Paul Rudolph: An Interior Perspective - 2005


PAUL RUDOLPH: AN INTERIOR PERSPECTIVE was a 2005 exhibit at New York School of Interior Design, which was focused on Paul Rudolph's designs for interiors and furniture. Curated by Rocco Leonardis—an architect who had worked for Paul Rudolph—the show included drawings, photographs (reproduced at large-scale), and actual examples of furniture and lighting designed by the Rudolph. Among the interiors featured were the Yale Art & Architecture Building (now rededicated as Rudolph Hall), and the Hirsch Residence (whose most famous later resident was the great fashion designer Halston). A symposium was held in association with the exhibit, whose panelists included several former Rudolph staff members. Rocco Leonardis prepared the below text for the show: it focuses on the overall arc of Rudolph’s career, and his approach to design and creating interior spaces. We are grateful to Mr. Leonardis for permission to share it on the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation's website.  


Paul Rudolph: An Interior Perspective
by Rocco Leonardis, RIBA

With the passing of Paul Rudolph in 1997, Modern architecture became a historical style. It is now taught in schools the way Baroque or Arts and Crafts are presented—as a style of the past, long gone.

In the tradition of Modernism, Paul Rudolph created imaginative and innovative buildings as well as their interiors and furnishings. One of the world's last true Modernists, Rudolph had a career that spanned from the end of World War II to the 1990s, the formative period of the present-day interior design profession.

His interiors combined an acute sense of space, scale, proportion, and taste. Always controversial, these interiors were both admired and attacked. Yale students vandalized the Art and Architecture Building he created for their campus in 1963; George Lucas chose the interior of the Burroughs Wellcome building (1969) in Durham, North Carolina, as the setting for a scene in the original Star Wars film. Rudolph was a thoroughly American Modernist, exemplifying the movement whose roots were in the United States, as it championed individualism and a commitment to principles. He recalled seeing Frank Lloyd Wright's Rosenbaum House in Florence, Alabama, in 1941, four years after it was built—the product of an inspired visionary individualist architect—as a pivotal event in his professional identity. Describing Rudolph, Philip Johnson once remarked, "I don't know any other architect in this country who is so off by himself and so successful." [1] One might say that Rudolph was a Modernist hero.

Paul Marvin Rudolph was born in Elkton, Kentucky, in 1918, the son of a Methodist minister, and spent his childhood in the Deep South. He earned a bachelor's degree in architecture at the Alabama Polytechnic Institute (Auburn University), where, he said, the "faculty was best when they left you alone." [2] He then entered Harvard University's Graduate School of Design, which had a very different caliber of faculty; the chair at that time was Walter Gropius, and among those who studied alongside Rudolph were Johnson, Ulrich Franzen, Edward Larrabee Barnes, and John Johansen, each of whom would go on to achieve fame in his own right. At Harvard, Rudolph was rigidly trained in Bauhaus functionalism, the ideology behind the International Style, inspired by the nineteenth-century American sculptor Horatio Greenough's book Form and Function, which offered a dogma for American architects in its equating of functionalism and the bottom line. Rudolph left school in 1943 to serve in World War II in the Navy. As a shipbuilding diver and supervisor at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, where he was exposed to the asbestos that eventually led to his death, he learned a great deal about bureaucracies and production on a large scale. He returned to Cambridge after the war, realizing by this time that Harvard's program, too, possessed "that particular set of limitations."

In 1948, after receiving his master's degree, he entered into a four-year architectural partnership with Ralph Twitchell in Sarasota, Florida. It was then that Rudolph's movement away from the strict functionalism of the International Style became evident, in projects with a more pronounced three-dimensional expression of space and form. He opened his own practice in 1951, when he also began to teach as a guest critic and lecturer at top schools such as Princeton, Yale, Tulane, Cornell, and Harvard.

In the autumn of 1957, Rudolph became chairman of Yale's School of Architecture. As quoted at the time in the Yale News, Rudolph said: "It took me eight years to really flex my own muscles. Now I must try to find myself. It means risking everything in order to find out who you are. That involves being wrong, but it's the most important thing I must do." Rudolph is remembered as an exemplary teacher. Vincent Scully, then a professor at Yale and part of the committee that brought him to the school, recalled in the Yale Herald that Rudolph "found a school which had been almost ruined by irrational mismanagement, and he turned it almost overnight into what I think was at least for a while one of the two best schools in the country. He did this by being himself: open, clear, decisive, dedicated." [3] He eventually left, in 1965, to open a practice in New York City. "I suppose the Yale chairmanship made me a member of the Establishment, being accepted or something," he said at the time. "I now understand that I can never belong to these things and that I'll always be attacked as an outsider."

