The Architect as Urbanist: Part 1

The late work of Paul Rudolph deserves renewed attention.

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.

Paul Rudolph.
Paul Rudolph. [Courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Foundation]

For many observers in the world of architecture today the name Paul Rudolph immediately conjures up a single, instant and powerful image. The image might be a masterful black-and-white photograph taken by Ezra Stoller of one of the light, airy houses that established the architect’s reputation as a young prodigy in 1950s Florida. Or it might be an indelible memory in the mind’s eye of the rough concrete surfaces and thrusting masses of the Art & Architecture Building at Yale or of another of the great ensembles of the ’60s, the buildings that brought Rudolph to the pinnacle of his reputation. Few buildings from the later 1970s until the architect’s death in 1997 are likely to come to mind. Although Rudolph continued to practice, producing a substantial body of work, particularly a series of large and conspicuous structures in Southeast Asia, almost everything he did after the 1960s has been relegated by most critics and historians to the status of a historical footnote, a pale afterglow to a once incandescent career. 1

The theme that runs through most of the commentary on Rudolph’s late work in Southeast Asia, notably the Colonnade (1980) and Concourse (1981) Buildings, in Singapore, the Dharmala Headquarters (1982), in Jakarta, and the Bond Centre (1984) in Hong Kong, is that it ceased to be innovative, that it demonstrates how Rudolph stubbornly clung to a personal and increasingly eccentric modernist vocabulary long after it had ceased to be fashionable, and that he carried that vocabulary into new and inappropriate settings. To the extent that Rudolph is praised for this work, it is usually because of his supposed fidelity to modernism and rejection of the postmodernists who exploited Robert Venturi’s ideas of historical memory and urban context.

To my mind, this characterization obscures what is most interesting about these late buildings and, more importantly, makes it difficult to assess the significance of the work of the architect as a whole. One way to reconsider the work of Paul Rudolph, particularly his late work, is to follow a single thread that ran throughout his career — his concern for architecture as an urban art. Rudolph was always interested in the tremendous range of activities and of scale found in the modern city. Urbanism for him, as for many Beaux Arts architects of the 19th century, was merely the study of architecture on the largest scale. Rudolph’s ideas about urbanism, formulated in their broad outlines already by the mid-1950s, remained surprisingly constant. The urban context in which the work appeared changed dramatically, however, in one of the more interesting paradoxes of his long career: it appears that this most American of architects, a designer who made his reputation attempting to domesticate European avant-garde modernist ideas by fusing them with the reality of American places and with home-grown American notions of modernity, found in the dense and vibrant cities of Southeast Asia the setting and the patronage he needed to bring to some kind of tentative conclusion his quest for urban environment.

The View from Hong Kong

From the window of a plane flying over central Hong Kong, a visitor who knows where to look can easily spot the twin towers of Paul Rudolph’s Bond Centre complex. With their shimmering blue glass curtain walls, protruding wedge-like volumes, and high columns straddling a richly modeled podium block, they are distinctive. They provide an instant identity for the building and its occupants, a matter of critical importance to any owner of a speculative office building in a city bristling with glossy, tall structures. Even from a distance it is obvious that, compared with surrounding buildings, which are mostly utilitarian boxes dressed up with vivid facades, the complex spatial manipulations of the Bond towers represent an attempt to create architectural art. 2

The Bond Centre (now Lippo Center), Hong Kong.
The Bond Centre (now Lippo Center), Hong Kong. [Michael McDonough]

The towers do not, on the other hand, deliberately detach themselves from their setting; nor do they set themselves up as singular monuments to be read in isolation against the backdrop of the more mundane city. They are clad in bright-blue reflective glass, a clear indication that Rudolph was interested in the local context, since he generally avoided bright color and anything that would cover up structural members and disguise the floor lines that give his buildings a sense of scale. In this case, he apparently felt that large surfaces of bold color were necessary for the complex to hold its own against a city full of bright glass boxes, particularly the one closest to the Bond Centre, which is clad in an insistent shade of gold. It seems clear that he wanted the Bond towers to simultaneously function as background structures, forming part of the street wall along Queensway (the major artery that connects the Central business district with the emerging Wanchai business district to the east), and as foreground buildings, serving as objects of interest on the skyline as seen from the bay. Indeed, they are at once monument and urban infill.

