Conversation at 23 Beekman Place - Circa 1996
Paul Rudolph: The Late Work is a fascinating book by Roberto de Alba, which covers work done by Paul Rudolph in the final period of his half-century career. Published by the Princeton Architectural Press, the designs shown in the book were hand-picked by Rudolph, and it includes sketches, presentation drawings, plans, models, photographs, and introductory text about each project. The result shows the broad range of Rudolph's work: both the many building types he worked on, as well as the multiplicity of approaches he took to meeting each design challenge. The book also includes introductory writings by Roberto de Alba, Mildred Schmertz, and Robert Bruegmann.
Among the material presented in this valuable book, one of the most fascinating texts is an interview with Paul Rudolph, conducted about a year before his 1997 passing. The interview---really, a conversation---was conducted by Peter Blake. Blake, who knew Rudolph for many years, was an architect---but he was really best known for his work in architectural writing and publishing, having been the author of several books, and the editor of two journals: Architectural Forum and Architecture Plus. A significant part of the interest of this conversation is that it includes Rudolph's insightful comments on Mies' Barcelona Pavilion, and shows Rudolph's fascinating analytical drawings of the Pavilion's famous plan.
We are grateful to Roberto de Alba for permission to include this fascinating document on our website.
[Note: in transcribing this text, we have retained most of the grammar, spelling, capitalization, and construction.]
CONVERSATION AT 23 BEEKMAN PLACE
Interview with Paul Rudolph by Peter Blake
The following is a transcript of a conversation between Paul Rudolph and Peter Blake that took place about a year before Rudolph’s untimely death in 1997. Here the two longtime friends discuss matters of architecture, a topic they had discussed many times before and one that continued to interest them.
PB: It seems to me that in all the work you did in the 1940s and 1950s, structure was invariably the dominant aspect. Since those days, structure has become less and less visible in your work. Am I right, and if so, why did that happen?
PR: Of course it's true. However, structure is only one of the great organizing principles available to an architect. But principles are often at war with each other. The art of architecture and its true character starts with the reconciliation of inherently conflicting principles. In some of my early buildings, these conflicts were not always reconciled, and the structure often dominated other considerations. An example: the suspended, catenary-curved steel-in-tension roof of the 1946 Healy Cottage in Sarasota, [Florida,] was OK on the outside, but the interior space was not successful. The apparent instability of the sagging ceiling and the thrusting of space upward to the perimeter, inviting you to leave—this violated the essential nature of an intimate, domestic space. The Healy Cottage taught me that the physiological nature of the space in every building was really more important than the form of the structure. Structure becomes the dominant architectural principle for buildings that have only one space—buildings devoted to transportation, for example, like bridges, raised railroads, etc.
PB: But the structure in your earlier buildings seemed a means of shaping the space within.
PR: Yes, but appropriate and expressive space is the ultimate architectural goal. Structure seldom humanizes, but appropriate space always touches humans.
PB: It seems to me that the way you used to express structure was identifiably your way.
PR: Perhaps, but structure is very different in principle for small versus large buildings. I'm often overcome by various itches or conceits inherent in structure. But structure alone never really humanizes the whole, except in small structures or smaller single-function large-span buildings. The interplay between structure and the other great principles of architecture is especially rich in domestic work, but in large buildings—a twentieth-century phenomenon—there are only a few structural systems that are efficient. In such buildings the structure is for the most part lost, or you have an element of the structure exposed—but this is usually insufficient to organize the whole.
Of course, true structural and architectural dominance becomes most eloquent with very large spans. A catenary curve is most eloquent and efficient for a large-span bridge; but there must be a hundred ways to accommodate the small spans inherent in a house.
That is one reason why houses are so difficult and so compelling. The larger the span, the fewer the ways to efficiently solve the problem. Probably eighty percent of twentieth-century structures are essentially cellular in nature, but their functions seldom allow more than a column or a single bent to be revealed, leaving structure as a great artificial organizing device out of the running.
A repetitive and visually distracting structure in a large building can easily become overwhelming, even irritating. Large twentieth-century buildings often present a single column (reduced to a fragment of the whole, revealing nothing, really). Even in a Mies office building, the structure is largely symbolic, seeming almost to be decorative. You are presented with a single column, and you cannot really understand how it relates to the whole as to the part.
