Paul Rudolph

Rudolph Writing: Quotations from an Architect

Paul Rudolph—at the writer’s task. It’s worth noting that the book which he’s leaning against is the    the most complete monograph on the Yale Art & Architecture Building    ever produced (other than the    fine collection of photographs by Ezra Stoller   ). The book, published by    Jaca    in Italy, includes extensive analytical and measured drawings. © The Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation.

Paul Rudolph—at the writer’s task. It’s worth noting that the book which he’s leaning against is the the most complete monograph on the Yale Art & Architecture Building ever produced (other than the fine collection of photographs by Ezra Stoller). The book, published by Jaca in Italy, includes extensive analytical and measured drawings. © The Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation.

When we were putting together the exhibits and catalogs for Paul Rudolph’s 2019 centenary, we infused them with quotations from the architect: ones which were pertinent to the various facets of the exhibits—and which allowed Rudolph to speak directly to the viewer.

In the course of that research for the centenary, and in subsequent work (answering questions from journalists, writing these blog posts…) we accumulated a trove of fascinating Rudolph quotations—on a great variety of subjects—and we thought it would be good to share them.


The first one we want to share is a passage that Rudolph seemed to value above all others: he used it (or variations of it) over the years, sometimes at the end of a speech. Reading it today—and experiencing its force it induces—one can see why:

"We must understand that after all the building committees, the conflicting interests, the budget considerations, and the limitations of his fellow man have been taken into consideration, the architect’s responsibility has just begun. He must understand that exhilarating, awesome moment.

When he takes pencil in hand, and holds it poised above a white sheet of paper, he has suspended there all that has gone before and all that will ever be." 

Paul Rudolph’s Pencils and Pens. Image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division

Paul Rudolph’s Pencils and Pens. Image: Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division


Here’s a selection of quotations from Rudolph’s various writings, speeches, and conversations. They indicate the many topics on which he focused, and are sometimes revealing of his creative process—the thinking of an architect who was both a practitioner and a teacher.

  • “We desperately need to relearn the art of disposing our buildings to create different kinds of space: the quiet, enclosed, isolated, shaded space; the hustling, bustling space, pungent with vitality; the paved, dignified, vast, sumptuous, even awe-inspiring space; the mysterious space; the transition space which defines, separates, and yet joins juxtaposed spaces of contrasting character. We need sequences of space which arouse one’s curiosity, give a sense of anticipation, which beckon and impel us to rush forward to find that releasing space which dominates, which acts as a climax and magnet, and gives direction.”

  • “The essential element in architecture is the manipulation of space. It is this essence which separates it from all other arts.”

  • “Things are quite chaotic. We are faced with a vast change of scale, new building forms which have not really been investigated, and the compulsions of the automobile. When faced with the truly new, the serious architect must search for solutions equally dramatic.”

  • “Architecture is a personal effort, and the fewer people coming between you and your work the better. … This is a very real problem, and you can only stretch one man so far. The heart can fall right out of a building during the production of working drawings, and sometimes you would not even recognize your own building unless you followed it through.”

  • “…we tend to build boxes and call them buildings.”

  • “I think every curve and line has to have real meaning; it cannot be arbitrary.”

  • “I’m pleased that the building touches people, and part of that is that people’s opinions oscillate about it. That’s okay. The worst fate from my viewpoint would be indifference.”

  • “In terms of how one goes about designing anything, you don't really know, or at least I don't know, until after the fact. There are so many elements that come into play that if you wait to figure out what it is you truly want to do once you have a project to work on there won't be enough time. You have to, as I see it, have a reservoir of things that you feel should be done and then you draw on that reservoir and hopefully apply elements from that reservoir in an intelligent fashion. Sometimes it doesn't work that way. Sometimes one is hell- bent for whatever reason to do certain things no matter what. That forcing can lead to obvious problems. You can have one hundred reasons why you do things after the fact. I'm just saying that for me it's a matter of getting your fingers on what you can and cannot do from a legal viewpoint, what it is the owner truly wants to do— but he doesn't necessarily tell you, you have to read between the lines— and what should be done ideally. … You have to know what's possible. Architecture is not a question of the purely theoretical if you're interested in building buildings. It's the art of what is possible.”