Rudolph's position at Yale did identify him with the mainstream, yet there were indications even then that he would go his own way. He is the only architect born in the American South ever to achieve international fame. This identity was also part of his philosophy of design, particularly in its relationship to regionalism. Whereas the International Style shunned regionalism, Rudolph wished to identify nonhistorical, nonsentimental Southern and Northern dwellings. He is quoted as saying that "regionalism is one way toward that richness in architecture which other movements have enjoyed and which is so lacking today." Before leaving New Haven, he created several important structures, the most significant and controversial being the Art and Architecture Building. Here, he elaborated the iconic massing of Wright's Larkin Building to create a visually active and continually evolving sense of interior space. It was critically acclaimed; the controversy arose from students who objected to the forcefulness of its design.

He had a healthy practice in New York, of residential, commercial, and institutional projects, mostly urban, across the globe. But with the post-Vietnam era came a rejection of heroes, and Modernism began to be viewed as an Establishment style. A writer for the Yale Herald described the perception of Rudolph at that time as "an architectural version of Nixon—the stubborn representative of the establishment who believed that he alone owned the blueprint for the world." [4] At that point the "new" style of postmodernism, which Rudolph dismissed as a pastiche—took hold. Nevertheless, he continued to produce stunning buildings, thus allowing the world to see that Modernism, like Rudolph himself, still had vibrant new ideas.

Consistent Innovation

To say that Paul Rudolph was perhaps architecture's last true Modernist requires some justification. What actually constitutes a "true Modernist"? Why would such a conspicuous candidate as Philip Johnson not fill the bill? The answer is: consistency without repetition. Johnson slipped into postmodernism with his AT&T Building. Other architects acquire an identity by marketing a signature design, which they go on to repeat in varying forms regardless of program or scale. Paul Rudolph never repeated himself; nor did he ever turn away from the strength or principles of Modernism.

We live in a time of derivative design styles. What was old remains old, yet we as a society desire symbols of the past and their proven associations of success and security. Today in New Orleans, for example, new structures, indeed whole neighborhoods, are being built as carbon copies of existing period buildings, the originals sometimes visible just across the street.

There are those who are proud to act as a proxy for long-dead architects, literally submitting antique plans and details and building archaeological designs. The devolution seen among members of the design profession into antiquarianism, antiques collecting, and the seeking of safe, established styles is a phase that usually follows the brief period of an individual's creativity and originality. Paul Rudolph did not fit this mold. He initiated; he created from scratch whole structures, inside and out. Every detail would be investigated, and a unique and original solution would be found. He did not select from a pre-existing menu. Certainly he did not pull Greek Revival drawings out of old books and offer them to clients as an example of his creativity. Yet, Rudolph was fully aware of our collective design heritage; he traveled from the Parthenon to Machu Picchu, and his personal library contained at least two copies of Vitruvius.

His innovations continued with construction materials. He would often encourage his employees to break materials in order to understand their design potential. The now well-known split ribbed concrete block was developed by his office for the Tracey Towers apartment complex (1967-72) in the Bronx, as a means of achieving vertical lines on the buildings' walls at a lower cost than the hand-chiseled "corduroy" walls of the Art and Architecture Building. This concrete block has since appeared in all sorts of American vernacular structures and has become widely familiar. Within the roster of Modernists, Rudolph is categorized as a Brutalist, but his interpretation of it is uniquely his own. Brutalism, as invented by Le Corbusier in 1945, is usually seen as an expression of surface textures formed in concrete; New Brutalism, again, displayed a surface-textural response in glass and steel. Rudolph's distinctive take lies in his aggressive expression of interior space.

Modern Baroque

Rudolph's approach to interiors was completely Modern. In his structures, space is everything. His plans literally revolve around a development and complete exploitation of space that is both visual and functional, a pinwheel pattern of spiraling forms large and small, positive and negative, building upon one another, always moving upward. Rudolph's special expression is classically Baroque.