PB: And so, in some of your recent and larger buildings the structure tends almost to disappear.
PR: Yes. An ant is different from an elephant. Structure often dominates in smaller buildings, but in larger projects the structure is often lost, and circulation dominates. You might want to elaborate the joints, the connections between columns and beams and so on, but the continuous quality of structure is lost in large cellular buildings, and the parts exposed take on a surreal quality. Large cellular buildings are a twentieth-century phenomenon of unprecedented size—offices, apartments, hospitals, schools—that are assembled in some fashion, and the actual structure makes its primary contribution at entrances and at circulation elements. But the whole is seldom understood via the structure.
In such larger projects the multiplication of structural details reads as a repetition of almost decorative artifacts, robbing architecture of one of its most potent devices. In larger projects the circulation dominates (vertically and horizontally), inherently dependent on elevators, escalators, etc., and mechanical devices like cars, television sets, etc., are universally accepted.
Circulation space is often handled in a very different way from the cellular portions. The Renaissance understood the principle better than we do.
PB: You mentioned that in many larger buildings the spatial cellular organization tends to dominate. You seem to have become quite obsessed with the concept of cellular modules in recent years.
PR: Of course.
PB: And you often talk about "scale." What is scale? How would you define it?
PR: The usual definition of scale is the relationship of the human dimension to the environment. We talk about a building being "in scale" or "out of scale," which is really nonsense. Most buildings that really count have multiple scales. Buildings need to be understandable in their varying dimensions—sight, sound, smell, relationship to their environment, their spot on the globe, materials, climate, the mode of approaching, modes of movement (i.e., walking, automobile, train, subway, bus, plane), etc. All of this is modified by our cultural memory and the twentieth-century contributions to transportation. The quickly moving vehicle has transformed the possibilities of scale as an architectural tool to help remind us of our humanity. Our modes of transportation will change in unpredictable ways, but the population explosion ensures that "getting there" will be with us for some time, and this changes our understanding of the environment.
PB: In what way?
PR: You understand buildings quite differently from a distance, or close-up, or while you are in motion, and so a new understanding, an extra dimension, is required. For instance, a dominant building, socially speaking, needs to be read from a great distance. It is possible, of course, to render a building to "read" as a one-story structure only from a distance, like the High Court Building in Chandigarh...
Scale is really like a zoom lens—it is the tool that an architect can use to make a distant building seem closer or to make a nearby building recede into the distance. It's as if you were a painter and had the ability to make certain elements in your painting dominate, while others read as background buildings. Traditionally, architects understood this very well. We can't or don't build comprehensible cities, partly because the increase of size (not to be confused with scale) of our projects has changed drastically and partly because we do not use the architectural principles of scale. Today we build diagrams of buildings, with very little relationship to the past, present, or future.
PB: To most people, there are certain elements in buildings that establish the scale or the dimensions of a building. People know, for example, the size of a typical brick and the height of a door. Now, how can we know the size of something like your "twentieth-century brick," your cell? How can we relate to it? How can it help us establish the scale of a building?
PR: Of course, there are certain elements in a building that don't change in their dimension—the relationship of tread to riser, the average door height, and so on. The twentieth century has already affected our sense of scale. We come in physical contact with moving elements, and their dimensions are a part of our memory.
PR: A new scale-giving element is the automobile. It has become a significant scale-building element, and the relationship of the human dimension to those of the car provides a bridge that relates to the dimension of the twentieth-century brick. It may become a building block that is going to be quite as familiar as the general dimensions of the automobile.
PB: I am not sure I understand.
PR: Well, whether we like it or not, the car and the highways built for it all determine the maximum permissible size of the twentieth-century brick. The new "brick" can legally be only about twelve or fourteen feet wide, and about sixty feet long and ten feet high. It is really a "trailer," and its dimensions are legally established. These dimensions become very familiar and therefore are a measuring device. Architecturally, the vertical dimension is the most important, and this has the possibility of turning a scaleless high-rise apartment building into a vertical village.
PB: Why are you so much interested in this twentieth-century brick? It isn't that you are a technocrat?
PR: Obviously not. It is one way of humanizing the urban scene (certainly not the only one).
