was too individualistic, “a reactionary undermining of modernism.” 34 Following Rudolph’s departure from Yale, in 1965, his successor, Charles Moore, modified the interior and spoke disapprovingly of the design as “a personal manifestation for non-personal use.” 35 Students branded it egotistical and authoritarian, defacing it with graffiti while university administrators allowed it to deteriorate. On June 14, 1969, in a fire that many suspected was arson, the building was gutted. 36 Poorly repaired post-conflagration, it continued to suffer from deferred maintenance and harsh critical assessments. By the 1970s Yale’s future Dean of Architecture Robert Stern called A&A a “functional failure,” and even Scully lost faith, upholding the building as the architectural inauguration of America’s “tragic” decline during the 1960s. 37 Meanwhile, Rudolph — his most famous building in ruins, his reputation in decline, his workload waning — turned to domestic projects, and later, in his final years, to far-flung and often unrealized designs for Singapore, Hong Kong, and Jakarta. 38 He died in 1997.
Since then, of course, Rudolph’s reputation has rebounded. A new enthusiasm for mid-century modernism and a renewed appreciation for dramatic, expressive architectural forms have raised his profile. So too did his death: in one obituary, Michael Sorkin pronounced Rudolph “the greatest American architect of his generation.” 39 In 2008, following a $126 million renovation, Rudolph’s Yale masterwork reopened as Paul Rudolph Hall. 40 Timothy Rohan’s monograph was published last year and the architect now seems firmly positioned as a canonical American modernist.
And yet, like so many other important mid-century modernist buildings — particularly those labeled “Brutalist” — much of Rudolph’s work has recently been demolished. Still more is under threat. 41 This alone makes Scully’s essay well worth reading now, for it returns us to a moment when a classic was still new — not a monumental survivor of a lost era but a work of architecture integral to a broader network of buildings, people, and events. Here is that moment when such a seemingly blunt, brutal, and now-familiar thing was first seen, “as complicated as any human soul.” Scully’s language here remains a model for those critics and historians who find value in the emotive, who seek to engage and activate as well as inform.
“An architecture which is whole”: Art & Architecture Building, Yale University (1964)
by Vincent Scully
This furiously ambitious building is the first of its architect’s full maturity. It is surely the most historically significant of the many buildings constructed at Yale since Louis I. Kahn’s Art Gallery of 1951–58, and it demands and rewards extended critical attention. Though completed only barely in time for its dedication on November 9, 1963, it has already attracted extravagant dislike and no less fulsome admiration. The hysterical twittering of the ninety-four painters who are caged in what can only be regarded as its entablature, and the heavier, troglodytic resentments of the seventeen sculptors who have been driven down into its second basement, are more than matched by the euphoric beatitude of the one hundred and seventy-three architects and planners who, under the white-painted eyes of Minerva, are now expanding grandly through its airy middle floors.
It might be argued that such distribution of space is iconographically appropriate for the various arts involved: sculpture primitive and fundamental as old bones and so lodged in a cavern, painting occupying the traditional garret and roof-terrace (les toits de Paris) with a fine view across the stone-, land-, and seascape that New Haven is, architecture engaged in its usual mass operation in the middle of the road. True enough, the functional requirements involved might have suggested other spatial solutions. The painters insist, perhaps rather unreasonably, that they have not enough usable volume for their present numbers and will not have enough when they take over the area now assigned to city-planning offices on the sixth floor. In most of their area the ceilings are too low for proper lighting from above. Everywhere the building tends to elbow in at the corners of their vision, coming insistently between their canvases and them.
Down below, the sculptors have a restricted volume of air in which to set solid forms. Their ceilings are generally too low. A few feet under the floor lies water. The building could dig no deeper, and, for urbanistic reasons best considered later, Rudolph decided it should go no higher. The sculptors feel that the three ingenious monitors which rise another full floor-height from their level are not themselves wide enough to do other than to admit light and to emphasize the oppressive horizontality of most of the space. They do afford staggering views up the sides of the building, however, and there may in fact be more spatial release in them than has yet been appreciated. The sculptors have also been given a small but high studio once intended for Graphics. That department is housed in the first basement and has a better distribution of areas for its twenty-eight students, although the ceilings are still inordinately restrictive.
