Mies van der Rohe

MIES & RUDOLPH: A MYSTERY—SOLVED!

At the upper-left is a photo of Mies van der Rohe, taken during in 1958 during a review of student work at Yale.    Image: The picture, by James Righter, is as shown on a spread from “Pedagogy and Place” by Robert A. M. Stern and Jimmy Stamp—the authoritative book on the history of the architecture program at Yale.

At the upper-left is a photo of Mies van der Rohe, taken during in 1958 during a review of student work at Yale.

Image: The picture, by James Righter, is as shown on a spread from “Pedagogy and Place” by Robert A. M. Stern and Jimmy Stamp—the authoritative book on the history of the architecture program at Yale.

The great architect, Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), surrounded by students—and, among them, the already distinguished Phyllis Lambert. But what was the occasion and setting?—and whose arm it that, coming from the photo’s left edge?     The Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA) did some work on the photo, and the sliver of a face at the upper-left (the owner of that mysterious arm) began to become clearer.    Photo: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation archives, with grateful acknowledgment for the photographic enhancement work done by the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA).

The great architect, Mies van der Rohe (1886-1969), surrounded by students—and, among them, the already distinguished Phyllis Lambert. But what was the occasion and setting?—and whose arm it that, coming from the photo’s left edge? The Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA) did some work on the photo, and the sliver of a face at the upper-left (the owner of that mysterious arm) began to become clearer.

Photo: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation archives, with grateful acknowledgment for the photographic enhancement work done by the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA).

LOST—AND FOUND

Things get lost: keys, glasses, papers, treasure…. Particularly the kind of papers that are, themselves, “treasures”: documents that give us insight into a historical situation, or proof of an extraordinary occurrence, of photos that establish a significant connection.

In the archives of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation, we recently came across such a treasure: a tiny, vintage, color snapshot—the image size being no bigger than a couple of inches across. The scene shows the great Modern architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, seated at the right side of a table. Behind him are several figures—students, we believe—and one of them is Phyllis Lambert. [Phyllis Lambert has made many profound contributions to architecture—not the least of which was to move her family to select Mies to design the Seagram Building. Later, she went on to attend architecture school, practice architecture, and found the great Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA).]

In front of Mies, on that table, is a drawing—and, reaching out from the left side of the photo is an arm, pointing to the drawing.

But whose arm? And where and under what circumstances was the photo taken? And what’s all this got to do with Rudolph?

We decided to investigate! But—before we reveal what we contend are the answers—it’s worth reviewing a few Mies-Rudolph connections.

MIES AND RUDOLPH

In one of our earlier posts, “The Seagram Building—By Rudolph?” we wrote about how Rudolph was—very briefly—on the list of the many architects that were considered for the Seagram Building. And in another post, “Paul Rudolph: Designs for Feed and Speed,” we showed both Mies’s and Rudolph’s comparable designs for highway/roadside restaurants.

We were also intrigued to learn that Paul Rudolph had been asked to be Mies’s successor at IIT! This is mentioned in “Pedagogy and Place” by Robert A. M. Stern and Jimmy Stamp, the grand history of Yale’s architecture program. That information-packed volume covers a century of architectural education, 1916-2016—and includes a large chapter devoted to the era when Rudolph was chair of the Architecture department (1958-1965).

The book relates:

Yet even before the Yale appointment, Rudolph was so respected as an architect-teacher, despite his youth, that in 1955 he was asked to succeed Mies van der Rohe as head of the architecture program at the Illinois Institute of Technology.

Rudolph did initially agree to take the position, but a few weeks later withdrew. It’s tantalizing to muse about what might have happened to mid-century architectural culture—especially in America—had he gone ahead to become head of ITT’s program. [One thing for sure: there would have been no Yale Art & Architecture Building—and the world would have been deprived of one of the greatest of Modern architectural icons.]

MIES’S VISIT TO YALE

At the age of 39, Paul Rudolph received his appointment to become chair of Yale’s architecture school and took office in 1958—a very young age, in that era, for such a position. One of the ways that he began to energize the school was to bring in a great diversity of instructors and guest critics (“jurors”)—and the book lists names of the many luminaries that he invited to the school: practitioners, teachers, and historians that were either already famous, or would later become so. Among them: James Stirling, Philip Johnson, Peter Smithson, Alison Smithson, Reyner Banham, Bernard Rudolfky, Ulrich Franzen, Edward Larrabee Barnes, John Johansen, Ward Bennett, Craig Elwood, and Sibyl Moholy-Nagy. Stern and Stamp also note:

…with the help of Phyllis B. Lambert (b. 1927), a reluctant Mies van der Rohe came to New Haven as a visiting critic for a portion of the fall 1958 term.

And among the book’s copious illustrations, there’s a photograph of Mies reviewing the work of Yale students.

Timothy M. Rohan’s magisterial study of Paul Rudolph’s life and work, The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, also mentions Mies’s visit.

