Brutalism has an image problem.
The word itself, which most people associate with “brutal” rather than brut as in beton, does no great service to the style. Nor do the many terrible buildings thrown up in its name, especially those by heavy-handed urban renewalists. Nor do its ongoing associations in popular culture with dystopian cityscapes (think A Clockwork Orange‘s tour of concrete London). Nor do the cracks, spalls and stains one sees embedded in facades from decades of neglect. It takes a committed eye to find beauty in those chunky folds of concrete, those unapologetic masses bullying their way into the cityscape.
Among these out-of-favor works are those by Paul Rudolph. After building ships for the Navy in World War II and studying at Harvard under Walter Gropius, Rudolph began his career designing innovative modernist houses in Florida, became chairman of Yale’s architecture department in 1958, and by the early 1960s was one of the country’s most prolific architects. His brand of Brutalism (the term itself didn’t gain traction until the late 1960s, and Rudolph himself never used it) was intriguing, powerful and intensely three-dimensional. Yet by the end of the decade, Rudolph’s large commissions in the U.S. began to dry up. By the late 1970s, Brutalism had gone mainstream, becoming derivative and banal, and changing tastes swept any building clad in exposed concrete into the aesthetic dustbin. The poor planning, deferred maintenance, ineffective mechanical systems and lack of owner stewardship plaguing Brutalist buildings became conflated, in the public imagination, with their design. None of this helped the reputation of Rudolph, who spent the rest of his career mixing residential projects at home with skyscrapers in the Far East. He died in 1997.
Like the equally idiosyncratic Frank Furness, whose Ruskin-influenced Neo-Gothic civic buildings were embraced and then rejected by Victorian Philadelphia, Rudolph’s fall from favor seems cruelly comprehensive and lasting. Riverview High School (1958) one of the most important works from the Florida years, was demolished this past summer. Five Rudolph houses in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Florida (including the residence of Rudolph’s onetime partner, Ralph Twitchell) 1 also did not survive the 2000s, and various Rudolph buildings elsewhere — a government complex and a school in upstate New York, an office building in Boston, a tower in Singapore — face plans for demolition. 2
If this ongoing threat has a positive aspect, it is that it seems to have prompted new appreciation of Rudolph’s buildings. The pivot point of this reconsideration is his best-known work, Yale’s Art & Architecture Building — now Paul Rudolph Hall, as Yale rechristened the building a year ago to mark completion of a renovation and expansion by Rudolph’s former student, Charles Gwathmey. The School of Architecture paid homage by hosting talks by others students of the Rudolph era, including Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Stanley Tigerman and Alexander Tzonis, and by publishing a collection of Rudolph’s own Writings on Architecture [Yale University Press, 2008].
The Three Rudolphs
Like other high-profile practitioners, Rudolph sat for interviews and delivered lectures. He also did his own writing, not as an exercise in self-promotion but to explain the concepts he thought central to architecture. Thus Rudolph the writer, far less known than Rudolph the architect or Rudolph the educator, gets his first full expression in this collection that is, as Robert A.M. Stern writes in the forward, “extensive but not exhaustive.”
Its contents are 20 reprinted texts, mainly essays Rudolph published between 1952 and 1992 in mainstream architectural magazines. The occasional speech transcript appears, as do Q-and-A interviews, which are especially revealing in luring Rudolph away from his favorite subjects and familiar audiences (the readers of House & Garden in 1969 may have been surprised to hear Rudolph say the single-family house was a disappearing breed).
The book is certainly enough to provide an immersion into Rudolph’s earnest style and thematic preoccupations, which depending on one’s ear can sound passionate or dogmatic. Perhaps his strongest, and most surprising, concern is the bad marriage between modernism and urbanism. Modernism’s inability to create cities, or even buildings, that reconcile the scale of the “quickly moving vehicle” with human scale is a failure he laments often and early, beginning in the 1950s. His call to use highways and garages as productive urban elements is based in a desire to limit auto access to the city, as opposed to the then-current assumption that only an infusion of off-ramps could save downtown.