PB: What you are saying, if I understand you correctly, is that there was a time when the scale of a building was established by some familiar object, like a brick or a decorative detail; but today that familiar object that establishes scale is a car. Is that what you mean?
PR: The car, as a measure, has been added to the heights of step, door, etc. The scale of any building is a multiplicity of scales, not one scale. The small and large scales are the easiest to understand. But most difficult is the intermediate scale.
PB: And the small scale?
PR: You can see it most clearly in Gothic architecture, where you might have a niche in a wall which will contain a portal, and then, as you come closer, you see the door and the detail of the decoration around it, and you begin to relate all the details to one another and to yourself. One reason we don't seem to know how to decorate buildings properly is that we don't really understand scale. The intricate use of the plastic arts in the past has been a way to break down the scale of a building, to bring it closer to the human dimension, but artists don't often have a chance or interest in modifying scale.
PB: We have been talking about scale and about structure. You like to refer to "the DNA of architecture"—I guess that means the inherent nuclear structure of architecture—and you list among the elements that make up this DNA scale, structure, and also site, space, function, and spirit. I guess the importance of site is self-evident.
PR: European travel helps to understand site, or urbanism.
PB: I remember that you told me once that the first sight of those great cities of the past, when you went to Europe, absolutely stunned you.
PR: I couldn't believe it! I had studied the usual things, the history of architecture presented in the usual way. And then I saw those cities! And I realized that the ensemble, the way in which these building had been related to each other and to their site, was the most potent architectural concept of all. I don't know why I had not understood it before. But the fact is that there is very little true urbanism in North America, and my only experience had been in the South, where we had a number of Greek-revival buildings that demonstrated how a building might relate to its surroundings. But in the South the only urbanistic experience one ever had would be on the town square—one- or two-story-high freestanding buildings, a town hall, a courthouse, a church or two—but no real, defined space. Architectural space leaked everywhere, and there was no effort at allowing the most socially important building to dominate the whole; and so any dialogue between the buildings was lost. I had seen photographs of the great cities of Europe, of course, and then I saw the Piazza San Marco! The reality of this piazza remains to me one of the greatest creations of men. I didn't understand until I experienced it that it had taken a thousand years or so to get it built. It all hangs together today, because of scale and space, not style. There are many styles, but they are unified by a profound understanding of scale and space. The buildings "talk" with each other and sing their elegance to the space of the piazza. The way the cathedral appropriately commands the piazza and is reinforced by its flanking buildings. Further down the hierarchy of building types, the Doge's Palace commands the entry space to the waterfront and acts as a foil to the cathedral. The campanile acts as pivoting point, joining the inner part of the plaza with the water beyond. Each part of the Piazza San Marco is related to every other part and yet no building is watered down in the process. The strength of composition, especially in the connections of one part to other, is especially fine, because each architect, through time, paid attention to the past but looked forward to a most invigorating future. The actuality was extraordinarily revealing, and I return often to learn anew from it. And I had thought the Acropolis was flat when I saw it in plans and photographs in books! Obviously, the sections of buildings and urbanism are always as important as the plan.
PB: Which is what the people at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts always used to say.
PR: I have always felt lucky that I started studying architecture in a school that followed the Beaux-Arts system.
PB: I think the element of space was the next item on your agenda of DNAs.
PR: Architectural space is possibly the single most important principle of architecture. Architectural spatial consideration gives any building its appropriate character. Obviously a religious building is very different from a house or factory, etc. No one has ever said to me make me a clear structure, but people have often spoken eloquently of appropriate architectural character. I find that non-architects often have a clearer insight into spatial qualities in architecture than many architects have.
PB: When you deal with light and when you try to design the way in which light will animate a space, don't you find this extremely difficult to predict—how your space is going to be animated by that light?
PR: I think you can predict exactly where the light is going to be, the angle and time of arrival, and so on. Since the beginning of time, people have been able to predict exactly how light will strike a wall, a niche, a building, a stretch of land.... I myself don't know how to take photographs, and it is incomprehensible to me how people can wait for the sun to be just in the right place; but I think we all begin to absorb the animation and sheer beauty of light intersecting architectural surfaces. We begin to understand how the psychology of architectural space is partially dependent on the way light animates that space. It really isn't all that difficult to think in terms of the movement of the light, but it does require three-dimensional thinking.
