Scenographic Urbanism: Paul Rudolph and the Public Realm

The achievements of a postwar generation that brought to professional design practice a vigorous sense of mission — at once artistic, cultural, and political — are more evident than ever. In an ongoing and occasional series, historians and critics offer new assessments of modern masters.

Top left: Concept sketch, Boston Government Service Center, 1962. [Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division] Top right: Plaza, Mental Health Building, Boston. [Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Paul Rudolph Archive] Bottom left: Mental Health Building. [Courtesy photographer Robert Perron] Bottom right: Mall, SMTI, 1963. [Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]

Paul Rudolph enjoyed fantastic success in the early 1960s. It was impossible to open a newspaper, magazine, or architectural journal in the United States or abroad without seeing one of the architect’s projects or reading his opinions about the state of modernism. In 1963, the year the Yale Art & Architecture Building was completed, Rudolph was working simultaneously on six governmental, five academic, and three corporate projects. 1 He had nearly abandoned private houses, once his mainstay, for larger works.

Of all the various building types, Rudolph most wanted corporate commissions, especially skyscrapers; but he was least successful in this field, probably because businesses found his increasingly personal vocabulary ill-matched to their organizational ethos. … Indeed, Rudolph’s sense of monumentality and urbanism were better suited to the public realm. Beginning in the 1950s in cities such as New Haven and accelerating in the 1960s under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, government-supported redevelopment transformed America’s cities and provided Rudolph with numerous commissions for civic buildings. 2 The building of new academic campuses and the expansion of existing ones, often publicly funded as well, also provided Rudolph with many jobs. His most significant public projects of this decade, the Boston Government Service Center (1962–71) and the campus for the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute (1963–72), elaborated on the signature monumental style that he had arrived at with the Yale A & A. To critique what he considered the banality and incoherence of contemporary urban renewal and campus design, Rudolph imbued these projects with a scenographic quality that evokes the set for an opera, with swirling staircases and colorful, multistory, balconied interior spaces recalling baroque architecture, and with great plazas resembling amphitheaters inspired by the ideas of 19th-century city planner Camillo Sitte.

Boston Government Service Center

The Boston Government Service Center was an integral part of one of the largest, most discussed redevelopment projects of the decade, Boston Government Center, which replaced 60 acres of commercial and residential buildings with a master plan by I. M. Pei & Associates. 3 Part of a larger effort to revive the stagnating city, similar to what was being done in New Haven, Government Center was the keystone for the “New Boston,” Mayor John Collins’s vision of a city whose renaissance would be symbolized by new modernist landmarks. 4 Rudolph had no interaction with Pei, whom he knew only slightly, or with Pei’s partner, Henry Cobb. He was, however, friendly with one of the project’s primary administrators, Edward T. Logue, director of the Boston Redevelopment Authority (Logue had been deputy director for redevelopment in New Haven when Rudolph designed the Temple Street Parking Garage there).

The Government Center master plan exemplified one of the redevelopment strategies typical of American city planning in the 1950s and early ’60s: different architects were given separate commissions in the hope that the results would approximate the urban diversity of the past. The centerpiece for Boston was Kallmann, McKinnell and Knowles’s acclaimed new Boston City Hall. Rudolph admired the building, a brutalist landmark, and was friendly with the members of the firm. 5 The other important buildings in the master plan were the John F. Kennedy Federal Office Building by Walter Gropius and TAC (1967); the Government Center Garage by Kallmann, McKinnell, and Wood with Samuel Glaser and Partners (1970); and a large office building, One Center Plaza, by Welton Beckett and Associates (1966–69).

Top: Perspective Section, Mental Health Building, William Grindereng, renderer. [Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division] Bottom: Mental Health Building. [Courtesy photographer Robert Perron]

Although critics praised the individual projects, it was apparent even in its earliest stages that the Government Center complex would have a piecemeal, disjointed feeling, jarringly different from the historic brick and stone buildings and streets that had been demolished to make it possible. In fact, Government Center represented many things Rudolph thought wrong with contemporary urban planning and redevelopment. The enclosed, sheltered plaza of his BGSC would serve as a contrast to the large, open City Hall plaza, and as such it encapsulates Rudolph’s perspective on city planning at the time.

For decades, 20th-century modernists had favored openness in urban planning, maintaining that undue density caused social problems and that expansiveness and green, park-like spaces were healthful and therapeutic. The early 1960s saw a shift away from this thinking, and by this time Rudolph had concluded that open spaces actually caused alienation. Thus he advocated enclosure, believing that it would stimulate strong, positive, emotional responses from individuals and the community. To be sure, Rudolph’s notion of what constituted community was unclear, perhaps because of his intense focus on individuality. To a large extent his notions about urbanism, enclosure, and communal space — mostly an appreciation of the traditional city’s formal, aesthetic qualities — were drawn from City Planning According to Artistic Principles (1889), by the late 19th-century Austrian planner Camillo Sitte. 6 Rudolph frequently referred to Sitte in articles and lectures and in discussions about urbanism for his Yale studios. Like Sitte, Rudolph believed that buildings that shared walls exemplified tighter, more cohesive urbanism.