Wrapped in the centre of the two basements, a large, double-height lecture room is entombed. Its atmosphere, despite excellent ventilation, still seems as oppressively close as that in Khufu’s chamber. It is called Hastings Hall, and was named after Helen and Thomas Hastings, of the architectural firm of Carrère and Hastings, whose heirs contributed the money for it. The name, which euphonically calls up The Rover Boys at Princeton or something innocently ivy-clad of the sort, is spectacularly inappropriate for this terrifying room. A fine painted cloth by DeKooning cloaks the ductwork behind the speaker, and two Greek Revival Ionic capitals are flourished like severed heads on tall thin pikes before it.
Another level up (that is, at ground floor level), the Art Library occupies an entire floor and has one of the most successful spaces in the building: well lighted, expansive where it needs to be, offering a multitude of vistas that continue outward toward the street and the courts, and upward through the building and toward the sky. It also has a small mezzanine, more or less at the level of the vast exhibition and jury space which, glass-walled to the library, occupies most of the first floor. That is to say, the library is at grade and is reached by a tiny door and narrow corridor off the main entrance stair on York Street. That stair lifts grandly, though hastily designed (visually, not pedally, one guesses) with low, deeply undercut risers that can trap the feet. It is open to the sky between the towering, overhanging cliffs that rise on both sides of it: the body of the building to the left, the major stair and elevator tower to the right. Ahead, the landing at first floor level is not enclosed, so that an exhilarating wind whistles through it and up as well. Here a metal construction by Josef Albers is flattened against the wall like, as one student put it, an aeroplane which has crashed into the building.
This is the most dramatic entrance in the United States of America, bar none. It does not lead anywhere in particular, however, so tentatively pluralistic are the choices it offers. That is to say, movement from it to the left brings one rather decisively into the exhibition area, movement right merely to the stairs and elevators that serve the other floors. Circulation is thus split, although there is another stair tower, serving all levels, whose landings pop in and out at the far corner of the building. The exhibition and jury floor with its mezzanine of offices may seem rather lavish in conception in comparison with some of the accommodation described below. It functions splendidly, however, serving all disciplines well, and a spacious student lounge and a lovely small classroom, tucked into the south-east column-cluster, open off it. Originally its space was to have been extended vertically in two slots of skylight through the height of the building, but this was prevented by the newer provisions of the building code relative to fire.
Fragments of the Parthenon frieze, sprayed white and spotlighted, slide vertically down a three-story well, sending faculty mad with rage.
These provisions are beginning to affect American architecture noticeably, and generally for the bad. Open stairways are forbidden in public buildings, for example. Unlike Philip Johnson, who rather disastrously compromised between conception and code in the stairway for his Geology Building at Yale, Rudolph made a positive virtue of the enclosed stair. It sneaks around through the tower, secret and labyrinthine, its landings opening upon unexpected heights and chasms. The University’s collections of plaster casts, long abandoned in various basements, reappear here, as elsewhere throughout the building. Fragments of the Parthenon frieze, sprayed white and spotlighted, slide vertically down a three-story well, sending some of the faculty mad with rage. Finally, above the architects’ cathedral and the painters’ attic (la vie de Bohème), a dizzy guest suite high in space climaxes the tower; a wide view opens from its gusty terrace and from the sheltered roofscape behind it.
“East” and “West” Rocks rise to the north; most of Yale spreads out in that direction. South-eastward the harbor can be seen with the wind on it; the Connecticut Throughway curves along its shore. Closer on that bearing the city is rent by the Oak Street Redevelopment Area — at present, God help us, a sea of parked automobiles winking in the sun. More directly eastward and close below, Chapel Street leads toward New Haven’s splendid Green; along it are placed the other buildings which serve Yale’s elaborate program of teaching for the visual arts. First, across York Street, stands Kahn’s Art Gallery. Rudolph’s structure now looms above it. Seen together, the former has a taciturn air, the latter a somewhat gesticulatory one. This occurs, I think, because the closed box of the one is visually contained within the open gesture of the other. They complement each other exactly and, in my opinion, so constitute a triumph of urbanistic design. Westward is Egerton Swartout’s Old Art Gallery Gallery, of 1926–28. This flatulent if heroically scaled exercise in semi-pseudish Romanesque still serves its original function, but is also riddled with art historians, who manfully hold its bridge across High Street and now Street Hall as well. That sharp little prism of Victorian Gothic form was designed by Peter Wight in 1864, replacing the original Trumbull Gallery, of 1832.