Rudolph was equally idiosyncratic in his approach to education. He insisted on separating pedagogy from dogma (even his own), a tradition returned to Yale by Stern in his role as dean. Rudolph was also suspicious of the ability of any school to make an architect: “I am not terribly impressed with schools. I think that they can be helpful . . . more so for certain types of people than others. But they cannot make people creative. They can only define the issues.” [page 84]
This argument, like the others Rudolph weaves throughout his writing — the requirement for diversity in urban space, the futility of a continual search for novelty, the need for architects to practice urban design — remains unchanged over the four decades covered by the book. This means not that the Paul Rudolph of 1992 was outdated but that the Paul Rudolph of 1952 was well ahead of his time. Even then, he objected to the visual and spiritual emptiness of mainstream modernism, writing, “One doubts that a poem was ever written to a flat-roofed building silhouetted against the setting sun.” [page 27]
Given its timing and origin, it is not surprising that Writings on Architecture’s center of gravity is 1963, the year Art & Architecture opened. This was the building Rudolph inhabited as both client and architect, the one that nourished or enraged generations of architects and artists, 3 the legacy that Rudolph in later years called “very painful.” [page 139] Writings on Architecture includes a section of images and drawings (many previously unpublished) relating to the building’s design and construction, yet the texts deployed show that A&A is a lens with limited ability to bring Rudolph into focus.
For a man whose writing wore its convictions on its sleeve, Rudolph’s 1964 description of A&A (published in the London-based Architectural Design) is numbingly pragmatic — and was perhaps a tactical move to deflect anticipated criticism of the building. Though Rudolph was happy to enumerate the building’s urban and educational features, “space” makes only one minor appearance in the essay, and the only clue to his material intent is the second to last sentence, which justifies the omission of doorframes “to emphasize the monolithic quality of the design.” After dispensing with formal considerations in the opening paragraph, Rudolph spends the rest of the essay analyzing the building in terms of its response to site (notably its elevational relationship to the old Art Gallery and Louis Kahn’s “new” Art Gallery across the street) and program. Rudolph ties the two together thus:
“Since the building is on a corner, its role in the cityscape is to turn the corner. A pinwheel scheme has been adopted, because (1) it turns the corner; (2) it allows such rooms as the architectural drafting room to have an area of desks which logically turns the corner; (3) this fundamental pinwheel scheme allows a centralized space with a higher ceiling for every floor; (4) the pinwheel can grow logically, i.e. the building is open-ended.” [page 99]
Many of A&A’s users and guests took exception, beginning with the modernist historian Sir Nikolaus Pevsner, whose critical speech at the building’s convocation raised eyebrows. Problems mounted, not the least of which was a 1969 fire spuriously attributed to architecture students. As early as 1972 the building was being analyzed as a “grand failure,” 4 successful only as a rough draft for Rudolph’s next project, his largest American commission.
The Undiscovered Project
The University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, on rural land an hour south of Boston, remains obscure. Rudolph was given a greenfield site in 1963 to create an instant campus, and though he was removed three years later — reportedly because the Governor thought the buildings looked expensive — the associated architects, Desmond and Lord, carried through most of Rudolph’s intentions (the result was inspiring enough for Bruce Barnes, a student on the campus in the early ’70s and now a librarian there, to create an indispensable web archive of Rudolph’s work).
Rudolph arranged his buildings, essentially modifications of a single design, in two facing curves loosely defining a wide lawn. A central campanile anchors the broad pedestrian space, with cars banished to a ring of peripheral parking lots behind the buildings. This expansiveness, which Rudolph likened to Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia [page 121], is countered by the interior lounges that Rudolph argued were vital to creating a sense of community in a commuter college. The lounges are some of the most satisfying vertical spaces anywhere, three stories of shifting volume defined by staircases and balconies and interspersed with padded benches (and even a few fireplaces). They lend the much more sedate corridors and classrooms that connect them a sense of anticipation.
Rudolph’s expert manipulations of form prompt a desire to delve into the mind of the architect working “with a grubby pencil at a grubbier drafting board.” [page 89] But Writings on Architecture is elusive here; Rudolph seems only willing to describe his design process as iconoclastic: “As an architect I am the most prejudiced person in the world; as a teacher I hope I am as open-minded as possible.” [page 84] Only slightly illuminating those prejudices, he told the historian and writer Robert Bruegmann in 1986, “I’m compelled: I have no choice about certain combinations of forms, material, space, or architectural considerations. They egg me on.”
Bruegmann’s fascinating interview (which includes the delightfully surreal anecdote of Rudolph and Frank Lloyd Wright meeting inside Phillip Johnson’s guest house), focuses largely on Rudolph’s work during the 1980s in Asia. Excerpts would have made a valuable addition to Writings on Architecture, whose three included interviews from the same decade only look back to Rudolph’s successes in the ’50s and ’60s. It is also somewhat disappointing to find just one essay documenting his post-A&A experiments with megastructures and prefab housing (another constant fascination, which he called “twentieth-century brick”), and very little material relating to Rudolph’s interiors, unbuilt projects and the overseas commissions that made up the bulk of his output from the early 1970s onward.