Famously employing the term “agoraphobia” to describe the alienating effects of vast open urban spaces, Sitte criticized the psychological impact of conventional planning. 7 In a way that appealed to the musician in Rudolph — in his youth the architect had aspired to be a concert pianist — Sitte thought the city should be like the stage set for an opera — a Wagnerian Gesamtkunstwerk, a total work of art, with squares and piazzas for civic activities, such as parades and communal festivals, that would have the emotional impact of musical theater directed by a great conductor. These views resonated with Rudolph, and he found especially appealing Sitte’s criticism of conventional planning strategies, of collaboration and bureaucratic organization. “Works of art cannot be created by a committee or through office activity,” Sitte said, “but only by a single individual; an artistically effective city plan is also a work of art and not merely an administrative matter. That is the crux of the whole matter.” 8 Sitte was sometimes criticized for favoring traditional architecture, yet modernists — including Le Corbusier and postwar architects and urbanists ranging from Gordon Cullen to Josep Lluís Sert to Eero Saarinen — had long been inspired by his writings. 9

The story of how Rudolph came to design the BGSC shows the architect at the height of his powers, when his virtuosity enthralled colleagues and appeared capable of channeling the myriad political and economic forces of urban redevelopment into compelling civic forms. As originally conceived, the complex consisted of three independent structures on a boomerang-shaped site cleared by the BRA and bounded by Staniford, Merrimac, and New Chardon Streets. In keeping with its policy of promoting diversity of expression, the BRA assigned each building to a different Boston firm: M. A. Dyer with Pedersen and Tilney Company drew Health, Education and Welfare; Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson and Abbott received Employment and Social Security; Desmond and Lord were given Mental Health. 10

Hoping to capitalize on Rudolph’s reputation, the chairman of Desmond and Lord, Richard R. Thissen, Jr., hired Rudolph as design consultant. Thissen, a businessman and not an architect, believed that Rudolph’s design skills, and his affiliation with Yale, would raise the profile of the firm. In effect, Rudolph became the firm’s chief designer for the Mental Health Building (and other projects) because there was no one of his caliber at the firm. And although the role of design consultant may have seemed inimical to an upholder of individual genius — and indeed it eventually proved to have drawbacks — Rudolph was initially enthusiastic because Thissen granted him almost complete design autonomy. (Additionally, the firm’s 30 or so employees provided him with more assistance than his own staff could provide; and Rudolph drew a regular salary from Desmond and Lord, which he liked because it gave him some financial stability.) 11

Top: Sketch, Boston Government Service Center. Bottom: Plan, Boston Government Service Center. [Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]

Each firm participating in the BGSC project produced its own design for a freestanding building, but they soon realized that the structures were poorly related. Rudolph took this moment to expand his involvement. He convinced all three firms to meet in his home ground of New Haven on June 13, 1962. After some debate about different collaborative approaches, Rudolph seized their attention theatrically; in a virtuoso display of design skill and project leadership, he took just seconds to sketch a plan in which the buildings would be joined to form a roughly triangular complex enclosing a central courtyard focused on a twenty-three-story tower. Essentially, Rudolph had combined three separate buildings into one large structure. 12

Published in many journals along with anecdotal accounts about its creation, the sketch was celebrated as the mark of Rudolph’s consummate skill. While the concept was no doubt thought out well in advance, Rudolph appeared to have arrived at a solution intuitively, in the manner expressive of genius celebrated by Sitte. He was admired for taking action, after study and deliberation — processes which he thought modernist planning over-emphasized — had failed. The final plan for the complex was almost identical to the original pen and ink sketch. Rudolph said of his solution, “Too many specialists and bureaucrats with overlapping authority created a vacuum which left the way open for an idea.” 13 Rudolph consolidated his control in subsequent project meetings in an equally dramatic and calculated manner. Charles G. Hilgenhurst, director of the BRA’s office of Planning, Urban Design and Advanced Projects, recalled that, at the next meeting in Boston, Rudolph deliberately upstaged the other firms by arriving late, equipped with fully realized drawings. “Twenty minutes late, Paul Rudolph walked onto the stage followed by his crewcut entourage from Yale,” Hilgenhurst recounted. “After a few brief apologies he unrolled a series of black line prints. … The effect was immediate, and he seized advantage of the moment and began to expound the ‘philosophy’ of his design. The plan was unchanged — but now the architecture had emerged.” 14

Swayed by Rudolph’s ideas, conviction, reputation, and showmanship, the other firms embraced his plan. Logue named him coordinating architect, granting him the authority to supervise the design of all exteriors. Overseeing the project in much the same way that he performed his studio critiques at Yale, Rudolph reviewed each firm’s contribution during weekly visits to Boston between 1962 and 1965. To assist him, Rudolph had a recent Yale graduate, James McNeeley, appointed as his liaison at Desmond and Lord. It was a position of some responsibility that might have gone to an older professional, but Rudolph often chose young, inexperienced architects to work for him, perhaps because he was accustomed to a student-teacher relationship, or perhaps because a young architect would not challenge his decisions or authority. …

At the meeting that led to his appointment as coordinating architect, Rudolph outlined five design criteria for the BGSC; though he would have resisted following anyone else’s guidelines, he had no problem prescribing his own. The criteria shed light not only on the Boston complex but also on the increasingly dramatic qualities of his other contemporary projects as well as on the emergence of a vocabulary common to large-scale concrete brutalism. The application of these criteria is evident in the portion of Rudolph’s Mental Health Building visible from the corner of Staniford and Merrimac Streets; this was the portion he designed entirely himself.

