The Architect as Urbanist: Part 2

Paul Rudolph’s late work in Singapore and Jakarta.

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.

The Concourse: Original drawing, Paul Rudolph. [Image credit: courtesy of the archives of the Paul Rudolph Foundation]
The Concourse: Original drawing, Paul Rudolph. [Courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Foundation]

The Road to Southeast Asia

The 1970s, the period in which Rudolph apparently disappeared, actually marked a transitional period in his career. Although the number of commissions and built buildings declined sharply, Rudolph continued to work on many projects that had come into his office earlier, completing new buildings for the Southeast Massachusetts Technological Institute and a set of additions and renovations for the large Burroughs Wellcome complex at Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, that he had started in 1969. And while the number and importance of the commissions in the United States declined, a new chapter was beginning abroad. Commissions for foreign countries started to appear in the office in the 1950s. Although few of them resulted in completed buildings, they started to have a major effect on Rudolph’s work. 1

A good example is a 1971 commission for a building for the Daiei Company in Nagoya, Japan. Although a relatively modest structure, it introduced Rudolph to a country where cities were continuing to grow and whose cores were becoming denser rather than less dense, as was the case in many American cities. The Daiei Building, which was fitted into a tight and restrained urban context, features a complex three-story-high entry with sinuous balconies, stairways and pools, all sandwiched between office floors above and three levels of parking and mechanical areas below. It was more programmatically complex and architecturally intricate than anything the architect had done in the United States. Following the work in Japan came a commission for an apartment complex in Jerusalem in 1976. Although not built, it provided the occasion for further research into the assembly of many small, essentially identical units (each in this case having a vaulted section recalling traditional structures in the city) into a kind of terraced landform. The result is unlike anything the architect had designed for an American city. If built, it would have attracted widespread attention.

Unfortunately for Rudolph, what did succeed in getting constructed was the 1979 commission for the Fort Worth towers [discussed in Part 1] — not one of Rudolph’s happiest designs. The next year Rudolph proposed a completely different kind of building for Electronic Data Systems. As complex in its axial symmetries as any 19th-century Beaux Arts structure, the project would again have dramatically changed received opinion about the architect and his career.

Once again, however, the building remained unbuilt, and Rudolph all but disappeared from the architectural scene (the Avery Index lists 72 items relating to Paul Rudolph in the 1940s and ’50s, 99 items for the ’60s, and 75 for the 1970s; but by the 1980s the figure had fallen to a mere 19). At this very dark moment, however, a series of new commissions from Southeast Asia appeared that would make the early years of the 1980s as crucial in his late career as the mid-1960s were in his early career. Delays in construction and the distant locations together ensured that few people were aware of these buildings until well after they were finished, and to this day relatively few architectural critics have seen them all. In 1980 he started work on the Colonnade, an apartment building in Singapore. It was followed in 1981 by another Singapore project, a mixed-use retail and residential structure eventually called the Concourse. The headquarters for the Dharmala Company, in Jakarta, came into the office in 1982. Finally, the commission that became the Bond Centre in Hong Kong was awarded in 1984. In addition to these commissions, all of which were built, came a number of important projects that remain on paper. 2

Daiei Company Building, Nagoya.
Daiei Company Building, Nagoya. [..colb..]

In many ways these projects represent a working out of themes apparent in Rudolph’s work since the ’50s. One of these is the megastructure. After its high tide of popularity in the late ’60s, the megastructure dream faded quickly. Technical problems proved more difficult than anyone had anticipated. Costs remained high, and most citizens continued to mistrust the appearance of anything obviously mass-produced. Almost all the architects closely identified with megastructures lost faith and went on to do other kinds of building. Rudolph, as usual, never abandoned his initial vision. His ongoing belief that prefabricated units, particularly the kind used in the mobile-home industry, could transform the way cities are built, almost certainly contributed to his eclipse in academia and the journals, but he persevered. Because of the collapse of efforts to try to perfect new prefabrication techniques and the high cost of producing actual prototypes, Rudolph instead designed projects that would demonstrate the design possibilities of prefabrication but were actually built using traditional building techniques. 3