Painters and sculptors occupied Street Hall until the recent move, and it should in all fairness be said that they never seemed overly fond of its accommodations either. Thus, when in 1958 it was decided to construct a new building to house all the arts together, Street Hall was to have been demolished to make way for it. Rudolph, who had become chairman of the Department of Architecture in 1957, produced a few tentative designs for that site before wiser counsels, his own among them, decided to spare Street Hall and, finally, to remodel it for the art historians.
Before having undertaken any of those studies, Rudolph had suggested either Kahn or Le Corbusier as the architect for the new building. It is perhaps understandable, though hardly heroic, that Le Corbusier’s name should have been rejected by University authorities as that of an architect too far from the scene, but the University’s failure to date to re-employ Kahn is surely one of its special minor shames, especially in view of the quantity of construction, little of it anywhere near Kahn’s mark, that Yale has undertaken since that architect began it all in 1951. The rejections, however, were hardly Rudolph’s fault or, in fact, his responsibility. Indeed, his own building shows the influences of his first two choices for it, since it echoes at once Kahn’s towers and Le Corbusier’s active sculptural force. The exterior of the very first project for York Street is most specific, reminding us at once of Rudolph’s second High School for Sarasota, of Chandigarh’s piers, and of one of Kahn’s early perspectives for the Medical Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania.
At the same time, Rudolph’s increasingly complex interlocking of spatial volumes throughout all his [earlier] projects for the Art and Architecture Building specifically recalls the neo-plastic experiments of the ’teens and early twenties. His other work also shows that he had been interested in these for some time. Here, however, a brio decidedly like that of Lissitsky is felt. Lastly, a more fluid sweep from part to part in the final project recalls Frank Lloyd Wright as well, especially the early Wright of the Larkin building (though now the vertical continuity is unhappily foiled by the fire laws), four piers rising in the centre, trays of space slung horizontally around them, circulation gathered in towers at the corners. In this relationship to the early work of Wright one is, of course, again reminded of a similar stage in Kahn’s career.
Into the basic conception Rudolph introduced a curious duality entirely his own. He felt that the Art and Architecture building, since it stood at an intersection of streets, should turn the corner in a spiraling or, more accurately, pinwheeling movement; he therefore turned his four central piers broadside to each other with the beams attached to their sides instead of supported upon them. The latter feature, structurally indirect though it is, he retained throughout all the many phases of the design, but he now says that he would not do so again. The pinwheeling or the piers was soon abandoned for good, while in the second version piers as such were eliminated entirely, so that the interior walls, acting as space definers, would be the structural elements as well. Soon, however, the piers returned, each at first split into four components, but eventually re-combined into oblong hollow masses containing utilities. The levels they supported now began to multiply according to the pinwheel principle. Rudolph stated his intentions clearly enough in the Architectural Record for April, 1962: “Once having adopted the pinwheel scheme, the architectural problem became one of articulating it in three dimensions. A structure was adopted which allowed each leg of the pinwheel to be at a different height, giving a kind of overlapping and interpenetrating series of platforms. These have been manipulated to vary the spaces in an intricate way which grows out of the use of the building.”
Each “leg” thus became a long, low, comparatively narrow tray of space. If such a tray opened upon one of the high central voids all worked well enough in terms of spatial yolume. The ground, first, second, third, fourth and fifth floors all did so in one way or another, but the basements and the fifth and sixth floors — the painters floors’ — were cut off enough from the open centre to make the rigidly compressed horizontality of the each tray both spatially depressing and awkwardly dimensioned for subdivision.
All these arrangements began to be permanently fixed as the external massing of the building was further studied both as an expression of its internal structural and spatial organization and as an object in urban space. In Rudolph’s view, requirements relative to the latter severely limited its height. This was finally set, arbitrarily enough, but probably correctly, as equal to that of the tower of Bingham Hall, far down by the Green at the corner of Chapel and College Streets. The heights of all floors were frozen at a minimum level in order to keep to the restriction, and this limitation was aggravated by the fact that the Art Library, sometimes in and sometimes out of the program, was finally frozen in, and an entire floor had to be given over to it. Rudolph was especially concerned about the scale of the building in relation to Kahn’s Art Gallery, and he had this to say: “… the scale … is purposely reduced by the cluster of forms at each comer, breaking down the total appearance of volume. The irregularity in plan permits the vertical to be emphasized. The horizontal demarcation of each floor in the new structure restates the horizontal layers in Kahn’s Art Gallery on the opposite side of York Street.”