PB: Do you build large models of spaces or of entire buildings and observe the way light touches them?
PR: No, I usually prefer to work with drawings, often with colored pencils. I make many sketches, trying to imagine how the light will work within the space I am trying to design. If you look at the drawings that I made after I went to see Mies' Barcelona Pavilion, you'll see that I was trying to make diagrams of the light and shadow augmented by reflections from the materials, and the reflections would animate the different spaces. When working on the Tuskegee Chapel, I suggested a continuous slot of glass around the perimeter just below the roof, so the natural light enters the sanctuary diagonally. The roof is hyperbolic paraboloid in form for acoustic reasons, and the space rises diagonally and escapes through glass. The directions of the movement of space are in opposite but balanced directions, which is largely responsible for the dynamic quality of the space. In addition, there is a varying velocity of the movement of space. The floor is almost level, but the ceiling height above the floor constantly changes, so that the space moves rapidly where the ceiling is high but more slowly where the ceiling is low. All of this must be imagined, so that there is a balance between opposite movements of space and light.
PB: Do you enter the Tuskegee Chapel in the center?
PR: Certainly not. I never enter a religious building, auditorium, or any other large space in the middle, even if the largest door is there. I am afraid to enter a church in the middle! When I enter a Gothic cathedral, I always enter it on one side along the wall. It is terrifying to enter it down the center aisle. Camillo Sitte put his finger on something really important in his diagram of ideal square with entries at the corners.... He and Frank Lloyd Wright came together in that respect. When you enter a large space, you must try and enter it from a corner, from one side—never in the center. Going into a space down the middle is really scary! The whole idea of bi-axial symmetry is not consistent with twentieth-century multiple-axial symmetry. Although human beings seem to be more or less symmetrical, we usually present ourselves asymmetrically. You don't seem symmetrical at this moment. Usually people do not sit straight, upright, centered on someone or something, but cross their legs, lean on something, turn their heads, etc. Asymmetry is much more dynamic than symmetry.
PB: It has been suggested that a symmetrical building is a reflection of an authoritarian society—that it suggests that the emperor or the pope is going to put in an appearance at the very center of things and that there is never any doubt as to who is important. Nobody who is important is ever supposed to sneak in from the side.
PR: Well, there is that element, of course. But look at Philip Johnson's Glass House. There is no reason on earth why it should have bi-axial symmetry, but it is saved by the diagonal walks and whole sequence of entry and the arrangement of interior elements. Otherwise it would be pompous, which it is not.
PB: And, of course, since you can see through the house, you realize that the interior is completely asymmetrical.
PR: You are no sooner invited in than you are invited out!
PB: We really haven't talked about function at all. It is one of your DNAs, yet it seems much less important to any of us today than it used to be. There was a time, as we all know, when function was supposed to be the dominant element, the determinant in modern architecture. What happened?
PR: The idea of function is complex, because it seems to impose distinct limitations on architecture and tends to play down its true nature; it has led people in opposite directions. Actually, there should be another name for functionalism—it's not what the great leaders of twentieth-century architecture really meant.
PB: When one looks at the buildings that we really like to be in, the chances are that a good many of them were really designed for a purpose very different from the one they serve today.... So the conventional explanation of functionalism doesn't seem to apply any longer.
PR: Yes. It's one of the reasons one comes down on the side of human intelligence, I guess. There are correctives that come into what you just described—the way the uses of buildings change—and those correctives are more profound than the simple idea of functionalism. I am really a great believer in human instinct, not professional opinions. So the functions of buildings keep on changing as people respond to them.
PB: There is another DNA that you have listed as one of your determinants of architecture, and that is spirit. What is that supposed to mean?
PR: I don't really know what it means either. My basic point is that spirit defines the limit of what architecture can do and its relationship to other disciplines. That is my principal point of disagreement with the greatest architects of the twentieth century. They believed that architecture could do everything. Nonsense. I believe, for example, that something like Times Square, its vitality and the way it works, comes from multiple sources, most not architectural. When architects dominate the whole, a certain dullness occurs; they rob it of real vitality. I think that is true of other fields as well when architects get a hold of them—landscape, for example—because architects see it in a certain way. The actual spirit of these things, of that vitality, comes about through other disciplines, at least to a degree.