The first design criterion was common material and surface treatment for all the buildings. Rudolph chose the corrugated concrete that he had developed for his A & A Building, then under construction. … The second criterion was massive rectangular piers with rounded corners — varying from three to twelve feet in diameter and four to seven floors in height — at the periphery of each structure. The piers would impart a sense of rhythmic order that would help unify the complex, and for Rudolph, these elements would make the large scale of the building comprehensible in the urban context — he believed that pedestrians would understand the dimensions of the complex by comparing the size of their bodies to the piers. The third standard was a deep cornice that would unite the rooflines of all three structures. The cornice would consist of one or more projecting floors (similar to the studio floors atop the A & A Building), that would give the complex a top-heavy silhouette like that of the Boston City Hall — a profile, typical of brutalist monumentality, which ultimately derived from Le Corbusier’s postwar creations, such as his monastery of La Tourette. The fourth criterion was the articulation of all service areas, such as elevators, stair towers, and even toilets, with curvilinear shapes and towers — an articulation that would heighten the complex’s expressive character. (Rudolph’s turrets gave his building a medieval or baroque character, a quality common to his other contemporary projects.) The fifth specification was stepped interior facades; the inward-looking facades were required to consist of setback terraces that as a whole would form a bowl- or amphitheater-shaped central courtyard.

Plaza, Mental Health Building. [Courtesy Library of Congress, Paul Rudolph Archive]

By the mid and late 1960s, Rudolph would often speak of the possibilities of what he called a “topographical architecture,” a concept whose origins lay in the Boston project. Looking for inspiration outside of Pei’s master plan, Rudolph explored ways to give the complex a strong presence in the context of the existing city by making far-reaching connections between old and new. Again demonstrating his formalist way of looking at architecture — that is, seeing forms of disparate size and meaning as related by appearance — Rudolph claimed that the concave “bowl” of the courtyard was conceived as the inverse of the convex form of nearby Beacon Hill itself, as well as the gold dome atop the landmark statehouse at the summit of Beacon Hill. 15 Rudolph’s thinking about how the complex would be perceived visually and spatially probably owed something to the concepts of architect and planner Kevin Lynch, a contributor to the master plan for Government Center. In his 1960 The Image of the City, Lynch argued that pedestrians navigated urban terrain using landmarks both humble and grand that they perceived as “images.” 16

Rudolph’s decision to model his civic space in Boston on an amphitheater was justified also by his reading of Sitte, who had asked “What is a forum but a type of theater?” 17 The amphitheater-like shape and dramatic qualities of the BGSC courtyard were also evidence that scenography — or the art of making stage scenery, especially in perspective — was of growing importance for Rudolph. Rudolph regularly attended film, theater, classical music, and opera performances in New York, all of which informed his architecture. In 1962, he collaborated with set and lighting designer Ralph Alswang on a scheme for an experimental theater where slides and films projected in rapidly changing combinations would create instant scenery. 18 Stage sets and theaters that affected users were powerful models for Rudolph — the theater-like jury pit of the A & A Building, for instance, transformed those using it into actors and spectators.

Another equally impressive piece of stagecraft devised by Rudolph for the BGSC was the lengthy staircase threaded through a covered portico at the center of his Mental Health Building. A perspective section of the gateway-like configuration demonstrated Rudolph’s skill at integrating horizontal and vertical spaces. (Sitte had recommended employing “flights of stairs, balconies, gables, and whatever else make up the picturesque trappings of stage architecture” to make the modern city a more engaging place.) 19 Recalling the dramatic staircases of opera sets, Rudolph’s concrete stair wound its way sinuously between the piers of the portico to a plaza at the corner of Staniford and Merrimac Streets. Serpentine concrete benches on the plaza sustained this sense of momentum, breaking down into low steps and radiating lines that fanned out across the pavement. The extraordinary curving forms of the stair and plaza marked an even more expressive turn in Rudolph’s vocabulary, one inspired by baroque architecture, which was itself noted for stagy qualities derived from theater. For Rudolph to turn to the baroque was not surprising, since the theorists he admired most, notably Geoffrey Scott and Sigfried Giedion, extolled baroque buildings as models for monumentality and urbanism. In Space, Time and Architecture, for instance, Giedion argued that the undulating walls and flexible floor plans of the late baroque fostered emotional responses to architecture that he thought modernism could learn from. The modernist stalwart’s description of the creative ways in which Francesco Borromini drew on the classical past without copying it directly probably inspired Rudolph as well. 20

Rudolph elaborated on the curving forms of the baroque inside the Mental Health Building in an effort to support its social mission. The Community Mental Health Act of 1963, which reflected revolutionary changes in the care of the mentally ill, made it possible to release patients from full-time residency in state-run institutions into housing in communities. 21 The Mental Health Building was intended to be a way station where the deinstitutionalized could acclimate to Boston. Relatively free to come and go, clients could sleep in the building’s wards, take their meals, socialize, use the gymnasium, swim in an Olympic-size pool, make art in studios, and receive therapy and treatment. Outpatients could use the building’s facilities as well.

