Modulightor

A ROOM FULL OF RUDOLPH: ARCHITECTURE STUDENTS DISCOVER PAUL RUDOLPH’S MODULIGHTOR BUILDING (AND SO MUCH MORE!)

Five sophomore design studios - nearly 70 students in all - at the City College of New York’s School of Architecture, all utilized Paul Rudolph’s MODULIGHTOR BUILDING as a focus for their design studies during the Spring 2019 semester. The drawing, shown here, is but one example of the very many exciting investigations conducted by the students. The Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation facilitated the students’ work, and were also invited as jurors for their final presentations. Photo of drawing: by Kelvin Dickinson, for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation. Photo of Modulightor Building : copyright by Annie Schlechter, from the archives of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation.

CAN RUDOLPH BE “TAUGHT”?

Johann Sebastian Bach was a composer greatly loved by Paul Rudolph (and Bach was the composer most frequently played by Rudolph, a life-long pianist.) As the culmination of the Baroque period, it has been said that “All roads lead to Bach—but none lead from him.” That seems true of Bach: towering genius that he was, the Baroque seems to terminate with him, and “followers” - if any - are but footnotes. Similar things have been said - indeed accused - of a variety of architects: those who have a special style, or a unique way of problem-solving, or virtuoso skills - but for whom it seems that no authentic “school” could follow and be nourished by the model architect’s oeuvre. Such a charge has been brought against Sullivan, Gaudi, Wright and, yes, even Paul Rudolph.

Yet Rudolph was a well-known educator: as Chair of Yale’s School of Architecture from 1958 to 1965, he truly re-molded the school, via his mark on the curriculum, selection of faculty, and personal presence. As a teacher, he had - at least according to their own testimony - a decisive effect on his students. Rudolph explicitly claimed that in his own work he was expressing strongly held opinions and prejudices - but when it came to guiding students, he sought to not impose his formal vocabulary, but rather to impart general principles and help the student clarify their own ideas. Since his students seem to have gone in the most diverse directions - not becoming “little Rudolphs” - that seems evidence for his non-directional claim.

Paul Rudolph with architecture students in the Yale Art & Architecture Building, giving a “desk crit” in 1963. Photo: copyright Ezra Stoller

Paul Rudolph with architecture students in the Yale Art & Architecture Building, giving a “desk crit” in 1963. Photo: copyright Ezra Stoller

But can anything useful to students - something more than even the most timeless principles of architecture & place making - be distilled from Rudolph’s work? And can that be applied to architectural education today?

A RUDOLPHIAN ADVENTURE IN EDUCATION

Students at the City College of New York’s School of Architecture answer: YES!

The students - all five sophomore studios, comprising nearly 70 students - spent the Spring semester on a set of projects which focused on (and were inspired by) Paul Rudolph’s Modulightor Building. The term’s work comprised 4 investigations and sets of interrelated results:

  • Near the beginning of the term, all students visited the building (sometimes several times!) exploring it, recording it via measured drawings and photography, and studying documents about the building’s construction and evolution (both its as-built incarnation, as well as versions Rudolph envisioned for its development.) This information was distilled into drawings and models.

  • They were also introduced to Rudolph’s chair (which they got to see - and sit on! - during their visit). This they each documented in carefully drafted drawings, analyzed in different ways - and then transformed into an individual concept which they presented as a model.

  • Analyzing the Modulightor Building was the student’s next focus. Some chose the façade, while others chose aspects of the interior organization, or Rudolph’s handling of light, or the geometric rigor of his planning, or the richness of his sectional compositions, or some other aspect.

  • Finally, they were to take an aspect of Rudolph’s work - particularly from the Modulightor Building, but also looking at his overall oeuvre - and use that to design an ice cream stand. They were not to just copy a part of the building, nor were they instructed to directly emulate Rudolph’s style. Rather, they were to find in Rudolph’s work “generative devices” which would inspire and nourish their projects. An ice cream stand may seem a rather pedestrian program, but it’s important to remember that early in his career, Rudolph proposed more-than-one design for such buildings. That’s something we featured in a previous blog which you can read here. Moreover, Rudolph never exhibited any snobbery about the types of projects he’d take on (something we quite admire.)