Spirit, obviously, is intangible, but it affects communication, the commingling of several disciplines, and the ability to remain intelligible on many different levels .... It also has to do with appropriateness and with architectural space and scale .... One of my favorite examples is the Watts Towers, in Los Angeles, built by Simon Rodia, who was a genuine "primitive," an Italian-born mason, who spent much of his life building the Towers. I see his work as a fantastic image of what the city might become, complete with transportation systems.
PB: Times Square is a chaotic happening, not designed by anybody—perhaps a proper symbol of our time. Does this mean that we are at the end of architecture?
PR: No, I don't agree with that. I believe that every great city has this naughty, good-time aspect whether we like it or not, which is very much a part of any great city. And especially when it is juxtaposed with a space like the Ecole des Beaux-Arts park of the New York Public Library, just a block away from Times Square, a park that is a composition, if there ever was one, with its solitude and sense of quietness and response. It's this juxtaposition of the two kinds of space, of Times Square and the Public Library block and park—one reinforces the other, one is not complete without the other. Both are equally important.
When you start organizing a place like Times Square, you ruin it. It isn't much good in daytime, of course, but it is quite magical at night. I don't find it so chaotic, incidentally....
PB: And when architects try to organize it or give it some kind of form, they seem to ruin it.
PR: Right. We have certain limitations as architects. That is part of what I mean by "spirit." It is the corrective factor of human intelligence, in all fields.
PB: So there we have it: site, space, scale, structure, function, and spirit. Have you noticed every time you talk about one of those things, you seem to touch upon or refer to Mies's Barcelona Pavilion in one way or another? Why is that?
PR: To me, the Barcelona Pavilion is Mies' greatest building. It is one of the most human buildings I can think of—a rarity in the twentieth century. It is really fascinating to me to see the tentative nature of the Barcelona Pavilion. I am glad that Mies really wasn't able to make up his mind about a lot of things—alignments in the marble panels, or the mullions, or the joints in the paving. Nothing quite lines up, all for very good reasons. It really humanizes the building.
PB: My guess is if he had had a chance to redesign it about twenty years later, he might have messed it up—made it too regular, aligned everything....
PR: Possibly. The courtyards and the interior space cast a spell on you which you will remember forever.
PB: If you were to put your finger on it, what do you think you learned from the Barcelona Pavilion?
PR: I made a few sketches that are meant to illustrate the impact of the actual building [as rebuilt in 1992 on the same site as the original 1929 Pavilion], which is very different from drawings, photos, etc. The Barcelona Pavilion is religious in its nature and is primarily a spatial experience. We have no accepted way of indicating space, and therefore the sketches made are very inadequate. One is drawn by the sequence of space through it. Multiple reflections of the twentieth century modify the architecture of light and shadow in a manner that no other building can equal. Twentieth-century concepts have affected all of the past. Reflections are organized so that shadows are lit and become a spatial ornamentation for the whole. These shadows and reflections are most intense at crucial junctures, such as the principal entrances, or turning points in the circulation. For instance, a forest is created via reflections and refractions in the marble and glass surrounding you. This multiplicity of reflections unites the exterior and interior but also helps to explain the mystery of the whole. I think it is simply unprecedented in architecture and the greatest of all of Mies' buildings.
PB: Your first drawing is a series of diagrams showing the circulation through the building. On the east is the more familiar entrance, used by the general public; on the west is the entrance for the King and Queen of Spain and used by other dignitaries at the time of the opening.
PR: Yes. The circulation from the east leads you up a flight of steps that leads to the platform on which the Pavilion stands. This flight of stairs is spatially compressed, and when you reach the top of the platform, the pool causes you to turn 180 degrees. This turn prepares you for the compressed entry with a glass wall on the right and the green Tinian marble wall on the left, all modified by reflected trees. This squeezed space leads directly into the larger dominating space that contains the major function of the Pavilion. This flow of space continues all the way through the building in a highly disciplined way; nothing is left to chance. In my diagram the compressed space, the liberated space, the movement of space diagonally, vertically, and curved space modify the rectangular plan in a very clear and surprising fashion. The space is revealed but also hidden. The density of space is greater as it approaches the defining planes that form the Pavilion. This inward pull to the defining planes is offset by the reflective surfaces, so that most of the surfaces vibrate. I have tried to define the essential fluidity of these spaces and the interconnection of the inside and the outside. This highly disciplined flow of space is all-pervasive a natural constriction and release of space that leads you on, on, on; everything is in motion, and you are carried along almost by unseen but felt forces.
