Paul Rudolph: Four recent Projects in Southeast Asia - 1987


“PAUL RUDOLPH: Four Recent Projects in Southeast Asia” was an exhibit jointly sponsored by the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and the Architecture Society Fellows and the Department of Architecture at the Art Institute of Chicago. The exhibit was open from May 6th to 28th, 1987, and was held in a gallery of the Graham Foundation in Chicago. Robert Bruegmann, the architectural historian involved in the planning of the show, explains that there was to be…

“… a proposed exhibition of drawings by Mr. Rudolph in the "Architecture in Context" series. The initial concept for the show, which was scheduled to open in the fall of 1986 at the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts in Chicago, was to show how the work of Mr. Rudolph was related to the work of Frank Lloyd Wright. The idea was to exhibit drawings of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale University and to produce a short catalogue written by myself that would explain the links between Wright and Rudolph. After some exploratory research and a visit to the office of Mr. Rudolph on February 10, 1986, it became apparent that such a show might not be advisable. The Art and Architecture Building drawings had already been extensively published and commented on in a number of periodicals over the years, notably in a special issue of Perspecta, and it became clear that not only the Art and Architecture Building but all of the architect's work was indebted to Wright to some degree. Instead, an agreement was reached that the show would consist of two parts: one a small retrospective of Mr. Rudolph's work throughout his career, perhaps with special attention to the Christian Science Organization Building at the University of Illinois at Urbana, then under threat of demolition, and the other part would be a selection of drawings of work then underway in Southeast Asia.” 

[Quoted from preface to: INTERVIEW WITH PAUL RUDOLPH Interviewed by Robert Bruegmann Compiled under the auspices of the Chicago Architects Oral History Project The Ernest R. Graham Study Center for Architectural Drawings Department of Architecture The Art Institute of Chicago Copyright © 1993- 2000 The Art Institute of Chicago.  The full transcript can be accessed here.]

Along with the exhibit, a booklet was published which featured an insightful essay by Dr. Bruegmann, the text of which is below.  

The publication also included drawings and photographs of Rudolph’s work, and a checklist of the exhibition. We are grateful to the Art Institute of Chicago and to Robert Bruegmann for permission to share it on the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation's website.  


Paul Rudolph: Four Recent Projects in Southeast Asia
by Robert Bruegmann

Note: figure numbers in the below essay refer to illustrations in the booklet. Those illustrations can be seen in the below PDF of the full booklet.


No story in recent architecture is more compelling than that of Paul Rudolph and his recent work in Southeast Asia. On the one hand there is his towering figure and meteoric career. From a small practice in Florida in the 1950s Rudolph's talent for drawing, design, and teaching rocketed him by the late 1960s to the pinnacle of the architectural world. While he was chairman of the School of Architecture at Yale University, his major commissions were found on the pages of every architectural journal. But as the architectural world started to undergo fundamental changes in the 1970s and as modernism came under attack, Paul Rudolph proved an oversized and irresistible target to critics of modernism such as Robert Venturi. Refusing to accept many of the basic assumptions of the new cultural climate, Rudolph continued to work, though he did so increasingly on commissions far from home and outside the spotlight of publicity. Now, in the late 1980s, almost 70 years old but still erect and intensely involved in his work, Rudolph is tackling some of the most challenging commissions of his career, and he is apparently being rediscovered by a younger generation who see in him a great master, a heroic figure who refused to capitulate to what they see as the self-indulgent, permissive trends of the last two decades.