The commission that became the Colonnade in Singapore gave him a good opportunity to test these ideas. The project was related to schemes dating back to the 1950s for assembling prefabricated units so that they would combine considerable variety of expression with a necessary standardization of parts. What was new in the Singapore project was a reaction to the local climate, particularly the intense sunlight. By cantilevering the modules containing bedrooms (relatively enclosed spaces with few windows) over the heavily glazed living and dining rooms, he was able to shield the public rooms and their outdoor areas from direct sunlight. This staggering of the outer perimeter also had major implications for the spaces inside. Because Rudolph designed the apartments using the double-level apartment planning made popular by Le Corbusier at the Pavillon de I’Esprit Nouveau, the spaces were staggered in plan and section, creating particularly spectacular views diagonally downward from the balconies of the upper level, past the living rooms on the lower level, out through the exterior windows, and around the cantilevered bedroom units below toward the landscape outside. Because of the tropical climate and the careful attention to maintenance in this affluent part of Singapore, these carefully framed oblique views are some of the greenest, most lush and alluring anywhere in the world. It is in many ways a more convincing demonstration of the power of the Corbusian double-height living module than any the great Swiss architect was able to achieve, and it suggests that one of the chief problems of Le Corbusier’s tower-in-a-park concept was that no one paid enough attention to the park. 4

Dynamic Interplay

A second project in Singapore, the mixed-use complex called the Concourse, has a massing that recalls that of the Boston Government Center. At first glance this might be considered surprising, since the Government Center was located at 42 degrees north latitude, in central Boston, and was intended to house offices, while the Concourse is located virtually on the equator, on a major arterial road outside central Singapore, and has a mixed-use program including offices, hotel and shopping center. The similarities are explained by the fact that for Paul Rudolph, some elements of any building are specific to the site, but some necessarily express urban realities now similar in every large city in the world.

In the Concourse, the location — at the head of a parkway and sandwiched between a major commercial road and a highway fronting the Straits of Singapore — is distinctive. To deal with the site, Rudolph placed his tower on the axis of the parkway to give it a strong imagery from the land side. Viewed from the Straits, the tower continues a series of large hotel and office buildings that stretches from the Padang, the center of modern Singapore, east along Beach Road for about two kilometers. The low buildings of the Concourse, on the other hand, relate to the roads they abut, allowing for easy pedestrian and vehicular access. From Beach Road, public spaces funnel visitors inward toward a narrow passage between the tower and the wing to the west and then back out again toward the highway on the other side in a sequence of spaces in the shape of an hourglass. Also specific to the site are the outward sloping walls of each level of the tower and hotel. This configuration provides roofs that look like those of traditional buildings in the area and that serve the same function, to shield the windows from intense direct sunlight. All of this is specific to the site and to Singapore. 5

The Concourse, Singapore. [Image credit: via]
The Concourse, Singapore. [Wikipedia]

The program for an office floor or a hotel room, on the other hand, is largely similar in every city today. Rudolph saw no reason to try to deny this reality by dressing buildings up in supposedly regional styles, since these regional styles were, in virtually every case, developed for small buildings, usually residential or public edifices, and not for business structures. Contemporary realities like fire protection, heating, air-conditioning, lighting and sanitary standards, and the necessity to accommodate the automobile, are not regional. They have become all but universal. The challenge for Rudolph with the Concourse was to take the necessary services and a vast number of essentially identical units and dispose them so that they would create an interesting and psychologically satisfying sequence of space.

Hence it is no surprise that the tower in Singapore, like that in Boston, is locked into the spiraling curves of the lower wings and the entry plaza. What Rudolph did in Singapore, as he did in Hong Kong, was to put the major elements of the complex into a still more dynamic interplay. Where in Boston the lower wings comprise individual units that step forward and backward in section and the tower is defined by structural members and curving wall segments that rise straight from the plaza, in Singapore the office portions and the hotel portions share a similar articulation of stepping units and the columns of the tower interlock with both the office floors and the lower wings in a highly complicated geometrical play. The elaborated exterior massing is also the result of the architect’s desire to provide the maximum amount of spatial differentiation within the complex. The shopping center atrium, with its projecting balconies and escalators, owes a great deal to the atria of John Portman, whom Rudolph freely and readily acknowledged as a major source of inspiration; but Rudolph relied considerably more on spatial complexity and less on sheer scale than did Portman. In the tower a series of three-story atria punctuate the office areas and provide a welcome respite from the uniformity of normal office floor plates. These atria made possible an even more complex manipulation of the tower’s perimeter than in the Bond Centre in Hong Kong.

