The Sarasota Architectural Foundation recently marked the 100th birthday of Paul Rudolph at the annual Sarasota MOD Week-End, a celebration of the area’s mid-century modern architectural heritage. Island resident Edward “Tim” Seibert was last year’s honoree.
Association with Yale brought Rudolph good connections and work from government, academic and corporate clients whose projects demanded a style that called attention to itself. Rudolph began working in the appropriately named Brutalist tradition. But the heavy concrete structures with rough-hewn surfaces like the Art & Architecture School he designed at Yale (1963) brought as much notoriety as acclaim. To some its monumental presence seemed out of synch with the anti-authoritarian spirit which characterized opposition to the Vietnam War and distrust of so-called immutable institutions. It was burned down, some say, by students. New Haven’s fire chief suggested the fire might have been deliberately set or the building firebombed based on the fire’s rapid spread, although the New Haven fire marshall dismissed arson suggesting that flammable substances in open containers were the likely cause. The building was subsequently redesigned and resurrected under the direction of Charles Gwathmey in 2009.
After the fire Rudolph suffered the psychological equivalent of “the bends.” The dramatic ascent that brought him to the attention of the world was followed by an equally sudden descent. It must have been a crushing blow to have what some thought his masterwork torched by students, if indeed they were responsible, especially because teaching was central to his work as an architect. Berkeley architect Charles Moore, who succeeded Rudolph at Yale, im- bued the school with an entirely different spirit. “He (Rudolph) did things by himself and seemed to make people like it,” said Moore. “I disapprove of the Art & Architecture building whole-heartedly because it is such a personal manifestation for non-personal use. However, I enjoy very much being in it.” Moore echoed a common complaint. Rudolph’s urbanism did not promote interpersonal interaction or community.
New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable dismissed his work, along with that of Philip Johnson and Kevin Roche, as “Establishment architecture.”
Perhaps the coup de grace was delivered by Robert Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas who suggested that the hyper expressionist monumentality of Rudolph’s buildings constituted decoration itself. The buildings were concrete sculptures. In criticism which seemed to be directed especially to Rudolph, Venturi wrote: “It is all right to decorate construction but never to construct decoration.” The book had a devastating impact on Rudolph’s career although he never defended his work against Venturi ’s criticism. Venturi later apologized to Rudolph for the severity of his remarks.
The burning of the A&A building precipitated Rudolph’s withdrawal from the public sphere. Out of the glare of media, he worked quietly completing civic and academic commissions. Life in New York City brought him in touch with rich clients whose residential commissions supported his late career. According to his biographer Timothy Rohan, “These projects had a markedly more sensual and at times dangerous quality to them, different in tone from the joyful explorations of the 1950s Florida houses.” The publication of the homoerotic interiors of his home at 23 Beekman Place was too revealing for some, suggesting that his work was too self indulgent and expressive, too outré for him to be considered a spokesman for the profession.
The white villa he designed for Sid and Anne Bass in Fort Worth, reminiscent of Wright’s Falling Water, along with the Bass office complexes, telegraphed a new direction for Rudolph which found full expression in his later work abroad.
Eventually, he ventured far beyond the borders of the U.S. to Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta where he achieved a lifelong dream, the design of breathtaking skyscrapers whose sinuous curtain- walls of reflective glass and idiosyncratic protrusions would grace the skylines of Southeast Asia. “The photographs make me want to book passage just to see Paul’s buildings,” says Seibert. Rudolph enjoyed working with his Asian clients although the vagaries of the economies in that part of the world could cause problems getting projects off the ground or seeing them to successful completion.