The second main theme of this story is the collision of the Western and non-Western architectural worlds. Since the nineteenth century architects from Europe and America have struggled with the problem of how to create buildings that are fully modern by Western standards but also accommodate site and climate as well as the cultural traditions of lands elsewhere in the world. One extreme solution, the ultimate extension of modernist ideas, was to reason that, since man's most basic needs are everywhere similar and since modern engineering could overcome almost all site and climate problems, a solution from Berlin should be applicable, with only minor modification, in Teheran or Manila. At the other extreme were those who in the last few years have argued that local building traditions and vernacular techniques are more appropriate than self-expression as bases for design , and that, therefore, a building in the West should look entirely different from a building in the non-Western world. Needless to say, most architects have tried to chart a middle course between these extremes, but few observers would claim that the results are usually satisfactory. When Rudolph's teacher Walter Gropius, for example, proposed a mosque for Damascus in the shape of a great onion dome, it seemed to many observers more like a parody of the long Islamic tradition of monumental architecture than an intelligent use of it. In the case of multistoried office and commercial buildings in regions where the vernacular consists mostly of frame dwellings, the problem becomes even more acute. Thus, the case of Paul Rudolph in Southeast Asia is especially interesting.

Resolutely modernist in his thinking, unyielding in his insistence on working out his own architectural ideas, and totally unsympathetic to the borrowing of applied historical motifs, Rudolph has nevertheless throughout his career rejected the minimalism of those he calls the "international stylists, " and he has tried to accommodate his work to very specific sites and contexts. The four projects featured in this exhibition are testimony to the struggle of a committed modernist to adapt Western modernism to the context of a totally different environment.

Paul Rudolph and his Career

Paul Marvin Rudolph was born in 1918 in Elkton, Kentucky, the son of a Methodist minister. After attending a succession of schools across the South, Rudolph studied architecture between 1935 and 1940 at the Alabama Polytechnique Institute in Auburn, Alabama, and then entered the Harvard Graduate School of Design in 1941 to work under Walter Gropius. After a stint in the Navy between 1943 and 1946, he returned to Harvard to finish his master's in architecture in 1947. Moving to Sarasota, Florida, he practiced in partnership with Ralph Twitchell for four years before starting his own practice in 1951. His early commissions were primarily for houses and guest houses in the southern states (fig. 1). While heavily influenced by the International Style architecture he was exposed to at Harvard, Rudolph's houses were marked by a lightness and airiness made possible by his adventurous use of structure, new building techniques, and a responsiveness to site achieved through the careful organization of plan and the use of overhangs, sun screens, and louvers.

In the mid-1950s Rudolph received three prominent commissions for works outside the South. One, for a United States Embassy in Amman, Jordan, was not built, but two others – an office building for Blue Cross-Blue Shield in Boston and the Jewett Arts Center for Wellesley College - were constructed. In all three cases Rudolph turned to a more complex, heavier, and more monumental manner. Like Eero Saarinen, Rudolph was among the first American modernist designers who attempted to give their buildings something of the character of the older structures in their immediate context. At Wellesley, for example, the siting of the building, intended to suggest a quadrangle, and the elaboration of vertical elements in the structure and sun screens, as well as the spiky silhouettes created by high skylights, were obviously intended to give the building a feeling akin to the older Gothic buildings around it. At Amman, his first encounter with a non-Western site, the building's vaulted canopy was related to the Arab tradition of double tents and was to be constructed according to a local method using native limestone as a permanent formwork for the reinforced concrete.

During his early years in practice, Rudolph was in demand as a guest teacher at schools of architecture across the country. This in turn, led to the most conspicuous event in his early career, his appointment in 1958 as chairman of the School of Architecture at Yale University. During his brilliant but controversial chairmanship (1958-65), he brought to the school a flood of new ideas and many famous designers from around the world . At the same time he produced a series of important commissions. The most prominent single building was the Art and Architecture Building at Yale (fig. 2). In that structure Rudolph provided one of the most spectacular monuments of the movement in architecture in the 1960s away from the smooth minimalism that characterized much of the work of the day. Like his colleagues Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn, Rudolph attempted to take the tenets of modernism and push them further in an a tempt to regain richness and monumentality. In the A & A Building the large number of very particular and complex spaces was in part a response to elements in the program. In part they also represented an attempt to fuse spatial and structural elements derived from Le Corbusier and Frank Lloyd Wright, his favorite architects. The result was a complex and aggressively monumental, if somewhat forbiddingly complicated, building that more than held its own on its prominent corner site. For many it was the prime symbol of the rejuvenation of modern architecture, but for others it represented all of its arrogance and insensitivity.