Comprehensible Urban Form

A final building in Southeast Asia, the Dharmala Headquarters, in Jakarta, in many ways brings into sharp focus a number of longstanding issues in the work of Paul Rudolph. Perhaps because this building, unlike the others he did in Southeast Asia, was not a speculative building but the headquarters for one of Indonesia’s largest companies (a trading group on the Japanese model), the architect had a somewhat freer hand. The complex contains some of the same elements seen in his other buildings in Southeast Asia, indeed in almost every large Rudolph complex since the 1960s, but the elements are all more elaborated. There is the tower, here even more intricately modeled than in any previous example, the podium containing garage, exhibition space, and bank, and the open courtyard giving access to all parts of the complex. 6

What is different in Jakarta is the setting. Jakarta, unlike Singapore or Hong Kong or any other city in which Rudolph had built, was the capital of a developing country. The Dharmala Building is located along the Jalan Sudriman, an enormous, heavily traveled street that is part boulevard and part expressway and that connects the old core of Jakarta with a ring road around the central district. Although the street is lined almost solidly with Western-style commercial high-rises, a visitor to the complex can still see within a few hundred yards of the boulevard the low wood structures, many without running water or plumbing, that constitute the majority of the building stock in the city. The Rudolph building, along with its neighbors, is a First World monument grafted onto the building stock of a Third World city. For reasons of climate and security, the architect pulled the entire ensemble inward, mounding the low buildings around the courtyard and placing the tower over the terrace to shade it. At each level the courtyard steps back, creating terraces for the offices in the base of the complex. Waterfalls and canals and vines cascading from the terraces create a secure, shaded tropical paradise at the center of the complex’s podium, which contains offices, parking and special-function areas.

Dharmala Tower, Jakarta. [Image credit: courtesy of the archives of the Paul Rudolph Foundation]
Dharmala Tower, Jakarta. [Courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Foundation]

The most conspicuous aspect of the Dharmala tower, the sloping roofs that shade the floors underneath them, was likewise an explicit response to local climate and to traditional Indonesian architecture. Rudolph’s study of this architecture was neither scholarly nor scientific. He learned about it largely through visits to an outdoor architectural museum. What impressed him most, amid the staggering variety of forms visible in the vernacular buildings, was the consistency in the shapes of the overhanging roofs. Constructed to put important functional spaces in shadow and to accelerate the flow of hot air up and out, the roofs impressed him as the chief elements in a regional vernacular architecture of considerable beauty. At Dharmala, Rudolph abstracted the roof forms and combined them with his own interest in rotated geometry and the interplay between supporting elements and building perimeter. Held aloft by great paired columns, the tower starts at about thirty meters above grade level, the columns rising through a series of rotated floor plates that create overhanging roofs at each level. These overhangs shield the windows below and provide outdoor terraces for the offices. The architect’s drawings suggest that he envisioned the entire building as a kind of hanging garden, with trees and bushes planted in the terraces and vines cascading down the side. In fact, more than any other urban building by Rudolph, the Dharmala complex suggests his ideas about the way architecture and landscape can merge.

Because the Dharmala Building pushes so far along a number of paths Rudolph had been exploring since the ’60s, it raised interesting questions. One concerns the obvious objection that forms like thatched roofs, appropriate in small-scale frame architecture, are hardly appropriate for an air-conditioned high-rise office. Rudolph would counter by saying that the form of Indonesian roofs only served as a point of departure. The forms have a great deal of value in shading the glass of windows on a high building as well as a low building, and Rudolph’s use of them here is not so different from the projecting forms of many of his earlier buildings, going back at least to the SMTI.

For many critics, of course, the appearance of tall Western office buildings in countries like Indonesia is itself a troubling phenomenon. They would argue that the occurrence represents a rejection of indigenous culture in favor of inappropriate models imported from the West. For some, these designs are evidence of a continuation, in cultural terms, of the political and economic imperialism of earlier eras. Most Western architects who have built in Southeast Asia in recent years have faced a similar conundrum. They are obviously hired to bring Western design and Western technology to Asia, but this program often seems to collide with an equally important imperative, the idea that buildings should reflect the culture in which they are built. How to reconcile these seemingly irreconcilable demands?

Interestingly, some of the most successful designers of tall office buildings in the region have used a process that appears to be remarkably like that of Paul Rudolph. Cesar Pelli, in his Petronas towers in Kuala Lumpur, for example, or Adrian Smith of Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, in his Jin Mao Building in Shanghai, opted to synthesize very abstracted visions of Asian-roof motifs with American-style stepped-back towers of the 1920s. To call any of these buildings either modernist or postmodernist seems entirely beside the point, especially since these Asian countries never experienced the sequence of philosophical ideas that informed classical architecture, European avant-garde modernism and postmodernism. It is more reasonable to say that each architect attempted to integrate worldwide business standards, international skyscraper-imagery and local conditions. The result, not surprisingly, can be called either modernist or postmodernist, depending on which variable in the equation one is considering.