For that, we have Roberto De Alba’s 2003 monograph, Paul Rudolph: The Late Work, which opens with an insightful and comprehensive essay by Bruegmann, titled “The Architect as Urbanist.” At first glance this seems like a provocation. Rudolph’s buildings, the common view goes, are polemics in concrete, ponderous and introspective masses more interested in their own monumentality than in their surroundings. Aren’t they?
The City and Paul Rudolph
One sympathizes with this conception walking through Boston’s Government Service Center (1971), also known today as the Lindemann Center. Thanks to its location at the foot of Beacon Hill, it is probably Rudolph’s most visible, yet least popular, work. It is also one of his most compromised; Rudolph’s firm was one of three that worked on the design, and the centerpiece of the plan, a tower that would have counterbalanced the strong horizontality of the pedestrian plaza, was never built. Today the complex houses large offices for state functions that provoke unease (unemployment insurance and mental health), covers its north entry in parked cars and jersey barriers, keeps a state police cruiser idling in the pedestrian plaza and seems to have invested more resources in bolting blue metal signs reading “State Property: Closed Dusk to Dawn” onto the bush-hammered concrete than in keeping the stairwells clean and dry. The contrast between the praise and optimism of 40 years ago and the desultory air of today speaks volumes about the decline of the public sector.
Read the 1982 interview with Architectural Record, however, and Rudolph’s intentions for the site become clear. The plaza is lined by low, stepped-backed terraces that insulate it from the busy street to the west and define a “bowl of space” that counters the State House on Beacon Hill. The small plazas at the street corners are a nod to Boston’s traditional squares. [page 120] And Rudolph’s urban motivations are undeniable in the astonishing spaces carved out under the bridging building at the north end of the complex, where the supporting columns have been squeezed to maximize visual connection with the West End and a sumptuous staircase swirls down to the street like a concrete homage to the Spanish Steps.
None of this is to say that Rudolph would have achieved, had the conditions been exactly right, what he set out to do. He was trying to redefine the traditional relationship of building to street within a new language demanded by the scale and speed of the automobile. Government Center tries to achieve this by making cars disappear (it sucks them into a parking lot tucked under the plaza) to open up a vast expanse for pedestrians. What worked amid the green expanses of UMass, however, translates poorly to the city, and is not helped by the adjacency of the similarly overscaled urban “renewals” of the West End and City Hall Plaza.
Rudolph’s dedication to aesthetic concerns was as uncompromising as it was to urban ones, and his refusal to question one in light of the other became an Achilles’ heel. The unrelenting concrete, the suspended masses, the great washes of light and shadow: What seemed to him a common language of civic gravitas was to others the impenetrable argot of high design. When an interviewer (urban designer Jonathan Barnett, then a student at Yale) asked if his approach to architecture was “primarily visual,” Rudolph shot back, “I don’t apologize for this. It may come as a surprise to you, but it shouldn’t.” [page 88]
This image of Rudolph as unapologetic modernist made it easy for others to portray him as out of touch, especially as the postmodern movement chipped away at his legacy. Ironically, throughout Writings on Architecture Rudolph articulates the same arguments against orthodox modernism later picked up by postmodernists: its prescriptive approach to program, its lack of imagination and its abhorrence of urban fabric. Of his old teacher, Rudolph writes, “Gropius searched eloquently for a scientific rationalism that could be applied to the environment . . . and closed his eyes to the resultant monotony and inhumanity.” [page 78] He was no easier on the only three architects he admired: “Corbu wanted to tear down central Paris and rebuild it with his slabs. Wright wanted to abandon the city and give every man an acre, and Mies apparently felt that acres of curtain wall could make a city.” [page 90]
Unlike his postmodern detractors, Rudolph actually tried to form novel urban solutions that went beyond artifice and labored symbolism. He knew the risks of doing so, and was willing to accept them. When he was interviewed about the Yale building in 1988, he was honest about the building’s shortcomings but said that wouldn’t change the design. His sanguine acceptance of changing tastes [page 148] might be read as a resolution — or an epitaph — for any of his buildings:
“I’m pleased that the building touches people, and part of that is that people’s opinions oscillate about it. That’s okay. The worst fate from my viewpoint would be indifference.”