The whole complex now began to integrate along these lines. Vertical towers visually supported horizontal slabs to create interwoven spatial volumes. The high central spaces were externally revealed on the east side, giving the building a kind of expansive breadth which intensified, by contrast, the obsessive interlocking of the narrow horizontals. Between the girders, the glazing, innocent of integral sun-protection, never became more than an extraneous element in the design as a whole, which persistently demanded to be read in terms of its solids — as, that is, bridges spanning between towers. Hence the necessary stiffening mullions have remained visually disturbing, since, though quite large and obtrusive, they are clearly not involved in the intricate rationale which binds the other forms.
Finally, the major stair tower at the north-east corner succeeded in shaking itself loose from the rest of the building in order to become a stationary principal in a dance: standing clear of but supporting the elaborate gyrations of its partner. The great precipice of its north side was left pierced by a window at each elevator-landing to allow the eventual expansion of the building in that direction, so far blocked by recalcitrant landlords. Indeed, even the most minor of programs carried out there could easily solve the spatial problems of the painters and sculptors. Those problems had, of course, now passed the point of no return so far as the sequence of design was concerned. The sculptors had to be pushed down to keep to the restriction in height, while the painters’ upper levels now clearly came to be regarded as plastic terminations for the building — as, in fact, massive horizontal solids, like great beams, which the towers visually carried and with which the terminal interlockings were made. (The tower lifting the high volume strongly recalls Le Corbusier’s pier-lift of horizontal cells at La Tourette. Rudolph clearly likes the effect and is using it further in his vast Service Centre for Boston.) Fenestration was confined to a narrow horizontal slot, and a structural but decoratively conceived semi-triglyph-and-metope feature was developed in order to punctuate it. The timber-like quality at that final level superficially recalls Tange’s detailing in concrete.
Here one comes to the fundamental problem of Rudolph’s handling of that material. He had determined from the beginning to use nothing but concrete in the building. And in fact — with the exception of a foam-colored acoustic ceiling, dark brown-painted metal guard rails, some cargo nets, a few white cabinets and partitions and a blaring orange carpet — the building is entirely of sand-colored concrete outside and in. Rudolph had also hoped that his bêton should be everywhere severely brut, but felt, as had Wright before him, both that concrete weathered badly in the American climate and that it was, as normally handled, inadequately expressive of its crushed-stone aggregate. (Wright’s round-pebbled, brown concrete in Unity Temple comes to mind.)
Rudolph, therefore, tested various kinds of forms and finally designed a ribbed type with bevelled, trapezoidal battens which brought the aggregate pushing forward in vertical ridges. The effect was brittle and indecisive, however, until he hit upon the device of bashing the formed surface with a hammer, so “pre-weathering” it and bringing the aggregate out. This method, which proved to be quick and inexpensive (the building came in at $26 a square foot overall) and is now being used in other buildings, gave him exactly the kind of vertically continuous surfaces he wanted; by emphasizing the joints of the pours he inscribed the horizontal structural components upon it. Naturally enough, the linear striations were entirely in accord with his drafting technique. They also reduced the apparent weight of the mass as a whole, so making it more civil in town than untreated concrete normally does; though that effect here is obviously purely visual, not tactile.
Rudolph’s buildings give the impression of having taken shape according to their architect’s embattled command.
The original intention, as perspectives right up into early stages of construction show, was to surface all the beams and slabs in the same way, and one or two so finished can be found far down in the depths of the building. The visual illogicality of the system for horizontal elements was soon apparent, however, so that all the rest of the beams were finally left naturally brut. They thus furnished a welcome expression of structural articulation to the interwoven solids. The concrete was also formed naturally in the stair-wells and in some of the other more restricted spaces — for the excellent reason that the slotted and bashed surface is one of the most inhospitable, indeed physically dangerous, ever devised by man. Brushing against it can induce injuries roughly comparable, one supposes, to those suffered in keel-hauling. The building thus repels touch; it hurts you if you try. The sense is of bitter pride, acrid acerbity rising perhaps to a kind of tragic gloom, since the light falls across the gashed ridges in long dusky veils, all brightness eaten by the broken surfaces, no reflections possible, instead sombre absorption everywhere. Artificial lighting itself presents a special problem under these conditions. This is best seen in the exhibition area; spots of brilliance must hit the eye — that is the lighting system anyway, divisive and space-cutting — since nothing can suffuse or glow across a plane.