The sophomore year’s choice to engage with the Modulightor Building is a consequence of the work of Eduardo Andres Alfonso. Prof. Alfonso was the coordinator-curator for the two exhibits that the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation mounted in 2018 for Rudolph’s centenary - and so he was well-familiar with the building. His proposal for using this fascinating and complex Rudolph building - one that was also geographically accessible to the students - was accepted by his co-instructors, and the PRHF was very willing to give the school access to our facilities and historical documentation.

But what was the result of all this work - these students’ design investigations and creations?

ENTER THE JURY

On Thursday, May 9th , 2019, the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation was invited to participate in the end- of-semester jury of the students’ work. Kelvin Dickinson, the Foundation’s president, and Seth Joseph Weine, head of research, trekked up to the City College of New York’s Bernard and Anne Spitzer School of Architecture building on Manhattan’s 135th Street. Upon entering we were directed to a large atrium at the center of the building: the site of that day’s jury. It is a spacious, light-filled room, several stories tall, and dramatically crossed—at its upper reaches—by suspended catwalks.

City College’s School of Architecture building’s central atrium: a view from above, Showing the students work being set up (just prior to the beginning of the end-of-semester jury.) Photo: Kelvin Dickinson for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

City College’s School of Architecture building’s central atrium: a view from above, Showing the students work being set up (just prior to the beginning of the end-of-semester jury.) Photo: Kelvin Dickinson for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

In this space we were met with an exciting clamor: dozens of students were putting up drawings and placing models on the four sides of the atrium (with the drawings sometimes reaching up nearly a dozen feet) and the various design studio teachers were trying to put all this into a presentable order.

The final stages of getting the students’ work ready for the jury to see. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

The final stages of getting the students’ work ready for the jury to see. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

When things had settled a bit, the jurors - there were several for each studio - were invited to view the building models, meet their authors, and learn about what tactic each had taken. For ourselves, so thoroughly infused with the Modulightor Building in which we have our offices, this display of various approached the students had taken was like seeing the building with fresh eyes.

Several examples of the models which were on display at the beginning of the session. Each team took a different approach to making their model of the Modulightor Building - and to highlighting a fresh aspect of its design. Photos: Kelvin Dickinson for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

Each student team (they worked in pairs on the models) had seen & analyzed the building in a different way: via geometry, or with different materials, or by cutting a section on a different line, or by highlighting a diversity of aspects of Rudolph’s vision. It felt like a Modulightor Building design banquet.

One team’s model, used by them to analyze the building. In this example, the student team constructed the model so that the front façade could be removed. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

One team’s model, used by them to analyze the building. In this example, the student team constructed the model so that the front façade could be removed. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

THE JURY JUDGES

Jurors were asked to gather in front to the student work of the particular studio which had invited them. Then each student made a presentation and the jurors responded.

With drawings reaching way up the walls, that added to the drama of the graphic aspect of the student’s presentations. Photo: Kelvin Dickinson for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

With drawings reaching way up the walls, that added to the drama of the graphic aspect of the student’s presentations.
Photo: Kelvin Dickinson for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

It’s important to remember that, in architecture school juries, the juror is not there to determine the student’s grade [that’s the responsibility of their studio teacher - their design “crit”]. Instead, the job of each juror is to look (and listen) very carefully to what the student is presenting, and to offer reactions. The offered responses might be additional layers of interpretation to their work, or bringing up questions that the student could further consider, or references to buildings or writings they would profit by examining, or pointing out things about their design the student hadn’t even noticed they were doing - or outlining where the project could productively go (or didn’t).

The quality of the students’ work - the commitment they express - can often be discerned from the involvement of the jurors. Our experience, of the over-a-dozen students we juried that day, was one of intense focus.

Photo:  Kelvin Dickinson, for the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

It’s an old question:

The jurors speak. The jurors make deep, discerning, poetic, philosophical, pedagogical, and practical suggestions and observations. But in the face of these opinions, how can one evaluate how well each student did?