Dharmala Tower Rendering, Paul Rudolph.
Dharmala Tower Rendering, Paul Rudolph. [Courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Foundation]

A second objection to Dharmala might be made on urbanistic grounds: that although the complex itself has a considerable density and an intricate urban quality, it is isolated along a highway with no connection with its neighbors. Where the Boston Government Center might be said to turn inward on its court and to turn its back on the streets, in so doing it at least forms a coherent street wall, which is certainly part of the tradition of Boston architecture. At the Concourse and Dharmala buildings, there are few such gestures of continuity. They are self-contained. For example, the Dharmala Building has a layer of protective parking shielding the complex, which in turn shields its central courtyard. An aerial view confirms that it is just as out of scale and just as intrusive on the neighborhoods adjoining it as the other tall buildings along the street. They all appear to have sites that were blasted out of the existing fabric.

With all of this analysis Rudolph would probably have agreed. He would have been the first to welcome a more integrated urbanism, a more coherent relationship of buildings to one another. But he would probably also have pointed out that change is always part of city life. The large, intrusive buildings of one generation, necessarily out of scale with their neighbors, become the scale-defining elements of the next generation. For the architect to try to disguise the clear dislocations created when scales change or when a traditional way of life is overlaid by totally new ways of doing things would have been, to his way of thinking, nostalgic and inauthentic. In the Dharmala Building, as in his other designs for Southeast Asia or in the towers in Fort Worth, Rudolph instead tried to provide, in a single complex, some of the traditional urbanism as well as spatial complexity of the future city. Were the city to grow up on this model, some of the connectivity lacking today would eventually occur.

View Slideshow


It is this belief in future possibilities and a hard-headed refusal to yield to any easy nostalgia that may ultimately be the element that most distinguishes the work of Paul Rudolph from other practitioners of his day. Despite the failure of prefabrication systems, despite the apparent rejection of his work in the United States at the end of his life, despite the way his designs in Southeast Asia were altered during the construction process, Rudolph remained an optimist. In the grand tradition of modernism, he always looked forward to new technology, new ways of building, new ways of making the city more vital and exciting.

In the months before his death, Rudolph was working on a new town outside Surabaya, the second largest city in Indonesia. In his New York office he pulled out huge sheets of drawings on which he had sketched the topography, the flow of the watercourses, and, on top of this natural data, the proposed town center, with a huge mound at the center providing parking and housing units, which rode the hills and gave views of the water. The city would conform to and be an extension of the underlying land, and it would have all the complexity of traditional urban forms. As he talked, he became carried away by the opportunities, the chance to show how to unite buildings and land, how to order the town in such a way that it might appear orderly, rational and spatially exciting. “I am hell-bent,” he said, “to get this town into comprehensible form.” Comprehensible urban form. That was the quest from the day Paul Rudolph first discovered architecture. It was a goal that remained constant over the years, despite his maturing and the oscillations in style of his colleagues. No one has ever worked with more energy or with more devotion to this task than Paul Rudolph, and no one has been as successful in creating a body of work in which those most ancient of architectural elements — space and light — are better fused with modern urban needs.

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 is the second installment in a two-part series. Read Part 1.

“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, courtesy of the author.

  1. Among the foreign commissions were a project for a United States embassy in Amman, Jordan, in 1954, buildings for a university in Bangladesh in 1966, and a stadium for Dammam, Saudi Arabia, in 1968.
  2. For background on the projects in Southeast Asia, see Paul Rudolph, interview by Robert Bruegmann, Chicago Architects Oral History Project (Chicago: Art Institute of Chicago, Department of Architecture, 1993).
  3. This is what Rudolph did, for example, at the Green House, in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, in 1969.
  4. For the Colonnade, see Architectural Record (January 1989): 80-81.
  5. For the Concourse, see Paolo Riani, “Paul Rudolph’s Spatial Visions,” in Area, xx, and Roberto de Alba, “The Concourse Building in Singapore,” Area, xx.
  6. For the Dharmala Building, see Paul Rudolph, “Dharmala Office Building, Jakarta, Indonesia,” A+U (February 1990): 18-25; and “Dharmala Sakti Office Building, Jakarta,” Mimar (Marchi April 1987): 16-20.
Robert Bruegmann, “The Architect as Urbanist: Part 2,” Places Journal, February 2010. Accessed 01 Jun 2023.

Comments are closed. If you would like to share your thoughts about this article, or anything else on Places Journal, visit our Facebook page or send us a message on Twitter.

Past Discussions View
  • joan mills

    03.06.2010 at 17:56

    Appreciate the research of this article..thought you should include Marshall Strabala, in the dicussion of supertall bldg design and references to Asian motifs.
    Strabala has designed, Nanjing Greenland Financial Tower, partnering with Adrian Smith at SOM, Suzhou Convention Center, Hong Kong Convention Center, new Shanghai Tower, double-skin facade and has several new supertalls lined up in China.
    He is also an architect who's work should be looked at and mentioned.