While he continued to work on single buildings during his years as chairman, Rudolph turned more and more to questions of urbanism. His urban designs were marked by the same strenuous effort to create spatial complexity and visual incident by elaborating structure and program. For Boston, for example, he designed, for a site across from City Hall, a governmental complex (fig. 3) in which a ring of building extending out to the sidewalk surrounded an elaborate interior plaza that swirled like a pinwheel around a highrise tower (still unbuilt) that formed the center of the composition. No longer a discrete element in the cityscape, the building became a whole precinct. The furthest extension of this urban thinking came with two schemes for Lower Manhattan. In these projects, Rudolph tried to grapple with the challenge posed by large-scale building pre-fabrication and the mobile home, an element that, while it loomed larger and larger on the American landscape, was largely rejected out of hand by other serious designers as aesthetically unacceptable. Instead of turning his back on the challenge of the idea of the mobile home, Rudolph accepted it as a new vernacular incorporating all necessary elements of structure and services. He called it the "twentieth-century urban brick." In his Graphic Arts Center project (fig. 4) on the west side of Manhattan he explored the idea of hanging individual pre-fabricated units in giant fixed frames. In his Lower Manhattan Expressways project he envisioned an even larger megastructure that accommodated transportation and utilities and allowed for considerable growth and change.

When the heady years of the 1960s came to an end in the economic woes and retrenchments of the 1970s, Rudolph's earnest manner and aggressive style came to look anachronistic, and the magazines turned to the ironic, anti-heroic manner of Robert Venturi and Charles Moore. Rudolph, however, continued to uphold the modernist commitment to rational problem-solving and reacted strongly against the move to recapture public meaning by reusing literally the forms of historic architecture. Abandoning the fireworks of the megastructures, he continued to produce a steady stream of complex, weighty buildings in the United States and abroad. Received indifferently for the most part in the architectural press, projects like the Daiei Building in Nagoya, Japan, the William R. Canon Chapel at Emory University, and his own apartment in New York City gave evidence of a doggedly persistent quest for an architecture whose richness came not from applied ornament but from the spatial complexities developed from structure and the three-dimensional elaboration of the program.

Four Recent Projects in Southeast Asia

Largely ignored by major clients in America's big cities, Rudolph has found his most important clients of recent years in Southeast Asia. In the four projects presented in this exhibition, as in most of his recent work, Rudolph has acted as design consultant rather than as architect. Because of this arrangement he has been able to keep his office small and to concentrate on the one thing that interests him, design, leaving many of the problems of local building regulations, engineering, and construction supervision to local firms. This arrangement, however, also makes it difficult to keep control over all details of the projects, and it necessitates frequent and grueling trips to Asia to meet with clients, contractors, and local architects. While work on the first project discussed below has been temporarily halted because of an economic slump in Singapore, construction of the other three projects was nearing completion in spring 1987.

The largest project, along a major commercial thoroughfare in Singapore, is a mixed-use complex whose total floor area is divided equally among commercial, office, and residential uses (fig. 5). The commission was received in 1979 as a result of one of the famous competitions used by the Singapore government to select developers for prime sites. Dubbed Beach Road I by Rudolph's office, the complex contains underground parking, a large shopping atrium recalling the atria of John Portman's early hotels, which Rudolph greatly admires; a low "village of offices " set on top of the podium created by the commercial portion; and a 45-story tower containing offices below and residential units above. Constructed , like all four of his Southeast Asia projects, of reinforced concrete, the complex is sheathed in ceramic tile to protect the concrete from humidity.

The entire complex is characterized by the use of dynamic asymmetry. Instead of putting the tower on top of the podium, the usual practice in this kind of complex, Rudolph positioned it in a location eccentric to the shopping atrium and outdoor plaza so that the visitor can read it as a self-sufficient unit, intertwined with the podium but clearly rising on its own columns and shading the plaza at its base, an important feature in the tropical climate. The pinwheeling interaction of parts is continued in the shopping atrium where the exposed elevator rises off-center in the space (fig. 5); in the outdoor plaza, which swirls around  the base of the tower; and in the tower itself, where the residential units, deeply eroded in their massing to permit the mandatory exterior exposure of kitchens and bathrooms, seem to rotate around the structural system. In fact, Rudolph has described the complex as a "whirling dervish."

