Urban Design

RUDOLPH vis-à-vis THOMPSON

Left: Paul Rudolph, architect and urbanist. Photo: Library of Congress – Prints and Photographs Division.

Right: Benjamin Thompson, architect and urbanist. Photo: http://architectuul.com.

Vis-à-vis is a French phrase which translates as: face-to-face. It has been applied in assorted, quite literal ways, for example: for the kind of carriage wherein passengers sit in that configuration. Here’s the Queen being conveyed in a vis-à-vis:

Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Ascot races.  Photo:  www.phrases.org.uk

Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Ascot races.

Photo: www.phrases.org.uk

But we frequently see it used in the a rather less literal sense, to mean a direct contrast between two arguments, or two examples, or two sets of evidence, or two points-of-view. Making a case for policy, by using starkly contrasting examples, is an effective way to examine a point or advocate for a specific course-of-action.

A powerful example is a contrast that’s built into the DNA of the United States: it’s in the founding document, the Declaration of Independence. A key passage states:

Prudence, indeed, will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shewn, that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed.

Then, vis-à-vis, it states the contrasting case:

But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.

It then it goes on to present evidence, by listing a devastating set of abuses. It is an effective document, and—even today—still moving to read in-full.

We’ve just come across another example of a contrasting vis-à-vis—this interesting article, by David N. Fixler, which invokes Paul Rudolph:

The Paul in the headline is Paul Rudolph, and the Ben is Benjamin Thompson. Readers of these posts will probably need no introduction to Rudolph—but some words on Thompson may be of use.

Benjamin Thompson (1918-2002) was an almost exact contemporary of Rudolph—indeed, they were born in the same year. He was an architect and urbanist, and was associated with two significant firms: The Architects Collaborative (of which Walter Gropius was a partner), and then his own firm, Benjamin Thompson and Associates. Many of his works—particularly when he was associated with Gropius—were of canonically Modern design, often in the “Harvard Box” mode. Later, in connection with his serious thinking about the power of architecture to enliven and energize urban (and other) settings, he started to incorporate more stimulating forms into his architecture. Like Rudolph, he worked in many parts of the country, and on many different building types—and his firm was very successful with abundant commissions. We’d like to note one of his most well-known designs, a work of architecture of enduringly fine quality: his Design Research flagship store-building in Cambridge, MA (built for a company he also founded).

The Design Research store in Cambridge, MA, first opened in 1969.    Photo:    Daderot

The Design Research store in Cambridge, MA, first opened in 1969.

Photo: Daderot

But what Benjamin Thomson will probably be most remembered for is his conception, planning & design of“festival marketplaces”—especially incollaborationwith legendary developer and urbanist James W. Rouse. These are concentrated, walkable urban settings that combine shopping, dining (interior and al fresco), food stalls, pushcarts, plazas, bright graphics and banners, seating, preservation and/or renovation of vintage architecture (or new buildings that evoked the enchantment of older ones), and public art. The most famous of these are Harborplace in Baltimore, South Street Seaport in New York, Jacksonville Landing in Florida, and Faneuil Hall-Quincy Market in Boston. These projects were such successes, and such invigorating islands of urban energy, that they were seen and studied as almost magically effective models for civic design and revitalization. Purportedly, not all remained successful, as some contend is shown in the alleged uneven fortunes of places likeSouth Street Seaport and Jacksonville Landing.

The author of the Ben & Paul article is David N. Fixler, FAIA, who has been president of the New England chapter of DOCOMOMO. Mr. Fixler is extremely knowledgeable about the many tributaries of Modernism, and is well-qualified to talk about the contrasting approaches of figures like Rudolph and Thompson. As he points out, it’s Thompson’s “festival marketplaces” which exemplify the “vis-à-vis” to Paul Rudolph’s approach to larger-scale urban design.

The article makes astute annotations on the parallel tracks of the two architects, and equally insightful observations on how their approaches to design manifestly diverge. This is markedly shown in photographs, in the article, of models for two projects. The Thompson model is on top, and the Rudolph model is below:

The two approaches, of Thompson and Rudolph, are embodied in architectural models from each, which are depicted in the article.    Image: a page from the article, “Ben & Paul” by David N. Fixler, in the Spring,2011 issue of Architecture Boston magazine.

The two approaches, of Thompson and Rudolph, are embodied in architectural models from each, which are depicted in the article.

Image: a page from the article, “Ben & Paul” by David N. Fixler, in the Spring,2011 issue of Architecture Boston magazine.

Here are passages from Mr. Fixler’s fine text, which we think represent the essence of the argument:

The next leap is to the scale of the city, where the contrast of their respective philosophies is most starkly revealed. Here the idea of the “festival marketplace” — and the city as theater — becomes most evident in Thompson’s work. His buildings are backdrops, armatures that enable the unfolding of a colorful, flavorful, and (most important) desirable urban experience. As these expand into the realm of the unbuilt or partially realized megaproject — such as the Custom House Development in Dublin, or Harumi 1 Chome in Japan — the architecture remains unassertive and almost self-deprecating relative to the splendor of the experience.

In contrast, Rudolph asserts a utopian ideal about the ability of architecture to mold one’s experience of both the institution and the city. Nowhere is this more evident than in the 1962–71 Boston Government Services Center (Lindemann and Hurley) buildings — which stand, imperfectly realized, quasi-ruinous, but exalting in their formal glory, less than 1,000 yards from the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. It is easy to point to this complex as an act of architectural hubris — formally virtuosic but utterly dystopian from the perspective of the pedestrian either experiencing the complex at street level or trying to navigate its labyrinthine plan — but it is nonetheless heroic, if seriously flawed. At the larger urban scale, analogous with Thompson’s revitalization of the urban waterfront, one need look no further than Rudolph’s 1967 proposal for the New York Graphic Arts Center, a megastructure that builds on the modular principle of Safdie’s Habitat ’67 with the scale, utopian vigor, and structural pyrotechnics of the Japanese Metabolists.

There is a final lesson in comparing the models prepared for this project and those that Thompson’s office built for its large urban projects. Rudolph’s is monochromatic, minimally populated, mysteriously lit from within and relentlessly focused on the architecture as spectacular, theatrical sculpture that backs a hard edge up to the city while opening out to the Manhattan waterfront and the infinite beyond. Thompson’s, by contrast, are bright, colored, heavily populated, bannered, and snugly embedded within their urban context.

These two architectural approaches couldn’t be more vis-à-vis!

We may live in an era of concentrating wealth and power, but the general discourse is consumerist-populist (with a sharp orientation to entertainment and spectacle.) So there’s a strong disposition—these days we’d say meme—to publicly decry the individual design genius, and instead valorize anything that seems less formal, less controlled, and with a bigger, more colorful “menu” (in all senses). Moreover, anti-elitism has been an ever self-replicating thread throughout our history—so the work of “heroic” strong-willed designers (which entail creating total, highly-directed architectural experiences), have become a “hard sell”.

We’d opine that Thompson was offering an urbanism (and architecture) that is a delivery system for various kinds of simulative entertainment—especially shopping and dining. We’re not-at-all against stimulation or entertainment—but Rudolph is offering something else. His architecture—through its sculptural, spatial, textural, and material qualities—itself provides the stimulation. And, while Rudolph’s architecture can offer pleasurable encounters, it can also truly offer more: it can prompt experiences of the sublime, of peace, of meditation, of inquiry, and of exaltation.

We’ll go for that.