Putting into practice his conviction that non-orthogonal geometry was beneficial and even therapeutic, Rudolph enclosed the patients within oval-shaped rooms and curving corridors lined with corrugated concrete. Community rooms featured curving built-in leather banquettes and wood bookcases. One even had a stage and dressing room for amateur plays, again demonstrating the architect’s belief in theater as a way to stimulate people and bind them together. Obviously the product of great care and expense, such carefully conceived facilities (and the dramatic architecture of the entire complex) contrasted powerfully with the bare-bones functionalism typically considered adequate for most public facilities. Though easily discounted as an example of Rudolph’s desire to show off his skills, such attention to the patients’ environment suggested he felt a true regard for them.

Chapel, Mental Health Building. [Courtesy photographer Robert Perron]

The building’s two most memorable interiors were extravagantly theatrical in a way made possible by the plastic properties of poured-in-place concrete. The first was a stair hall housing a curvilinear staircase, recalling the outdoor ones but shaped like a corkscrew. With its corrugated concrete walls and dramatic lighting, it was tremendously expressive and, again, atypical for a building housing health services. The second and even more remarkable interior was the interdenominational chapel perched in a high turret. Completely curvilinear, it bore an unmistakable resemblance to a giant concrete nautilus shell. Rudolph embraced the worshippers in an oval sanctuary, recalling the elliptical baroque chapels of Borromini and Gian Lorenzo Bernini, lit by an oval skylight. The pattern of bush-hammered ridges around the oval altar was the most openly ornamental example of Rudolph’s corrugated concrete. Archetypal in feeling, like a cave, it was one of several churches the architect designed in the early and mid-1960s that demonstrated his affinity for the emotionally charged interiors of religious buildings.

With the Boston Government Service Center, Rudolph raised his expressive vocabulary to a more elaborate pitch, which had both positive and negative consequences. The BGSC demonstrated the maturity of his architecture and more broadly of modernism as it moved beyond its “classical” phase of the 1920s and 1930s (just as the renaissance had evolved into its mannerist and baroque periods). The complex also demonstrated how to make a powerful, monumental civic architecture, and Rudolph and many of his contemporaries imagined that there would be more and more such civic commissions to keep pace with the growth of big government.

Yet the BGSC had many drawbacks as well. Despite Rudolph’s belief that variety was therapeutic, the open stairwells, roughened surfaces, labyrinthine circulation, and dramatic interiors did not provide a conducive setting for mental health services. 22 The complex as a whole did little to remedy the limitations of Pei’s Government Center master plan, nor was it successful urbanism. It was as difficult then as now to imagine Bostonians — let alone the poor, unemployed, and mentally ill who were there to receive assistance — gathering at the center for communal celebrations. The plaza was too high above the existing streets and secluded from them, and the service center was more of an enormous barrier than a waypoint for pedestrians. (This problem was not unique; despite the best intentions, many large-scale modernist projects of the period cut off pedestrians and autos from existing neighborhoods, streets, and waterways.) But the BGSC’s greatest drawback was that it was never completed due to lack of funding and to changes in the political and cultural climate. The two low buildings and much of the courtyard plaza surface were finished by 1971, but for decades a weed-choked and chain-linked expanse occupied the place where Rudolph had envisioned a tower, until in 1999 a courthouse was constructed.

Master Plan, SMTI, 1963; the outer buildings were never completed. [Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]

Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute

Rudolph amplified the dramatic, scenographic qualities of the BGSC in the second project he designed while employed at Desmond and Lord, the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute, known first as SMTI (1963–72), and later as the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Rudolph considered this project to be the most complete realization of his experiments with urbanism and monumentality. Indeed, many architects of the 1960s found college campuses to be ideal for experimenting with urbanism because of their size and complexity, and also because of the possibilities for continuous growth and funding. At SMTI, Rudolph again looked to baroque scenography for ways in which to stimulate the students, but here his efforts were also informed by two notable examples of the single-vision campus, that is, one campus entirely designed at one time by one architect: Frank Lloyd Wright’s Florida Southern College, in Lakeland, an inspiration for him since his earliest Florida days, and Thomas Jefferson’s University of Virginia in Charlottesville, which had in turn inspired Wright. Rudolph’s investigations resulted in a new campus whose bold concrete block buildings and towers were indisputably modern and yet were imbued with curiously ancient or archetypal qualities. Like a small city or world complete unto itself, SMTI would rise from the woods and suburban streets of southeastern Massachusetts, its monumental buildings like the impressive relics of some ambitious civilization, in this case the postwar United States.

The SMTI resulted from the merger in 1960 of two technical schools, one in New Bedford and one in Fall River. Local and state political leaders believed that a new institution could reinvigorate the region’s declining textile industry. Federal and state monies funded the new campus, located on 700 acres of former pasture and woodlands between the two cities near Interstate 195, one of the new highways transforming the nation. 23 Thus SMTI exemplified one of new building types of the postwar era: the commuter campus. 24 The Commonwealth of Massachusetts awarded the commission to Desmond and Lord, and in early 1963 Richard Thissen turned the project over to Rudolph. He would design the master plan and at least one building; the structure would serve as a prototype for additional buildings to be executed by other architects. Grattan Gill and Jan Heespelink from Desmond and Lord acted as job captains and themselves designed numerous buildings based on Rudolph’s model.