The second of the four projects is an apartment complex for Pontiac Land Private Limited (called Grange Road in Rudolph's office), also located in Singapore (fig. 7). Commissioned by a Chinese family, the building is again made of reinforced concrete but here it is protected by a masonry paint. The Grange Road building is divided into four quadrants each beginning and ending at a different elevation. The most striking visual feature of the exterior of Grange Road is a series of projecting blocks cantilevered well forward of the structural columns (fig. 8). Inverting the usual logic found in buildings in cooler climates where the pub-lie rooms are pushed to the perimeter, these nearly windowless blocks contain the bedrooms and private elements of the apartments and shade the balconies and glassy walls of the more recessed living and dining areas. At the top of the building are a number of spectacular multilevel penthouse units with elaborate vertical penetrations of space allowing views through the house to gardens, pools, and balconies. The piling up of units is intended by the architect to create a "village in the sky," in some ways similar to French or Italian hill towns.

The third commission, for a pair of office towers in Hong Kong, was given to Rudolph after foundations had already been poured for an earlier scheme by a different architect for previous owners. Although the buildings were nearly identical in exterior treatment, one was to have been about 10% larger than the other in plan. Disturbed by what he considered an incongruous relationship between the towers, Rudolph managed to persuade the new owners - two families from Hong Kong, one family from Singapore, one ·from Japan, and one representative of the People's Republic of China - to spend a considerable amount of money offsetting the foundations on the larger structure so the two towers would match. The architect was unable, however, to convince the clients to use an early scheme that incorporated bridges between the two structures (fig. 9), because one of the families also owned textile companies in Indonesia and felt that the bridges too closely resembled those of his factories there. In a sharp departure from his usual practice with concrete buildings, Rudolph chose to cover the two structures completely with a curtain wall of painted aluminum and grey glass (fig. 10), perhaps in an attempt to have his building hold its own amidst a proliferation of glassy buildings around it.

The final project, in Jakarta, was commissioned by the Dharmala Corporation, a prominent Indonesian firm that, among its many activities, exports tea and coffee, imports motorcycle parts, and develops land. Of all the work in Southeast Asia, the Jakarta project is clearly the most ambitious and the one closest to Rudolph's heart. Unlike his mixed-use project in Singapore and the office towers in Hong Kong, the Jakarta building is not a speculative venture but is intended as a corporate headquarters and a monument to the company (fig. 11). It exhibits the same kind of swirling geometry seen at Beach Road I. Wrapped around an open courtyard is a podium containing a garage, exhibition space, and a bank. Spiralling up from the outdoor area and podium, the floors of the office tower, each with its wide overhangs, rotate around the structural columns creating a complex interweaving (figs. 12, 13).

The outwardly splaying shape of the spandrel panels, which also form the terrace parapets, was based on roof forms found in indigenous houses in Indonesian villages. Reinterpreted in reinforced concrete, the overhangs shield the glass walls of the office below from the sun. On the inside, the position of the elevators at one corner of the plan and the off-center cores, containing fire stairs, toilets, and special Muslim washing facilities, allow dramatically different kind of spaces on different floors as the floors rotate around the structural columns (figs. 14, 15).

Rudolph and Southeast Asia

How do these four projects deal with their sites and the cultural environment of Southeast Asia? At first glance they seem to have little that is specifically Asian in imagery and a great deal that is recognizably like Rudolph's earlier work in the United States. The most immediately conspicuous feature of all of them is the complex three-dimensional rotation and interpenetration of elements molded out of concrete, a feature that has characterized much of Rudolph's work since the 1960s. The Grange Road project recalls the stacked units of the Graphic Arts Center, for example, while the configuration of the Beach Road project harks back to the forms of the Boston Government Service Center.