Contrast should be made with Le Corbusier’s handling of the problem, where the placement of the planks in the forms imparts to the concrete a surface which expresses the loving care with which it was received in the pour. One might say that it was cradled there; here, despite an even higher level of structural detailing, it is squeezed and splintered. One is reminded of some of the general comments made by John McCoubrey relative to a traditional lack of love for the medium itself on the part of American painters in contrast to those of Europe. Paradoxically enough, craftsmanship, however high in fact, is persistently underplayed in effect for other values, generally those of an impatiently expressive intensity; so here, where the surface rushes up, stretching thicker and thinner, devouring light, dripping and scratching off like the heart-stopping broad strokes of Franz Kline.
It is here perhaps most of all that Rudolph moves into the fullness of his generation and the most characteristically American development of his powers. Behind his work lies humanistic European precedent in Le Corbusier (his heart’s rival), a reviving native tradition in Wright (the grandfather safely gone), and the challenge of that special generation which is represented by Kahn alone. But through it all his own insistent will holds sway, and most earnestly so. Thus Le Corbusier’s buildings at their best give the impression of having taken shape according to a passionate force integral to themselves, Kahn’s as if in response to some solemn law, Rudolph’s according to their architect’s embattled command.
Perhaps the difference in age plays a part in this. The total integrity of effort is surely there, as is a most marvelous visual control inside and out. This puts Rudolph among a sparse handful of contemporary architects who can combat the present tendency toward sterile packaging and decorative classicism precisely because they are capable of grappling with complicated and richly articulated structures, spaces, masses and details. The functional and formal situation is, therefore, always three-dimensionally fluid in Rudolph’s hands; he is in search of an architecture which is whole. One can hardly doubt, comparing his building with some others recently completed at Yale, as elsewhere, that his method is in the end more right than wrong, that he is on the side of life. But there is still some strain in execution no less than conception. Hence the building comes stamping aggressively out of the pavement, its high corner tower rearing violently up exactly on the axis of Chapel Street’s northern sidewalk, so dominating all movement from the Green and, in fact, climaxing the sequence of shapes of the older art buildings ideally and with absolute authority. Around it the structure proliferates with its infinity of levels, as complicated as any human soul, as dark and tortuous in some places, as surprisingly generous in many others, lighted from unexpected sources, a never ending wonder to explore. (My colleague, George Hersey, is reminded of Soane’s own house despite the difference in size.)
Whoever uses the building is caught up in that human complexity — in the curiously intimate scale of personal drama — in that insatiable will and unappeasable anxiety. This is, one imagines, the larger reason why the painters and sculptors hate it so, who wish to be caught up only in their own. Into every intersection the abundant energy reaches, the power and the unease. One senses the fast-drawing pencil with its compulsively neat, parallel linear shadings, which studied each nook and cranny time after time, proliferating forms, breaking them down, recombining. Total integration is the intention — of interior and exterior, of all floors, which cease to exist as such —total integration and the constant action of surfaces. So throughout the whole fabric the process of analysis is felt; areas break in the end into microcosmic cells, like, for example, the serried army of compartmented drafting tables which now jostle each other in the architects’ grand hall.
The competitive creation of forms: this is clearly what the building is about. This process is its obsession; through it its program, protean and elusive, is fulfilled. So everywhere the casts appear, trophies of creative acts long gone, scalps and challenges. So, too, most appropriately, the building now holds a few of Sullivan’s bronze panels and wrought-iron screens from his Stock Exchange Building, and plaster casts of his swirling, interwoven ornament from the Schiller. How full and calm, how humanely kind even, these now seem to be when they are seen in their new setting here. How raw and violent it is — that is, we are — how resourceful, determined, and uneven in strength: all this so truly, openly, with so much talent, I think bravely, stated here.