Although it was busy period — the A & A Building was nearing completion — Rudolph quickly developed the SMTI master plan. He derived the design in part from his 1958 master plan for the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, which would have expanded an old campus by means of a mall lined with arcades. (These covered paths would have joined existing and proposed new structures, including an amphitheater, campanile, and monumental chapel; the Interdenominational Chapel was the only portion executed.) Tuskegee and SMTI were inspired by Wright’s Florida Southern College, which also featured a central mall criss-crossed by protected walkways leading to a chapel built of concrete block and a waterside amphitheater. And as noted, Wright had drawn inspiration from the University of Virginia, where Jefferson’s “academical village” had a central mall defined by linked arcaded buildings, making the complex seem like one large structure. Rudolph’s office completed the SMTI master plan and an enormous model in early November 1963 (less than a week before the dedication of the A & A Building at Yale), just in time to present to the governor of Massachusetts and state and SMTI officials at a luncheon in Boston. 25

Mall, SMTI, ca. 1963. [Courtesy Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division]

Collaboration between Rudolph and his client was more apparent at SMTI than in his other projects of the time. He worked closely with the institute’s first president, Joseph Driscoll, who was deeply committed to the humanities and humanism. Unlike state politicians, who saw SMTI as little more than an elaborate technical school improved for future mill workers by the addition of some college-level courses, Driscoll envisioned the new institution as nothing less than a catalyst for the “economic, cultural and educational renaissance” of the financially depressed region. Rudolph and Driscoll agreed that the first new building for the campus would be for the humanities. 26

State officials projected an enrollment of 2,500 by 1966, but Driscoll had grander plans: he imagined a future university of 25,000. To be convincing, SMTI would have to look imposing, like an established university, even before it became one. Rudolph deployed his stagecraft to this end. His easily expandable master plan suggested inevitable growth, and he continually pressed Desmond and Lord’s Thissen to make SMTI bigger and grander. After the state chose Franchi Construction to build the first building, Humanities 1, Rudolph sent a postcard to Thissen from Venice, his favorite vacation spot, asking if three million dollars was available to build a 450-foot-high poured-in-place concrete campanile, taller than the one in St. Mark’s Square depicted on the card, as was proposed in the master plan. 27 Rudolph’s words are breezily confident, and it is not clear whether he is joking.

SMTI was one of Rudolph’s few tabula rasa projects. The flat, undeveloped site in Dartmouth afforded the architect considerable freedom, allowing him to shape the master plan to accommodate both the automobile and the pedestrian. In a 1966 article describing the most innovative new campuses of the 1960s, the sociologist and urban theorist Oscar Newman suggested that the circulation of automobiles and pedestrians, especially on the commuter campus, appeared to generate the bold new building forms, imbuing them with a symbolic value as the “embodiment of the mobile society or the personification of progress.” 28

To accommodate the automobile, Rudolph defined the perimeter of the campus with a ring road, uninterrupted by stop signs or traffic lights, that kept traffic moving smoothly. The ring road strategy was adopted at many postwar campuses, such as the new University of California, Irvine (with a 1964 master plan by William L. Pereira & Associates), or the greatly expanded University of Massachusetts, Amherst (planned by Sasaki and Associates in 1962). The ring road was adjoined by parking lots for 5,000 cars, double the predicted student body for 1966. The parking lots were screened from view by an earthen berm that formed a second giant circle, like a prehistoric earthwork, within the ring road; administrative and academic buildings were inside the area enclosed by the berm. At SMTI, Rudolph moved and molded the earth in both noticeable and imperceptible ways that demonstrated his largely unremarked-upon skill with landscape. The berm may have recalled primitive earthworks, but the arrangement of the lots was a practical response to the modern problem of parking (which Rudolph had considered beginning with his first large-scale projects, such as the Jewett Arts Center at Wellesley). Unlike at other campuses, at SMTI no one had to walk much more than a few hundred yards from a parking lot to the central buildings. Additional ranges of buildings in the master plan showed how the campus could be expanded at some future date.

Postcard from Paul Rudolph to Richard Thissen of Desmond and Lord, August 1964. [Courtesy Grattan Gill]

Within the berm, plantings of trees and wide lawns recalled the expansiveness of traditional American campuses; the buildings themselves evoked the picturesque towered skylines of the Collegiate Gothic. Two long ranges of turreted buildings, Humanities 1 and its virtual twin, Science and Technology, circumscribed the primary communal space at the campus’s center, a spiral-shaped outdoor mall that widened, pivoted, and changed direction at the foot of a concrete campanile and an adjacent amphitheater to lead out to pastoral views of a pond. An unusual shape for such a space, the spiral was increasingly significant for Rudolph’s ever more expressive vocabulary. Diagonally aligned walkways guided pedestrians across the mall. …

When Rudolph began work on SMTI in 1962, his office was so busy that he did not have time to design each of the new buildings. Instead he developed a system for design and construction — exemplified in Humanities 1 — that Desmond and Lord and their successors could follow. Integrated ground-floor arcades would connect the buildings along the mall, recalling both the University of Virginia and Florida Southern. This organization created the impression of one vast building, an approach used for a number of contemporary new campuses. 29 Rudolph summed up his ideas for SMTI in a single sentence, “The campus is intended to be a single building utilizing a single structural mechanical system to be constructed of one material.” 30