OUR PHOTO…

In attempting to identify the owner of the arm, in our mysterious photo, we looked at it with a magnifying eye loupe. Rudolph was known for his tweedy suits, sometimes in earth-tone hues or grays—or something approaching a blending of the two. Under magnification, the material of the jacket sleeve which clothes that arm seemed to have the right color and texture—but, beyond that observation, we couldn’t arrive at much of a conclusion.

So we reached out to Ms. Lambert: we sent a scan of the photo and asked if she recalled whose arm it might be, the occasion of the photo, and whether it might have been made during a visit by Rudolph to IIT—or—a  visit by Mies to Yale.

Phyllis Lambert graciously responded, via her executive assistant, who sent us the below note:

Ms. Lambert Lambert has seen the snapshot and below are her comments:

 I cannot identify the students. I was at Yale from when Rudolph was dean and Mies visited for a few days at that time. And I also saw Albers walking in the street and talked briefly with him. To my knowledge, Rudolph never came to IIT when I was there.

 That overlaps with what is in Stern’s and Stamp’s book, and Rohan’s, about Mies coming to Yale. Moreover, we’ve also never heard of any visits by Rudolph to IIT.

But there’s more. Ms. Lambert’s executive assistant had a further gift for us, and she writes:

About the picture size and luminosity:

Attached is a scan of the picture we worked on a bit, bigger and with more luminosity which reveals a bit of the unidentified person’s face.

Here’s the enhanced version which they sent:

We think we've solved the mystery of who is on the left side of the photo---as the text of our article reveals. Photo: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation archives, with grateful acknowledgment for the photographic enhancement work done by the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA).

We think we've solved the mystery of who is on the left side of the photo---as the text of our article reveals.
Photo: Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation archives, with grateful acknowledgment for the photographic enhancement work done by the Canadian Center for Architecture (CCA).

Before the CCA did their enhancements, we really hadn’t noticed the “sliver” of face (the owner of that arm!) in the upper-left edge of the photograph—but we’re very glad to have it pointed-out to us. What can we see there?  A bit of a forward-leaning crest of hair, and a part of the face below—mainly the forehead. Hmmm. Well, one of the most prominent aspects of Rudolph’s post-World War II “look” was his crewcut, whose front silhouette included a small forward prow of hair—and that sat over a high forehead (with dark, curved eyebrows.)

Here’s a prime example, a well-known photograph of Rudolph which show those characteristics well:

A photographic portrait of Paul Rudolph:    Photo: from the archives of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

A photographic portrait of Paul Rudolph:

Photo: from the archives of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

Over the years, we’ve looked at nearly every known photograph of Rudolph. Comparing those photos (like the one above) to the bits of head in our snapshot, we think we see a possible match.

So might that be Paul Rudolph, emerging at the left edge of the snapshot?

Here’s a summary of the evidence:

  • Mies at Yale (invited by Rudolph when he was chair): The historical record establishes that as true.

  • Mies at Yale, with Phyllis Lambert:  Ms. Lambert recalls that.

  • Clothing:  The arm’s jacket sleeve material’s color and texture appear to match Rudolph’s well-known “uniform”.

  • Hair:  The front crest of hair, shown in the snapshot, matches known photo portraits of Rudolph

  • Forehead:  Ditto

  • Eyebrows:  Ditto

Conclusion: This is likely the only known photograph of Mies and Rudolph together.

Mystery solved? We think so!


The Seagram Building - by Rudolph?

The Seagram Building in New York City, under construction, designed by Mies van der Rohe. Photo: ReseachGate, Hunt, 1958

The Seagram Building in New York City, under construction, designed by Mies van der Rohe. Photo: ReseachGate, Hunt, 1958

Mies van der Rohe’s Seagram Building is one of the loftiest of the high icons of Modernism. For decades, it was almost a sacred object. Indeed, several of his buildings - the Barcelona Pavilion and the Farnsworth House (as well as the Seagram) - were maintained in a bubble of architectural adoration.

Is reverence for Mies going too far? Actually, it’s architect Craig Ellwood at Mies van der Rohe’s National Gallery museum building in Berlin (caught while photographing a sculpture.) Photo: Architectural Forum, November 1968

Is reverence for Mies going too far? Actually, it’s architect Craig Ellwood at Mies van der Rohe’s National Gallery museum building in Berlin (caught while photographing a sculpture.) Photo: Architectural Forum, November 1968

SEEMS INEVITABLE

Mies is considered to be one of the triad of architects (with Wright and Corb) who were the makers of Modern architecture - a holy trinity! Given Mies’ fame - and the quietly assured, elegantly tailored, serenely-strong presence of Seagram (much like Mies himself) - it seems completely inevitable that he would be its architect. Like an inescapable manifestation of the Zeitgeist, it is hard to conceive that there might have been an alternative to Mies being Seagram’s architect.

Mies is watching! Photo: The Charnel House –  www.charnelhouse.org

Mies is watching! Photo: The Charnel House – www.charnelhouse.org

BUT WAS IT?