A key thing to look for is engagement:  Did the student’s work draw the jury in, provoking discussion, generating questions, and opening up new paths of investigation?

To judge by what we saw - and vigorously participated in - these students did very well indeed: the jury seemed so engaged in each project that it was hard to apply the brakes. Again-and-again, the teacher had to urge us jurors to stop and go on to the next student’s work (so that the jury’s time was fairly divided and each student would get a good  share of their attention.)

We were delighted with the work shown: the student’s intense focus on the Modulightor Building’s many layers, their intelligent analysis, and the creative paths they took as a result of their immersion in Rudolph.

Below is a selection of images of student work, presented on that exciting day. Congratulations to everyone on such fine work!

A LUMINOUS PHOTOGRAPHER: JOE POLOWCZUK

The Modulightor Building, on 58th street in New York City, designed by Paul Rudolph. Joe Polowczuk’s photograph, taken as evening was coming on—what he poetically calls “the blue hour”—shows the building glowing from within.

The Modulightor Building, on 58th street in New York City, designed by Paul Rudolph. Joe Polowczuk’s photograph, taken as evening was coming on—what he poetically calls “the blue hour”—shows the building glowing from within.

Architecture and photography have had a long relationship—maybe the longest: the three prime candidates for the world’s first photograph are a streetscape (in which buildings are sharply prominent); a roofscape; or a still-life which includes architectural fragments or castings of ornament.

Of course, photography and Modern architecture are even more intimate: from the very beginnings of Modernism, its advocates have used dramatically composed photographs to spread the gospel, publicize, and persuade. Indeed, a number of architectural photographers have themselves become legendary (at least within the architectural community). Some of the most prominent examples would be: Ezra Stoller, G. E. Kidder Smith, Julius Shulman, and Yukio Fukazawa. Also, a number of distinguished Modern architects and designers have shown a personal passion for photography, getting behind the camera themselves - and that would include Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Eames, László Moholy-Nagy, and Le Corbusier.

Joe Polowczuk is in that great tradition: A trained architect, who has been working in New York for the past 20 years, he explains that he

“… naturally gravitated towards documenting the built environment for my own projects and other design peers. I strive to provide the finest images for my clients using a keen eye for composition, and the most up to date technical methods available with digital imaging.”

He won a distinguished award in 2012: the New York City Landmarks Conservancy, Lucy G. Moses Preservation Award, for his work on the Banner Building (in New York’s NoHo Historic District.)

His design-oriented photography includes work that includes both architecture and interiors (offices, residential, hospitality, and retail). He has also caught the most beautiful images of moving water and of surfing (his main non-architectural pleasure, he admits!)

The Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation was so impressed with Joe Polowczuk’s work that we commissioned him photograph our headquarters building - the Modulightor Building - and also make photographs of the Paul Rudolph-designed chair [which the Foundation is now reproducing, using Rudolph’s original dimensions & details, and offering to interested collectors - see: https://www.paulrudolphheritagefoundation.org/shop/paul-rudolph-rolling-armchair

To see works from Joe Polowczuk’s luminous portfolio, you can visit his website:

https://www.joepolowczuk.com/

and his Instagram page:

https://www.instagram.com/jpolowczuk_photography/

But, for this moment, you might enjoy these works of Joe’s:

Paul Rudolph's Picasso

Photo: Seth Weine, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

Photo: Seth Weine, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

An Intriguing Object

Many visitors to the Modulightor Building are intrigued by the Picasso sculpture that’s on display within it—or rather, the several Picasso sculptures.

The origin of the artwork, and how they got here, is an interesting story…

A Very Public Artist

Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) is widely considered to be the most famous artist of the 20th Century. He worked in a plenitude of mediums: painting, drawing, ceramics, printmaking, stage design, and sculpture.