One of Rudolph’s most significant achievements has been the ability to produce designs in which competing claims of this kind are held in a productive tension at every scale from the pattern of the floor tiles to the overall massing. Consider, for example, the play between symmetry and asymmetry. The Bond Centre is based on a plan that is largely symmetrical along an axis that runs through the building from north to south between the two towers. The main entrance is located along this axis, in a four-story podium. Above the podium, on either side of the axis, rise in roughly symmetrical fashion the columns for two eight-sided towers. As the towers rise, however, groups of floor plates extend either slightly beyond the building’s structural columns or project well forward of them. This pattern, while similar on each tower, starts at a different height on each. This creates a complex pattern on the exterior of each tower in which the projecting elements seem to clasp one another like a Chinese puzzle, creating a spiraling pattern up the towers, setting the entire composition in motion. In earlier schemes this motion was resolved by capping elements at the very top of the structure housing conference rooms, bars and mechanical equipment. The towers as built appear slightly truncated because these pieces were eliminated before construction began.

The structure acknowledges the necessarily repetitive nature of the modern speculative office building but creates a fascinating complexity by what are actually minor and inexpensive offsets in the floor plates. At first glance simple, these patterns are surprisingly complex, as anyone who tries to work through the geometry by studying the plans at each level soon discovers. Preliminary drawings by Rudolph reveal clearly his passion for working through the most complicated of three-dimensional patterns in a way that is never arbitrary and always based on a limited number of different moves using simple underlying geometric forms. By this means he has addressed a problem that has baffled designers of so many of the twin towers that populate Hong Kong. Rather than the boredom of identical units or the chaos and expense that accompany attempts to create different designs for each, these towers are manifestly part of the same family without lining up like twins posing for a picture.

Another dichotomy that occurs is the difference in apparent scale between the building seen from the sidewalk and the towers viewed against the skyline. Avoiding a brutal break between these two scales was an obsession for Rudolph in all his large urban buildings. Approaching the Bond Centre along the Queensway, the visitor immediately senses the interplay between the four-story podium, scaled to the automobile and pedestrian on the street, and the towers, set back from the street wall, turned diagonally, and raised on huge columns that rise beside and penetrate through the podium.

Bond Centre (now Lippo Center) rendering by Paul Rudolph.
Bond Centre (now Lippo Center) Rendering by Paul Rudolph. [Courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Foundation]

The pedestrian on the sidewalk is drawn into the podium by a generous sweep of stairs that funnel upward between the towers into a triple-story lobby. The podium also accommodates a second, skyway level that allows pedestrians to walk comfortably above the traffic and out of the weather. A bridge at each corner of the podium connects with the skyway level of adjacent buildings. Pedestrian walkways, very much in fashion in the 1960s and early ’70s, have receded in popularity among many American architects and planners because they supposedly drain the activity from the life on the traditional sidewalk. Rudolph did not agree with this assessment. He felt that walkways, as crude and incomplete as they often were, represented just another layer in cities and that these walkways had the potential to become powerful tools in redeveloping cities in a denser, more three-dimensional way. 3
Rudolph held similar views on the subject of the automobile. Unlike many architects of his day, Rudolph did not begrudge the automobile a prominent role in the city. He felt that the city could accommodate itself to the automobile as it had to the railroad and many other brutal interventions in its history. 4

In the Bond Centre, as in most of his urban work, the building opens directly onto the street, allowing the gaze of the passing driver to penetrate directly into the heart of the structure. The podium can be seen as a kind of urban interchange between vehicles and pedestrians, the place where the horizontal and vertical streams of traffic — from the street, the walkways, the underground station, the towers — intersect and realign themselves. Wrapping around all four sides of the central horizontal volume of space in the podium are the vertical circulation elements, the elevator cores of the towers to the east and west, and an entire battery of driveways, ramps and staircases allowing for vehicular access. The result is a rich set of public and semi-public spaces whose shapes and lighting draw the visitor through compressed, dimly lit passages at the periphery to arrive at the spatial release of large, amply lit volumes at the center.