PB: How does it work?
PR: The space becomes more dense the closer it comes to the walls and more fluid as it approaches the center. My second drawing is an attempt to illustrate this. The diagram indicates the way one follows the prescribed path in and out of the building. The angle of vision as it meets the wall surfaces is similar to the angle of reflection. Byzantine structures, with their curved and reflective surfaces, approached the same effect, but this is very different because the universe is also reflected. Reflections in the Barcelona Pavilion augment and embellish the spatial organization and never contradict the thrust of the whole, for it is integral to the whole.
PB: Your third drawing describes the circulation through the Pavilion in still another way.
PR: The dots represent various natural places where you might pause, where you might stop, and turn, and look around. Everyone sees the world through a 22.5 degree cone of vision around a horizontal line about five feet four inches above the ground. I think Mies studied these angles of vision very carefully. Nothing has been left to chance, for at each turn the clarity of composition remains composed and its fluidity and its interrelationships remain intact. By the way, the importance of the 22.5 degree of the angle of vision as a method of organizing and moving through space is not really a twentieth-century discovery. The Acropolis, I believe, was organized much in the same way, for it utilized the universal angle of vision, lending coherence to the elaborate and unparalleled organization of its sequence of space. In fact, I think the organization of great European urban spaces show that this angle of vision must have been understood....
PB: Did you ever talk to Mies about these things?
PR: No, but I believe that the reason the Barcelona Pavilion seems so serene, so logical, so peaceful, so spiritual is due to Mies' interest in movement, in space, in his interlocking spaces and his analysis of seeing.
PB: In your fourth drawing you seem to have concentrated on the ends of walls, the sharp edges that are a characteristic of a freestanding wall panel of the sort employed by Mies in this Pavilion. What are you trying to say?
PR: The revealed ends of the walls, the edges, are a method of leading you in a very logical way to investigate what is behind and beyond this screen. It also celebrates the clarity of structure juxtaposed with a non-load-bearing wall or screen. The idea that is implied in all these spaces in the Barcelona Pavilion is one of the reasons for its power. The sketch suggests that curved space and diagonal space is implied in spite of the literal geometry. The seemingly haphazard arrangement of divisions of space in the building fol-lows a very consistent pattern. Planes in space—as opposed to the traditional walls with holes for light and access cut into them—make clear the essential method of twentieth-century building. However, planes in space at the Pavilion are spatially much more important, because the mirror-like finish of the columns reflects what is near, and columns do not count for very much.
PB: It seems to me that you are always conscious of another space and then another beyond those walls and that you are drawn from one to the next.
PR: I should say that all these things are related one to the other. The invisible, diagonal, radiating planes from the ends of the walls—planes that don't really exist at all but are implied everywhere—are a profound contribution to the spatial fluidity of the Pavilion.
PB: Another aspect that seems to play a significant role is that you keep picking up reflections of that Kolbe sculpture—the image keeps being reflected in unexpected and surprising ways.
PR: I really wanted to make a drawing from the location of the sculpture, indicating the Pavilion as seen from that point—as if I were standing there. The whole notion of the placement and power of that sculpture is a pro-found mystery to me. Although the sculpture's placement is not the best, I think I know some of the reasons Mies placed it where he did; but I have never gotten it all down on paper.
PB: What makes that sculpture so important in your eyes?
PR: It is the point where the whole Barcelona Pavilion becomes most clear. If you were the sculpture and you were looking south from that location and east, you would become aware of all the largest dimensions of space in the building and the terraces and beyond. You would be seeing the layers of transparency and translucency, reflections of the unseen and seen, and implied space presented in multiple ways. And the sculpture would be seen simultaneously, implying movement of a different order. If you stood where that sculpture stands, you would have that multiple view of things all around you—the view the cubists always talked about.