Approaching from the parking lots, visitors to Humanities 1 ascended an impressive zig-zagging staircase to the main level, passing the angled piers that supported a series of staggered bays forming a projecting upper floor, and a projecting cornice similar to that of the BGSC. The angular vocabulary and non-rectilinear spaces of Humanities 1 were intended to stimulate students, helping them engage with the place and each other. The building had few of the monotonous corridors typical of institutional projects. As Rudolph said, “Circulation twists and turns are calculated to bring people together, for alienation is a major problem in commuter campuses.” 31

The articulated corridors brought students, staff, and faculty to the multistory “common rooms” Rudolph placed at regular junctures in the classroom buildings. Many new campuses then had similar communal spaces, always intended to foster community and identity among students who did not live on campus. The common rooms in Humanities 1, some of the most impressive interior spaces designed by Rudolph, were places for students to eat lunch and organize activities, to stage theatricals, including amateur operas, and, at the end of the 1960s, to paint anti-war protest banners. 32

East facade, Humanities 1, SMTI. [Columbia University, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Joseph W. Molitor Photograph Collection]

The two common rooms in Humanities 1 and in its twin on the opposite side of the mall, the Science and Technology range, were light-filled, spacious multilevel spaces, different in tone from the complicated interiors of the BGSC or the A & A Building. In accordance with Rudolph’s precept “we need caves as well as gold-fish bowls,” each common room had an enclosed cave-like area on the ground level lined with banquettes and focused on a hearth. An unusual feature for a commuter college, to say the least, the hearth was the basis for communal activities, recalling Wright’s conception of the hearth as the foundation of family life. Rudolph transformed the space above the darkened ground floor into a goldfish bowl lit by enormous glass windows. Balconies appeared to float, supported by only a single pier. Each balcony formed a lounge space for the adjacent floor; the topmost level was reserved for faculty.

Carefully chosen, brightly colored textiles and carpeting acted as vibrant, stimulating foils to the omnipresent, gray concrete. In a 1965 photo, we can see that a red banner tied the balconies together visually. Rudolph collaborated with the interior designer Bill Bagnall (they had worked together on earlier projects), and together they chose to upholster the common room banquettes in orange and carpet the floor with a pattern of orange, red, and purple stripes. The banded carpet echoed the raised ridges of the concrete block and the striations on the poured-in-place structural beams and balconies. Here Rudolph had no plaster casts, architectural fragments, or curtains by De Kooning to adorn the interiors of SMTI (as he had at Yale); he opted instead to use stripes and lines to make, for the interior, the type of all-over patterning or decoration that in the mid-1950s he had prescribed for building exteriors. The pervasive decoration also recalled his signature corrugated concrete. 33

Rudolph had been drawn to interior design since his undergraduate days, and his regard became more pronounced in the mid-1960s just as new materials and avant-garde ideas were reinvigorating the field. Rudolph’s New York apartment was close to the city’s Upper East Side interior design district; Bagnall kept him informed about new developments as well. Rudolph’s interest is evident also in the curtains in the SMTI common rooms. Made of small aluminum disks, they typified the “silvery look” popular among New York interior designers in the 1960s, inspired in part by Andy Warhol’s famous aluminum-foil lined Factory. 34

An ephemeral decorative scrim, the metal curtains rippled continuously, filtering and reflecting sunlight and projecting changing shadows across the fluted concrete block walls. Philip Johnson had achieved similar effects at the Four Seasons Restaurant at the Seagram Building, with chain-link curtains. In this light, it is fair to say that at SMTI Rudolph brought effects conceived for a four-star restaurant to a room where commuter students would be eating brown-bag lunches. In the original design, the multiple plays of lines, light, shadow, and color in the SMTI common rooms must have been mesmerizing and, on sunny days, almost kaleidoscopic. Though the brightly colored carpets, curtains, and upholstery are long gone, the common rooms remain sturdy and intact, some of Rudolph’s most successful interiors.

Common room, Humanities 1, SMTI. [Columbia University, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library, Joseph W. Molitor Photograph Collection]

Humanities 1 was an architectural success but a professional fiasco. The building impressed those who attended its spring 1966 dedication, but unfortunately, its magnificence, even though achieved by fairly economical means, dismayed government officials. Citing excessive costs for the next phase — the nearly identical Science and Engineering range opposite Humanities 1 — state bureaucrats called Rudolph an expensive architect and reprimanded Joseph Driscoll, whom they held responsible for encouraging such grandiosity. In what became a prolonged drama reported in the local and national press, Rudolph was fired in 1966 and then rehired and dismissed several more times. Richard Thissen of Desmond and Lord adroitly held on to the project despite the political firestorm, and his firm was retained to complete the campus without Rudolph. Local newspapers repeated state officials’ claims that Rudolph was a profligate architect who paid little heed to budget; this anticipated similar charges that would soon begin to diminish his reputation. Ada Louise Huxtable, however, rose to Rudolph’s defense in the New York Times, telling a national audience that Massachusetts officials had little appreciation for great architecture. 35

There was not much Rudolph could do about his dismissal. He had made himself dispensable by creating a standard system for future campus design and construction. But he had come to care greatly about SMTI and wanted to complete the project himself, even without credit or compensation; to this end Rudolph conducted “backstairs” reviews, with Grattan Gill, who was designing the Sciences and Humanities range and other buildings. At the same time, Rudolph, still under contract to complete the BGSC, had to walk a delicate line with Desmond and Lord.