In retrospect, seeing the full arc of Mies’ career and reputation, it does seem inevitable. Whom else could deliver such a project? A bronze immensity, planned, detailed and constructed with the care of a jeweler.

But - as usual - the historical truth is more complex and messy (and more interesting).

GETTING ON THE LIST(S)

Several times,  Phyllis Lambert has addressed the history of the Seagram Building and her key role in its formation. But the story is conveyed most articulately and fully in her book, Building Seagram—a richly-told & illustrated, first-person account of the making of the this icon, published by Yale University Press.

Phyllis Lambert’s fascinating book on the creation and construction of the Seagram Building. Image: Yale University Press

Phyllis Lambert’s fascinating book on the creation and construction of the Seagram Building. Image: Yale University Press

Part of the story is her search for who would be the right architect for the building. In one of the book’s most fascinating passages, she recounts the lists that were made of prospective architects:

“In the early days of my search, I met Eero Saarinen at Philip Johnson’s Glass House in Connecticut. In inveterate list-maker, he was most helpful in proposing what we draw up a list of architects according to three categories: those who could but shouldn’t, those who should but couldn’t, and those who could and should. Those who could but shouldn’t were on Bankers Trust Company list of February 1952, including the unimaginative Harrison & Abramovitz and the work of Skidmore , Owings & Merrill, which Johnson and Saarinen considered to be an uninspired reprise of the Bauhaus. Those who should but couldn’t were the younger architects, none of whom had worked on large buildings: Marcel Breuer, who had taught at the Bauhaus and then immigrated to the United States to teach with Gropius at Harvard, and, as already noted, had completed Sarah Lawrence College Art Center in Bronxville; Paul Rudolph, who had received the AIA Award of Merit in 1950 for his Healy Beach Cottage in Sarasota, Florida; Minoru Yamasaki, whose first major public building , the thin-shell vaulted-roof passenger terminal at Lambert-Saint Louis International Airport, was completed in 1956; and I. M. Pei, who had worked with Breuer and Gropius at Harvard and became developer William Zeckendorf’s captive architect. Pei’s intricate, plaid-patterned curtain wall for Denver’s first skyscraper at Mile High Center was then under construction.

The list of those who could and should was short: Le Corbusier and Mies were the only real contenders. Wright was there-but-not-there: he belonged to another world. By reputation, founder and architect of the Bauhaus Walter Gropius should have been on this list, but in design, he always relied on others, and his recent Harvard Graduate Center was less than convincing. Unnamed at that meeting were Saarinen and Johnson themselves, who essentially belonged to the “could but shouldn’t” category.”

WHAT IF’S

So Rudolph was on the list and considered, if briefly. Even that’s something—a real acknowledgment of his up-and-coming talent.

Moreover, Paul Rudolph did have towering aspirations. In Timothy Rohan’s magisterial study of Rudolph (also published by Yale University Press) he writes: 

“Rudolph had great expectations when he resigned from Yale and moved to New York in 1965. He told friends and students that he was at last going to become a ‘skyscraper architect,’ a life-long dream.”

That relocation, from New Haven to New York City, took place in the middle of the 1960’s—about a decade after Mies started work on Seagram. But, back about the time that Mies commenced his project, Rudolph also entered into his own skyscraper project: the Blue Cross / Blue Shield Building in Boston.

Paul Rudolph’s first large office building, a 12 storey tower he designed for Blue Cross/Blue Shield from 1957-1960. It is located at 133 Federal Street in Boston. Photo: Campaignoutsider.com

Paul Rudolph’s first large office building, a 12 storey tower he designed for Blue Cross/Blue Shield from 1957-1960. It is located at 133 Federal Street in Boston. Photo: Campaignoutsider.com

It takes a very different approach to skyscraper design, particularly with regard to the perimeter wall: Rudolph’s design is highly articulated, what Timothy Rohan calls a “challenge” to the curtain wall (of the type with which Mies is associated)—indeed, “muscular” would be an appropriate characterization. Moreover, Rudolph integrated mechanical systems into the wall system in an innovative way.

A closer view of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s highly articulated façade and corner, seen nearer to street-level. Photo: Courtesy of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Library

A closer view of the Blue Cross/Blue Shield’s highly articulated façade and corner, seen nearer to street-level. Photo: Courtesy of the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Library

And, Rudolph did end up fulfilling his post-Yale desire to become a “skyscraper architect”—at least in part. He ended up doing significantly large office buildings and apartment towers: in Fort Worth, Hong Kong, Japan, Singapore, and Jakarta. Each project showed him able to work with a variety of skyscraper wall-types, materials, and formal vocabularies. Rudolph, while maintaining the integrity of his architectural visions, also could be versatile.

And yet -

He was on that Seagram list, and we are left with some tantalizing “What if’s…

What if he had gotten the commission for Seagram—an what would he have done with it?