Although favorable comparisons are frequently and not incorrectly made to the work and career of Frank Lloyd Wright, in his kinesthetic designs Rudolph can also be compared to Francesco Borromini (1599-1667). In both men's buildings, the observer, made visually restless, must move physically through the space in order to comprehend it.

Rudolph liked to distance himself from the typical furniture format. He thought that the presence of legs on tables and chairs diverted the eye of the observer from clearly assessing the space before him. As with all Modernists, there is in his work the elevation of the formal expression of space by defining the negative form, which is the habitable space itself. Anything that intrudes on this puristic. concept of volume must be either eliminated or modified so as to take a back seat to the more important overall formal expression. Mies van der Rohe would chrome-plate his structural columns; Rudolph would construct built-in furniture or, like Mies, use reflective metallic surfaces to blend otherwise intrusive forms into the whole space. Upon completing the third renovation of his Beekman Place apartment in the 1970s, Rudolph described the effect of its combination of mirrors, mirror "curtains," Plexiglas, lights, and tones of beige as "like living in a milk bottle."

A designer of his time, he set out to emphasize form and space and believed that light colors (beige, white, gray), along with reflective surfaces, would be most useful to do this His interiors also drew strength from his use of inexpensive and readily available materials. Plywood, Plexiglas, Christmas tree lights, and other common materials found their way into his mirror curtains or illuminated floors. He agreed with the Modernist concept of Gesamtkunstwerk—the all-encompassing artwork. He preferred to spend the time and energy to design lighting or seating than to buy it off the rack. Rudolph believed that interiors were the product of design, rather than the end result of shopping and assembling items of interest.

Yale's Art and Architecture Building was damaged by a fire in 1969—Rudolph wept when he learned of it by telephone—and seeing the unfaithful reconstruction that followed, he said, "the building no longer exists for me." [5] After years of disparagement, the structure was the beneficiary four years ago of a $20 million donation toward its renovation. And in June of this year, it will be among the 12 edifices featured in the U.S. Postal Service's "Masterworks of Modern Architecture" series, as a recognized icon equal to, among other buildings, Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim Museum. Rudolph himself predicted in his later years that the arc of his career would resemble Wright's: early acclaim, followed by a banishment in obscurity and struggle, then re-emergence into renewed value by the profession. In concordance with his prediction, the Paul Rudolph Foundation, of which I am a director, was formed after his death to perpetuate the memory of his work through lectures and tours of his buildings.

As a young architect fresh out of college, I worked for Rudolph over the course of a decade. During one large project, he assigned me the task of space planning—designating the locations of columns, windows, doors, partitions—and in this instance, when I was to function as an extension not only of his hands but of his thinking, he made a point of articulating to me his architectural design philosophy. "This is for you," he said, making a quick sketch that I believe is the quintessential expression of his principles. He first drew an elevation of a gabled building with two windows symmetrically placed on either side of a door. He then fervently drew an X through it, saying, "This is what they do." Just below it, he drew a plan with the classic modern "open" corners and said, "This is what I do." The elevation is, of course, the most distinctive expression of the traditional American schoolhouse look, while for the Modernists it is the plan. Rudolph drew this sketch in 1973, anticipating prophetically the advent of postmodernism and the revitalization of the "traditional" look that would come to eclipse the twentieth-century aesthetic of which his structures are such outstanding examples.


[1] Architectural Record, January 1989. "Resolutely Modernist," by Mildred S. Schmertz

[2] The Architecture of Paul Rudolph. New York: Praeger, 1970. From the introduction by Sybil Moholy-Nagy. All quotations of Rudolph, unless otherwise noted or clearly part of the author's recollection are from this source.

[3] Yale Herald Online, 1997. "The Legacy of a Modern Genius," by Joshua Olsen.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Metropolis Insites, April 1998. "Ashes to Ashes," by Philip Nobel.

Exhibition Acknowledgments

The New York School of Interior Design expresses its appreciation to The Paul Rudolph Foundation, Ernst Wagner and Modulightor, Ezra Stoller/Esto, and Judith Newman for their cooperation in making the exhibition possible and to Robert Drake Design and Shelly Zacher for the design of the exhibition. We also wish to thank guest curator Rocco Leonardis for conceiving the idea for the exhibition and to his editor Dorothy Irwin for her assistance with the essay on Paul Rudolph.