Rudolph enjoyed such intrigue. The buildings he critiqued in the stairwell between his office and Desmond and Lord’s premises, especially the library by Gill and Heespelink, are some of the most powerful and convincing essays in Rudolph’s style: for all his virtuosity and his emphasis on individuality, Rudolph could be successfully imitated, and Gill and Heespelink displayed considerable ingenuity in completing the campus according to Rudolph’s master plan. Gill was even able to build the campanile, telling the state that it was a communications tower for broadcasting lectures and performances. 36

Rudolph made many comebacks at Southeastern Massachusetts Technical Institute. In 1972, he returned and completed the Student Union Building. (That same year Driscoll left the institution, forced out by officials who distrusted his ambitions and by students unhappy that he had not supported their anti–Vietnam War protests.} Rudolph continued to cultivate a relationship with SMTI administrators and faculty, resulting in the Norman Dion Science and Engineering Building, of the mid 1980s. By that time, the institute had grown, student housing had been built, and the school had been absorbed by the state university system. Grand and resilient, the campus continues to serve students and faculty half a century after its conception.

About the Series: Modern Masters

In an ongoing and occasional series, historians and critics assess the vigorous achievements of a generation of modernist practitioners.

Editors' Note

This essay is adapted from The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, by Timothy M. Rohan, recently published by Yale University Press. It appears here with the permission of both the author and publisher.