The transition between the podium, scaled to the street, and the towers, scaled to the skyline, is made by the penetration of the large circular tower columns down through the horizontal lines of the podium. These columns, looking almost like huge pistons, strongly suggest that the building that goes up into the air must also extend down into the ground, to secure it to the rock far below. They provide a firm mooring for the towers, which, with their immense size and rather scale-less flush reflective glass, belong to another urban order altogether.

Although a fascinating and in many ways highly successful work, few observers would rank the Bond Centre among Rudolph’s best buildings. The commission was not an ideal one for several reasons. The site, first of all, was encumbered by an existing underground rail station. In addition, Rudolph had to deal with a set of foundations that had already been built, according to a previous design that had been abandoned. He managed to convince the owners to do extensive additional foundation work to give each of the two towers, originally planned as differing in size and configuration, the same plan. The program, moreover, was not promising. It called for a pair of speculative towers with banking space and a telephone exchange. Rudolph would probably have preferred a larger site and a more varied program, perhaps with some residential units and more retail, allowing him to create some transitional spaces between the relatively small floor plates of the office towers and the enormous bulk of the podium. And, as we have already seen, the blue glass curtain walls, from the point of view of the architect, were far from an ideal material with which to clad a building. Although all but inevitable given the Hong Kong context, they obscure the tension between structure and skin and the ability to read the interior spatial units from the exterior, which were what gave most of his most important buildings their power. That the architect was able to use these very liabilities as a source of design strength is characteristic.

Bond Centre (now Lippo Center) rendering by Paul Rudolph
Bond Centre (now Lippo Center) rendering by Paul Rudolph. [Courtesy the Paul Rudolph Foundation]

The Bond Centre provides a good starting point for an exploration of Rudolph’s late work for several other reasons. The first has to do with its location in Hong Kong. Density is often described as a principal attribute of urbanity. Central Paris, Manhattan and Tokyo are good examples of extremely high concentrations of people, goods and services. Yet in recent years there has been a marked deconcentration of activities from the traditional central core of cities, particularly in Europe and America. The downtown areas, when they have grown at all, have done so less quickly than outlying centers, and their growth has often followed the patterns developed in peripheral areas. With their towers widely spaced and softened by ample landscaping, many new developments in old American downtowns are very different from those in the hard, dense 19th-century industrial city. In Hong Kong, on the other hand, where the contemporary core is almost entirely a product of the postwar years, the central business district has continuously become more dense. The Rudolph buildings, immediately east of the traditional business district called Central, extend that density outward toward the developing Wanchai district.

Because Paul Rudolph always included elements of intense concentration in his buildings, they in many ways are more at home in Asia than in the heart of American cities. Some measure of this paradox can be readily appreciated by comparing the Hong Kong towers with a pair of high buildings designed by Rudolph for Fort Worth and built in the early 1980s. The City Center project can be seen as a kind of trial run for the later work in Hong Kong. Two high towers, also clad in blue reflective glass, sit on a similar podium. As in Hong Kong, they provide striking silhouettes against the sky. For both projects, Rudolph attempted to mediate between the towers and the podium by a complex interplay of the horizontal volumes of space, the structural members, and the vertical circulation elements. The major problem in Fort Worth was that the gulf between the scale and complexity of the towers and the surrounding low-density development, particularly the restored masonry buildings of Sundance Square, directly across Main Street, was just too great. 5 Undoubtedly, the architect felt that eventually the city would fill in around and build upward beside his towers; but in Fort Worth this still seems a distant vision.

