Book Review: Re-evaluating Rudolph

By Michael Webb

The Architecture of Paul Rudolph. Timothy M. Rohan. Yale University Press, $65.

A well-researched, critical study of an architect who is in urgent need of re-evaluation. In 1963, Paul Rudolph was widely admired—for his leadership of the Yale School of Architecture, newly installed in his monumental building; for his light, airy houses and schools in Florida, and for his ambitions to renew American cities. He was seen as an iconoclast, experimenting with new forms and materials, and offering bold alternatives to modernist orthodoxy. He was unafraid to express himself, break the rules, and create an architecture of emotion. As Rohan writes, “Rudolph believed that every cantilevered beam, every twist of a passageway, and every bright orange carpet could awaken the creativity and individuality of a building’s inhabitants and thus combat the monotony and conformity of postwar life.”

Within a few years, his reputation had gone up in smoke. Radicals derided him as a representative of the establishment, the Yale Arts & Architecture building was torched, his visionary megastructures remained on paper. Stunned by the criticism, he retreated into himself, focused anew on private houses, then enjoyed one last spurt of activity in Asia, where he built several high rises before he died, at age 78, in 1997. Since then, his reputation has lagged and too many of his corporate and public buildings have been abused or threatened with demolition. His work is perceived as too overbearing and abrasive to merit the respect that Eero Saarinen has regained and Louis Kahn never lost. Happily, Yale has done an exemplary restoration of his masterpiece, where Robert Stern, Rudolph’s former student, now reigns.

Rohan wrote his doctoral thesis on Rudolph’s academic buildings and has now authored the first comprehensive monograph on the architect. Books about underrated architects usually strive to redress the balance; to argue that their subject was misunderstood and really belongs in the pantheon. Rohan is surprisingly even-handed, explaining what Rudolph was trying to do but giving a full hearing to his critics and adding many reservations of his own. His subject is portrayed as a formalist, in love with scenographic effects at the expense of integrity and utility. From the start, his buildings were not always what they seemed, and several are seriously flawed. His plans to create vast megastructures in lower Manhattan were as megalomaniac as those of Robert Moses, and both fell victim to popular resistance and the bankruptcy of the city. But the architect was the victim of circumstances as well as ego. “Although Rudolph’s monumentality was considered a failure by the late 1960s…what may actually have failed was the will of society to build such edifices,” Rohan concludes. Had Rudolph arrived a generation later, he would have missed the postwar boom and the collapse of the liberal consensus, but he might have flourished as the impressario of extravaganzas in Asia and the Middle East, where few care about popular opinion or practicality.

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