  1. This estimate is based on Rudolph’s project list in Paul Rudolph, The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, with an introduction by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, captions by Gerhard Schwab, and comments by Paul Rudolph (New York: Praeger, 1970), 237–39.
  2. For an overview of redevelopment policies and finances from the period that discusses the involvement of I. M. Pei and other significant architects, see Charles Abrams, The City Is the Frontier (New York: Harper and Row, 1965), 159. There are new and more focused studies about postwar urban redevelopment, such as Samuel Zipp, Manhattan Projects: The Rise and Fall of Urban Renewal in Cold War New York (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010).
  3. Although in a project model the Boston Government Service Center (1962–71) appeared to be one massive structure, in fact it consisted of two connected low-rise buildings of corrugated concrete that formed a courtyard punctuated by a twenty-three-story office tower. The BGSC was not completed as depicted in the model. The low-rise buildings and courtyard pavings were finished, but the tower and spiraling staircase at its foot were never built. Originally to have been the work of three different firms, the complex was planned to house state and federal offices and facilities for physical and mental health, education, welfare, and social security. The Kennedy and Johnson administrations’ New Frontier and Great Society programs funded the substantial expansion of these services through the 1960s. For the New Frontier, see Irving Bernstein, Promises Kept: John F. Kennedy’s New Frontier (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991); for the Great Society, Bernstein, Guns or Butter: The Presidency of Lyndon Johnson (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
  4. Thomas H. O’Connor, Building a New Boston: Politics and Urban Renewal, 1950–1970 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1993).
  5. Rudolph himself entered the competition for the Boston City Hall at the behest of the firm of Desmond and Lord, but only fragments of his entry remain in the Rudolph Archive at the Library of Congress; see PMR-0098. For an account of the development of the Government Center master plan and Rudolph’s BGSC, see Charles G. Hilgenhurst, “Evolution of Boston’s Government Center,” Architectural Design 41 (January 1970): 11–22.
  6. Sitte’s book was little known in the United States until it was translated into English and published here in 1945 with a preface by Ralph Walker: Camillo Sitte, The Art of Building Cities: City Building According to Artistic Fundamentals (New York: Reinhold, 1945), translated by Charles S. Stewart, with an introductory note by Eliel Saarinen and introduction by Ralph Walker. Walker may have introduced Rudolph to the book in the mid-1950s, if he did not know it already. Interest in Sitte’s book grew during the 1950s and 1960s along with interest in urbanism, resulting in a new English translation in 1965 with a more accurate title. All references in this chapter are from Camillo Sitte, City Planning According to Artistic Principles, translation of the 1889 Austrian edition by George R. Collins and Christiane Crasemann Collins (New York: Random House, 1965). The Collinses discuss Sitte’s thinking and its impact in George R. Collins and Christiane Crasemann Collins, Camillo Sitte: The Birth of Modern City Planning (New York: Rizzoli, 1986).
  7. Sitte, City Planning According to Artistic Principles, 45. Sitte’s proposal for enclosing the plaza of the Votivkirche in Vienna, for example, showed how arcades and gateways could be used to shape the open expanses of the new Ringstrasse extension to the city into more psychologically comforting, enclosed spaces based on the traditional squares and piazzas of Italy that he admired.
  8. Sitte, City Planning According to Artistic Principles, 122.
  9. For Sitte, Sert, and Le Corbusier, see Francesco Passanti, “The Aesthetic Dimension in Le Corbusier’s Urban Planning,” in Josep Lluís Sert, The Architect of Urban Design, 1953–1969, edited by Eric Mumford and Hashim Sarkis with Neyran Turan (New Haven: Yale University Press and Harvard Graduate School of Design, 2008), 25–37. For Sitte and Saarinen, see Alan J. Plattus, “Campus Plans, Context and Community,” in Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future, edited by Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen and Donald Albrecht (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006), 312.
  10. Rudolph’s Mental Health Building at the BGSC is today known as the Erich Lindemann Mental Health Center for the psychiatrist who pioneered studies of grief.
  11. Author’s interview with Grattan Gill, who worked for Desmond and Lord in the early 1960s, August 18, 1999.
  12. Author’s interview with William Grindereng, October 25, 2002.
  13. Rudolph, Architecture of Paul Rudolph, 94.
  14. Hilgenhurst, “Evolution of Boston’s Government Center,” 14–15; Gill interview.
  15. Rudolph describes his Boston complex as a bowl in Rudolph, “Enigmas of Architecture,” A + U 80 (July 1977), 319.
  16. An “image” of immense size, the twenty-three-story tower that Rudolph proposed, in an early but unbuilt version of the Boston Government Service Center, would have identified the Government Service Center in the city. Its anticipated role in the skyline recalled a 1961 proposal, by a design committee appointed by Logue and including Lynch, for a “high spine” of towers across the city that would create more meaningful and legible landmarks for the “New Boston.” For Lynch’s “high spine,” see Robert S. Sturgis, “Urban Planning: Changing Concepts,” Architectural Education and Boston: 1960–1989, edited by Margaret Henderson Floyd (Boston: Boston Architectural Center, 1989), 113–14. At the foot of the proposed tower was what would have been one of Rudolph’s most compelling but unfortunately never built pieces of stagecraft: a series of curving staircases resembling a giant spiral or nautilus shell that would have linked the plaza to the parking garage beneath it. Rudolph admired the nautilus form and had encased such a shell in the walls of the A & A Building. In the Boston proposal, the swirling series of stairs resembled a giant nautilus construction and would have exerted a powerful draw, pulling pedestrians toward the tower as though they were caught in a whirlpool.
  17. Sitte, City Planning According to Artistic Principles, 6.
  18. Ralph Alswang was known for experimenting with the “living screen,” where live stage action was combined with motion pictures. The Ford Foundation funded Rudolph and Alswang’s experiment as part of a project pairing architects and theater professionals to design new theaters. Collaborating with the Ford Foundation, the American Federation of the Arts published the results in The Ideal Theater: Eight Concepts(New York: American Federation of the Arts, 1962). For Rudolph and Alswang’s contribution, see 13–26.
  19. Sitte, City Planning According to Artistic Principles, 109.
  20. Sigfried Giedion, Space, Time and Architecture (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1941), 41–61.
  21. For an account of the deinstitutionalization of the mentally ill in the 1960s and the Community Mental Health Act, see Gerald N. Grob, From Asylum to Community: Mental Health Policy in Modern America(Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991), 222–27.
  22. Author’s interview with Michele Anzaldi, Lindemann Center site director, October 27, 2011. Philip Nobel tells some anecdotes about the BGSC in Nobel, “The Architecture of Madness: Buildings Can Drive You Crazy, But Can They Restore Mental Health?” Metropolis 19 (October 1999): 128–31, 161.
  23. Walter J. Cass describes the genesis of SMTI in “A History of the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute in Cultural Perspective” (PhD diss., Boston University School of Education, 1967), 3–25.
  24. For commuter colleges, see Paul Venable Turner, Campus: An American Planning Tradition (New York: Architectural History Foundation and MIT Press, 1984; paperback edition 1987), 286–91. For a contemporary source about campus planning, see Richard P. Dober, Campus Planning (New York: Reinhold, 1964). For an overview of issues for campuses and strategies for planning them in the postwar United States, see Stefan Muthesius, The Postwar University: Utopianist Campus and College (New Haven: Published for the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art by Yale University Press, 2000), 11–58.
  25. “Architects Show Model Giving Plans for SMTI,” New Bedford Standard Times (November 4, 1963), 1.
  26. Gill interview.
  27. Postcard from Rudolph in Venice to Richard Thissen of Desmond and Lord in Boston, August 1964. Grattan Gill personal papers.
  28. Oscar Newman, “The New Campus,” Architectural Forum 124 (May 1966): 47, 49.
  29. Muthesius (Postwar University, 187–94) discusses the phenomenon of the “single structure campus” particularly popular in Canada and exemplified by John Andrews’ Scarborough College, Ontario (1963– 66), and Arthur Erickson’s Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, British Columbia (1963–65).
  30. Rudolph, Architecture of Paul Rudolph, 152.
  31. Rudolph, “Enigmas of Architecture,” 320.
  32. Author’s interview with Bruce Barnes, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, librarian and alumnus, April 13, 2005.
  33. Paul Rudolph, “To Enrich Our Architecture,” Journal of Architectural Education 3 (Spring 1958): 11.
  34. Rita Reif, “Designers Take a Shine to Silvery Look,” New York Times (February 10, 1967), 41. Reif mentions Rudolph’s silvery curtains at SMTI.
  35. Ada Louise Huxtable, “How Success Spoiled SMTI,” New York Times (February 12, 1967), 17, 19.
  36. Gill interview. Rudolph talks about how he was fired and rehired at SMTI in an interview with Lasse B. Antonsen, “Sub Rosa: Interview with Paul Rudolph,” January 12, 1996, available at the website Paul Rudolph and His Architecture, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth. Grindereng also talks about Rudolph at SMTI and the architect’s dismissal in his interview with Barnes (June 28, 2006), 14, available at the same website.
Timothy M. Rohan, “Scenographic Urbanism: Paul Rudolph and the Public Realm,” Places Journal, June 2014. Accessed 30 Sep 2023.

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