In Hong Kong, on the other hand, the towers looked at home from the first, because the city was already dense enough to hold them. Another interesting thing about the Hong Kong complex is that the close proximity of buildings by some of the best-known contemporary architects allows any viewer to make a series of comparisons. The two most famous of these, I. M. Pei’s Bank of China and Norman Foster’s Bank of Hong Kong and Shanghai, are the work of Western architects who, like Rudolph, believe deeply in the modernist tradition. Both, moreover, had personal connections with Rudolph, Pei as a nearly exact contemporary at the Harvard Graduate School of Design in the 1940s and Foster as a student at Yale in the 1960s. A desire to express advanced technology clearly marks the design of both the Pei and Foster buildings. In the case of the Bank of China, the enormous diagonal bracing elements give the building its most distinctive feature. In the case of Foster’s bank, the building’s appearance is heavily dependent on the novel structural system, in which the office floors are suspended from hangers supported by massive columns on either side, and on the elements of vertical circulation, pipes, ducts and other features of the building’s mechanical services.

Bank of Hong and Shanghai, Norman Foster.
Bank of Hong and Shanghai, Norman Foster. [Wikipedia]

ank of China, I.M. Pei.
Bank of China, I.M. Pei. [Wikipedia]

Both Pei and Foster achieved a striking singularity on the skyline in part by ignoring, or designing around, some of the urban issues that Rudolph specifically embraced. The triangulated articulation of the Bank of China’s tower hits the emphatically horizontal surface of the street in front rather abruptly. There is almost no transition between the scale of the pedestrian and automobile and the scale of the tower. The Foster building handles this transition with considerably more subtlety. The entry sequence into the building, from a paved plaza up a series of diagonal escalators across a glass floor into a giant atrium, is one of the most dramatic ever created. But Foster achieved this technological tour de force only through the use of enormous amounts of money and the elimination of all distracting elements from the plaza in front. He clearly intended the building to be a monument, and as such it can be dismissive of most of what is around it. The Bank of Hong Kong and Shanghai is Foster with an immense budget and at the height of his powers, whereas the Bond Centre was a speculative venture with a much lower budget and does not represent Rudolph at his most satisfying. Still, in some ways, the Rudolph building, which relies much more on spatial dynamics than high technology, provides at least as satisfying a lesson in how to create a building with a distinctive personality but fully integrated into the messiness and vitality of the city.

Paul Rudolph and the Second Generation of Modernism

The Bond Centre, like the rest of Rudolph’s Southeast Asian work, has received a curious reception in the architectural press. It has generally been treated as the work of an old master who steadfastly kept alive his own, highly personal sensibilities during a period in which these beliefs came under severe attack. Rudolph is consistently described as modernist and antagonistic to any kind of postmodernist pastiche. This commonly accepted dichotomy between modernist style and postmodernist style is unfortunate. It has tended to throw Paul Rudolph into the camp of many supposedly “modernist” architects, for example Peter Eisenman or Zaha Hadid, whose goals and methods he does not share, and to separate him from many architects, like Robert Venturi, whose goals if not whose stylistic sensibilities he does share. More importantly, it has consigned him to the margins of the debate in contemporary architecture on building in the city.
To understand how this has happened, it is necessary to locate historically Paul Rudolph’s ideas about architecture and urbanism. The best place to begin is his single most important early statement, an article titled “The Six Determinants of Architectural Form,” which appeared in Architectural Record in October 1956. 6 This article condenses the lectures that Rudolph had been giving in architecture schools since his graduation from Harvard in 1946. 7 It drew heavily from his experiences during a trip to Europe in 1947, which set into sharp relief some of the problems Rudolph already sensed with the modernist training he had received at Harvard under Walter Gropius. In Europe the young architect was able to experience and to file away in his prodigious visual memory many well-known set pieces of urban-design history, from the Acropolis and Campidoglio to Baron Haussmann’s Parisian boulevards. The lectures and 1956 article were a direct outgrowth.