It is, however, undeniable that the local conditions played a major role. All four projects incorporate substantial areas of unenclosed outdoor plaza space, terraces, and balconies - welcome features in warm climates. Three of the four use heavy projecting elements to shade other parts of the complex. Certainly Rudolph was also constrained by important local economic and political realities. In an area like Southeast Asia, where manufactured materials are relatively expensive and labor relatively inexpensive, it makes sense to use inexpensive concrete and then to have workmen shape it into elaborate configurations. The remarkably strict Singapore building by-laws are another kind of restraint. Because they are based in part on American laws promulgated during the heyday of postwar modernism, the Singapore laws incorporate a number of features that are fast being abandoned in the United States: for example, the setback requirements that make it all but necessary to create freestanding towers, a solution Rudolph considers antithetical to successful urbanism. Even outside Singapore where the laws are not as stringent, the tradition of modern Western architecture has led Rudolph to design isolated towers along the street. The result, regretted by the architect, is that each of these projects is largely inward looking and self-sufficient, with the tower near the middle of the site and making little gesture toward its immediate neighbors.

Although he has, in all four projects, clearly responded to the physical realities of the sites, it is primarily in the Jakarta building that Rudolph appears to try to engage in any kind of dialogue with the vernacular tradition of the place. At first glance the approach seems almost contradictory. Although Rudolph incorporates forms derived from Indonesian village architecture, it could well be argued that, reinterpreted in concrete and used on an air-conditioned highrise, these forms have little to do with their prototypes. Furthermore, although Rudolph did see some local village architecture, he would be the first to admit that he had neither the time nor the interest to make a thorough study of the subject.

What was the intention? When he speaks of the Jakarta building, Rudolph obviously relishes the response it has gotten:

This building in Jakarta is being received extremely well because people instinctively understand that it has to do with their climate, etc. I don't mean just architects and engineers. Their equivalent of Time magazine, for instance, ran a marvelous thing on it…. Architects and others talk till it comes out of their ears about a national identity from an architectural viewpoint. They see in this building a step in that direction.

But then Rudolph characteristically throws in an immediate disclaimer:

I don't see it that way; I see it purely as a response to a climate and the feeling of an accommodating environment.*

While he was willing to use the Indonesian examples as a point of departure for his own imaginative use of the forms, Rudolph obviously rejects the notion that he is obliged to use these or any other elements from this tradition to make them meaningful to local inhabitants. It is in fact apparent that however much the Jakarta building yields to site and to local economic and cultural restraints, it remains in the end very much a personal statement of its designer, a personal exploration of certain ideas about structure , space, and light that have obsessed Rudolph from his first commissions. The Jakarta building, like much of Rudolph's recent work, will probably be criticized by proponents of "contextualism" as just another isolated tower, related neither to its current context, a street lined with slick glass towers, nor to traditional architecture. But the Jakarta building will probably be criticized equally from the opposite standpoint. Rudolph also refuses to justify his form from the modernist functional-technical viewpoint. He is not at all interested in anonymous teamwork producing the most efficient and least expensive building possible nor in breaking new ground in technology the way Norman Foster's enormously influential Bank of Hong Kong and Shanghai does. The Jakarta building is not up-to-the-minute in plan, structure, or equipment. It uses fairly standard parts and a relatively low-tech, labor-intensive structure.

In the end, it is this obstinate estrangement from both these currently ascendant movements that is so compelling. In no buildings being produced today does the insistence on the prerogatives of the individual creator play such a major role. Rudolph, virtually alone among major American architects, still functions like Ayn Rand's character Howard Roark in The Fountainhead: solitary, seemingly unmindful of public acclaim or condemnation, harkening to the voice within. Whether judged successful or not, these four projects in Southeast Asia undoubtedly constitute one of the boldest attempts seen anywhere in the world today to maintain the spirit of modernism without sacrificing the possibility for the untrammeled personal expression of architectural art.

* lnterview conducted by the author with Paul Rudolph in 1986; transcription available in the Ryerson and Burnham Libraries of The Art Institute of Chicago.