PB: And conversely, of course, there is hardly a place on the platform that the Pavilion sits on that doesn't offer a glimpse of that sculpture. So it becomes an ever present reference point as you walk around in the Pavilion and on the terraces.
PR: Yes, the sculpture seems literally to move. And one reason is the placement, although the sculpture is often hidden in actuality and visible only in reflections. It is very much with you all the time, even though it stands in its own private space, where not even fools can tread. It is a kind of focal point, but not in the usual sense. It is given new life by the Pavilion itself. The dialogue between the sculpture and the building is unlike any other dialogue between a work of art and a building that I know of. It is one of the few times a sculpture has been used as an integral part of the whole, and this gives the sculpture added meaning.
PB: When you saw the Barcelona Pavilion for the first time—in reality, not in photographs—was it at all as you expected it to be?
PR: The reality of the Pavilion, to me, is totally unlike what I expected it to be after seeing all those photographs, models, and drawings, for it demonstrates the inadequacy of our studies. I expected it to be a composition of rectangles and minor and major axes, but it isn't that way at all. It is very fluid, and the space moves in ways that are difficult to imagine.... My diagrams suggest a circular motion around the ends of the walls. That may be one way of describing it. In my opinion, the columns, which all of us thought were so important, stand for almost nothing, for they reflect their environment. When I first saw the various drawings and photographs, I thought the columns were the organizing factor of the Pavilion because of the reflective nature of the chromium-plated steel .... But they are almost negligible. The lustrous power of those marble walls—they are almost like paintings in space, especially those onyx Tinian marble slabs. The walls of marble and glass and the imagined diagonal planes really shape the spaces in the building.
PB: Your fifth drawing deals primarily with light and shade.
PR: The relationship of light and shadow and reflections seems to change constantly. And there is no glare in the Barcelona Pavilion at all. The reflections of bright Spanish sunlight from the marble walls and from the Travertine floors onto the ceiling, all of that balances the light and eliminates glare.
PB: Is the ceiling lit primarily by reflection from the pools?
PR: Not only from the pools. Most of the reflection is from the marble floors. Except, of course, there is that black rug in the main area of the Pavilion. I had never understood the importance of that black rug until I actually saw it.
PB: What exactly is its importance?
PR: It is the center, the focus of the Pavilion. It is like the inglenook in a Frank Lloyd Wright house or in a medieval castle. It is the most intense and most emphatic center—and it is just created by a simple black rug! It is the antithesis of the reflective marble flooring. It is like a black hole; it picks up no light. The Barcelona Pavilion is a study in the handling of natural light. Really unparalleled, I think. Mies' understanding of light and shade and tonalities was really profound.
PB: Are there no skylights in the Pavilion's first roof?
PR: I often wondered why there were no skylights. In a sense there are, of course—the space above the small pool, for example, and the space between the outer walls and the glass walls that form the actual enclosure. Mies did not want to make a window, needless to say. I once tried to find a way of improving the Pavilion by inserting skylights. It was totally wrong, of course. He was trying to emphasize the power of that black rug at the center and to reach for light as the space reaches out toward the perimeter of the Pavilion. If he had introduced light at the darkest point, in the center of the Pavilion, he would have deprived the space of that sense of protection in the one place where he wanted it passionately. So again, Mies was right.
PB: Is there any one thing about the Barcelona Pavilion that you feel affected you most profoundly in your work?
PR: Well, I am influenced by everything I see, hear, feel, smell, touch, and so on. The Barcelona Pavilion affected me emotionally. It is one of the great works of art of all time. I could not understand at first why it affected me as it did. I never really liked the outside of it. But the inside of the Pavilion transports you to another world, a more spiritual world. By the way, you realize what you are doing, don't you? The two things you are getting out of me are the twentieth-century brick and the Barcelona Pavilion. People are going to think I am half mad!
PB: I very much doubt it. Let's go out and have some lunch.
Peter Blake, an architect, is the former head of the architecture and design department of the Museum of Modern Art, editor in chief of Architectural Forum, and chairman of the department of architecture at Catholic University. He has written for many professional and popular magazines and has taught and lectured in the United States and abroad.