To illustrate the lectures and later the article, Rudolph used, in addition to his own photographs of monumental European architecture, images from books and slide libraries showing a very wide range of vernacular design, from African mud huts to Asian thatch-roofed villages. What all these urban ensembles shared and what modernist buildings often lacked, in his opinion, was a connection with the urban context, or the “relationship between one building and another.” 8 Modernist architects all too frequently had a limited interest in the actual fabric of existing cities, he felt, seeing them as messy and disordered. In their own work they swept away all of the confusion to create buildings that, these architects believed, could better satisfy contemporary needs. The result, according to Rudolph, was unsatisfactory. “Surely mankind has never built such dry, timid, monotonous structures as we do today,” he wrote. 9

The Bond Centre (now Lippo Center), Hong Kong.
The Bond Centre (now Lippo Center), Hong Kong. [Bracketing Life]

Rudolph’s ideas were certainly not new. The idea that modernist architecture had to regain a connection with the city and satisfy emotional needs that went beyond function and structure was a leitmotif in much discussion among the younger generation of postwar modernist architects. It animated the work of Aldo Van Eyck and Peter and Alison Smithson, along with other members of Team Ten who challenged the functionalism of an earlier generation of modernists at the tenth meeting of ClAM (Congres International de I’Architecture Moderne) in 1950. It also became the topic of countless debates in the journals. The call for a more humane modernism formed one of the major themes in the works of the great architectural historian and critic Sigfried Giedion, and it was a preoccupation of American architects who came to prominence, like Rudolph, in the late 1950s and early ’60s. These architects, notably Philip Johnson, Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn, were sometimes called the second generation of American modernists, meaning that they acknowledged a profound debt to the great pioneers, like Gropius, Mies, Le Corbusier and Wright, but that they were suspicious of the desire among this earlier generation to find universal solutions. They increasingly felt that any architectural solution had to look at specific places and the specific individuals who would use the buildings. 10

Architects and historians of this second generation, feeling that the program of the modernists had often neglected history, geography and sociology, traveled all over the world and ransacked history in their search for examples of good urbanism, appropriate symbolic form and satisfying monumentality. Rudolph voiced these concerns with considerable force and eloquence, and also a considerable degree of originality. Like his contemporaries, he drew lessons from the Athenian acropolis and the hill towns of Italy. Like many others, he was interested in vernacular architecture. The captions to an illustration of an African mud village in his 1956 Record article, for example, told readers that the identical units of African mud dwellings were made palatable by the manipulation of space between them. 11

Rudolph was not content, however, to look for examples in faraway places designed by anonymous architects. He accompanied a photograph of a Parisian street with a caption stating that the kind of architecture produced by graduates of the Ecole des Beaux Arts “was actually very rich in the handling of relationships between buildings.” 12 This statement was somewhat surprising, since the Ecole des Beaux Arts and 19th-century academic architecture generally were still anathema to most modernist architects in the 1950s. Even more unexpected was the coupling of a picture of Times Square with a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge under a caption reading “The Spirit of the Times.” 13 For Rudolph, the tightly bound, traffic-filled honky-tonk of Times Square was as acceptable in its place as the heroic simplicity of the bridge.

When he wrote this article in 1956, Rudolph was known primarily as the designer of small houses in Florida and as a perpetually promising young architect. His status changed dramatically the year after the article appeared, when Rudolph was named dean of the Yale School of Architecture, a position he held until 1965. The appointment was followed by a flood of important commissions. These included, for the first time in his career, large complexes in conspicuous urban sites, among them the vaguely neo-Gothic Jewett Center at Wellesley College (1955) and the dramatic concrete forms of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale University (1958–62). The commentary on these designs almost universally praised Rudolph for his skill in forging connections between the new buildings and the historic context. …

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

Read also “The Architect as Urbanist, Part 2.”

“The Architect as Urbanist” appeared originally in Paul Rudolph: The Late Work, by Roberto da Alba, published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2003. It is published here, in a slightly abridged version — and for the first time online — courtesy of the author.