  • “I can say that in spite of all the rationalizations that architects go through, including myself, you can pay no attention to what architects say, you can only pay attention to what they do. The reason for that is a very real one. I'm compelled: I have no choice about certain combinations of forms, material, space, or architectural considerations. They egg me on. I know what they are, by and large— but not all of them— and I can be very clear about what they are. Now I can't tell you why spiraling space or the movement of space is what is so compelling for me, but it is. I can't tell you why the cantilever, the juxtaposition of forces, and the light and the heavy in terms of structure, is compelling, but it is. I can't tell you why the purposeful placement of architectural elements so that they catch the light in certain ways is compelling, but it is. I can't tell you why certain combinations of handling scale, which is for me second only to space in its importance, is compelling, but it is. I can't tell you why asymmetry as a method of organizing things is so much more compelling than symmetry— I think I've worked on two symmetrical buildings— but it is. ... All I'm really saying is that the most rational architect in the world is not to be trusted at all because there is no such thing as true rationalism when you are speaking of architecture. I can only tell you that I am totally turned off by certain things: the whole of Postmodernism, to start with. I'm equally turned on by certain elements of architecture. I used to wonder about that myself, but now I no longer wonder. I think it's an absolute nature of architecture.”

  • “Always, always, always, everything, everything, everything at the beginning. I'm a great believer in the big bang. You cannot isolate parts, ever. That's the reason why it's so important to know as much detail as possible at the very beginning.”

  • “Every man wants to belong to a “place”; he wants to believe that he is in the most wonderful spot on earth and he takes pride in how and where he spends his time on this earth. Emotion is the most important determinant in architecture.”

  • “I think everybody should nourish every last personal idiosyncrasy.”

  • “Our domestic interiors are often dominated by storage of mechanical, electronic, entertaining, work-saving devices of all kinds. Since they must be continually replaced, the architectural accommodation influences and often dominates the interior space. Furniture and equipment become architecture.”

  • “Decoration can be thought of as a precious assemblage of selected parts which is poured over the structure in such a manner that the parts adhere to important junctions—the junction of building to base, base to support, support to supported, building to sky and most important, building to user—as manifest at entry and opening.”

  • “I'm very selective about who I'm interested in. I would go around the world to see a Corbu building or a Wright building. I wouldn't go across the street to see some things. It's really true. I know it sounds terrible, but it's absolutely true. Because I'm interested in feeling and understanding, I learn from traditional architecture; I don't learn from modern architecture by and large. That the reason why I feel really lucky that I've traveled as much as I have.”

  • "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.”

  • “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 really never liked the outside of it. But the inside of the Pavilion transports you to another world, a more spiritual world.”

  • “You must understand that all my life I have been interested in architecture, but the puzzle for me, in many ways, is the relationship of Wright to the International Stylists. Now perhaps for you that seems beside the point, or very, very strange. It has a little bit to do with when you come into this world, and that is when I came to grow. Wright’s interest in structure was, to a degree. a psychological one. I am fascinated by his ability to juxtapose the very heavy, which is probably most clear, almost blatant, too blatant, in Taliesin West with the very, very light tent roof. It isn’t that his structures are so clear, because they are not. It is that he bent the structure to form an appropriate space. He would make piers three times the size that they needed to be in order to make it seem really secure. Or he would make the eave line two or three inches deep by all sorts of shenanigans, from a structural point. My God, what did to achieve that, because he thought it ought to light. I would agree with him in a moment, but the International stylists would not. Well. they did and they didn’t. It was the bad ones who did not. They didn’t know how, didn’t know why.”


Rudolph wrote & lectured throughout his career—and if you are interested in learning more about his thinking, the most concentrated collection of the architect’s words are in a book edited by Nina Rappaport:


It is published by the Yale School of Architecture and distributed by Yale University Press (and also available through Amazon.) The book contains not only essays by Rudolph, but also the texts of some of his speeches, as well as interviews.

writings book cover.jpg