  1. This essay was written in 1995 for a volume scheduled to appear in fall 1996. I derived much of the material from interviews with the architect conducted over a number of years. I carried out the first one in 1986, in connection with an exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1987 and the accompanying publication, Paul Rudolph, Four Recent Projects in Southeast Asia. The interview was transcribed and is part of the Art Institute’s Oral History Project. It can be found in the Burnham and Ryerson Libraries of the Art Institute of Chicago or on the web. I undertook the second set of interviews in 1989, in preparation for a show at the New York gallery of Steelcase Design Partnership and the accompanying publication, titled Paul Rudolph: Dreams and Details. The third set took place in 1995. By that time the architect’s health was precarious, and his files were in considerable disorder, but his memory was as sharp as ever. Not long after the materials for the volume were collected, progress was halted, to be resumed in 2002. This essay was slightly reworked at that time. In the meantime, of course, Paul Rudolph died. There is a large if not entirely satisfactory literature on Paul Rudolph, one that follows closely the trajectory of his reputation. Starting immediately after World War II, the tide of publications rose sharply, to satisfy the curiosity of readers about the remarkable houses in Florida. This flood of material reached its high water mark in the late 1960s when his great ensembles for Boston, New Haven and elsewhere came to be the talk of the profession. A landmark was The Architecture of Paul Rudolph (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1970). With an introduction by Sibyl Moholy-Nagy, captions by Gerhard Schwab, and comments by Paul Rudolph, it is still the best overview of the period until the late 1960s; although, for visual materials it should be supplemented by Paul Rudolph Architectural Drawings (New York: Architectural Book Publishing Co., 1981), first published in Japan by D. A. Edita Tokyo in 1971. The rate of publication declined markedly in the 1970s, along with the architect’s reputation, reaching a low point in the 1980s and early 1990s. By the mid-1990s, a major revival of interest in the early work was underway as awareness was on the rise of mid-century modernism generally. This revival was heightened by the architect’s death in 1997. Among the notable recent works are a book by Christopher Domin and Joseph King, Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002), a dissertation by Timothy Rohan, “Architecture in the Age of Alienation: Paul Rudolph’s Postwar Academic Buildings” (Cambridge: Harvard University, 2001), and a series of articles by the same author. The architect’s later work has not yet received comparable attention. The best summary to date can be found in World Architecture, September 1992, 28–47, with an introduction by Mildred Schmertz, an article “The Class of ‘44” by Stephanie Williams and a selective catalog that includes many of the later projects.
  2. For a good exposition of the Bond Center, see Nora Leung, Experiencing Bond Center (Hong Kong: Studio Productions, 1990).
  3. For Rudolph’s ideas on pedestrian walkways, see Paul Rudolph, interview by Ross Miller, Progressive Architecture (December 1992): 90–92.
  4. For the role of the automobile in the city, see, for example, his comments in Paul Heyer, Architects on Architecture (1966; new edition, New York: Walker and Co., 1978), 295–307; and in John W. Cook and Heinrich Klotz, Conversations with Architects (New York: Praeger, 1973), 105–10. On a number of occasions he has cited the FDR Expressway along the East River of New York City, with various decks and buildings constructed over it, as an embryonic example of the kind of new planning that can result when the needs of the automobile are realistically considered.
  5. For the Fort Worth towers, see GA Document (August 1983): 90–99.
  6. Paul Rudolph, “Six Determinants of Architectural Form,” Architectural Record (October 1956): 183–90.
  7. Rudolph would continue to give variations of this lecture through the 1960s. This consistency is readily apparent in a summary of a lecture given at Columbia University in 1964. Architectural Record (May 1964): 23, 26.
  8. Rudolph, “Determinants”: 183.
  9. Ibid.
  10. This formulation of generations of American Modernists is taken from an influential book of that era, Robert Stern, New Directions in American Architecture (New York: Braziller, 1969). The chapter on Rudolph is found on 30–41.
  11. Rudolph, “Determinants”: 183.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Rudolph, “Determinants”: 190.
Robert Bruegmann, “The Architect as Urbanist: Part 1,” Places Journal, February 2010. Accessed 02 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • Adam Lee Jacobi

    03.04.2010 at 19:19

    I was struck by how much the base of the Bond Centre looks like the Rudolph-designed Lindemann Center here in Boston.

    The Boston Society of Architects (my employer) recently published a photographic essay of Rudolph homes that are slated for demolition. You can find them online at

    The photographer is Chris Mottalini.


  • Michael

    03.26.2010 at 19:45

    Seems rather questionable to praise modernism itself as an ode to urbanism. It is like praising highways for their effect on small rural communities.