But his art is not found only in museums and private collections—for his sculptural work includes several commissions of monumental scale, to be used in public settings. The “Chicago Picasso,” a 50 foot high sculpture in Chicago’s Daley Plaza, is probably the most well-known example:

Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, Chicago, Illinois, US. Photo: J. Crocker, marked as public domain from Wikipedia

Picasso sculpture in Daley Plaza, Chicago, Illinois, US. Photo: J. Crocker, marked as public domain from Wikipedia

New York City also proudly has one of Picasso’s large public works: the concrete “Bust of Sylvette”, situated in the plaza of “University Village” (a complex of three apartment towers designed by I. M. Pei):

NYC - Greenwich Village: Picasso's Bust of Sylvette. Photo: Wally Gobetz

NYC - Greenwich Village: Picasso's Bust of Sylvette. Photo: Wally Gobetz

A Commission for both Architecture and Art

In the late 1960’s-early 70’s the University of South Florida wanted to build a visitors & arts center for their Tampa-area campus. The building design was by Paul Rudolph, and Picasso was approached to provide a sculpture that would be the centerpiece of the center’s exterior plaza. It was to be over 100 feet high, and - had it been built - would have been the largest Picasso in the world.

Rendering of Paul Rudolph’s building with Picasso’s sculpture. Image: USF Special Collection Library.

Rendering of Paul Rudolph’s building with Picasso’s sculpture. Image: USF Special Collection Library.

An OK from Picasso

As a famous artist - indeed, a world-wide celebrity - one can imagine that Picasso was continually besieged about all kinds of projects. Carl Nesjar (a Norwegian sculptor—and also Picasso’s trusted collaborator, who fabricated his some of his large, public works) spoke to Picasso about the Florida project, and got an approval.

Nesjar said: “He liked the whole idea very much….  He liked the architectural part of it, and the layout, and so forth. That was not the only reason, but it was one of the reasons that he said yes. Because it happens, you come to him with a project, and he will say oui ou non … he reacts like a shotgun.” [Recently, a tape of Carl Nesjar speaking about the project has been found—a fascinating document of art history.]

Picasso’s Proposal

Picasso supplied a “maquette” of the sculpture—the term usually used for models of proposed sculptures. His title for this artwork was “Bust of a Woman.”

Picasso’s model. Photo: USF Special Collection Library.

Picasso’s model. Photo: USF Special Collection Library.

The model was about 30” high, and made of wood with a white painted finish. Picasso gave the original to the University, and it is currently in the collection of the University of South Florida’s library.

“Bust of a Woman” sculpture with the audio reel of Carl Nesjar’s interview. Photo: Kamila Oles

“Bust of a Woman” sculpture with the audio reel of Carl Nesjar’s interview. Photo: Kamila Oles

The sculpture was to be towering—more than twice as high as his work in Chicago—and, at that time, would have been the biggest concrete sculpture in the world. Carl Nesjar made a photomontage of the intended sculpture, which gives an idea of its dramatic presence.

Carl Nesjar’s photomontage showing how “Bust of a Woman” would appear on the University of Southern Florida’s campus. Image: USF Special Collection Library

Carl Nesjar’s photomontage showing how “Bust of a Woman” would appear on the University of Southern Florida’s campus. Image: USF Special Collection Library

Not To Be

But, for a variety of reasons—cultural, political, and financial—the project never moved into construction: the university didn’t build the Picasso sculpture, nor Paul Rudolph’s building. That sad aspect of the story is covered in this fine article.

A Sculpture Greatly Admired by Rudolph

Although the project didn’t proceed, Paul Rudolph liked the sculpture so much that he requested (and received) official permission from Picasso to make copies of the maquette. Several faithful copies were made: the ones that are on view in the Modulightor Building.

Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

Photo: Kelvin Dickinson, Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation Archives

A Virtual Life?

But this might not be quite the end for that Picasso sculpture, nor for Rudolph’s building design for that campus: they now have an existence - at least in the virtual world.

Kamila Oles (an art historian) & Lukasz Banaszek (a landscape archaeologist), working with the USF’s Center for Virtualization and Applied Spatial Technologies (CVAST) have created virtual models of what the building and sculpture would have looked like. You can also see a video of their process here.

Exciting visions - but ones that dramatically show an architectural & artistic lost opportunity.

NOTE:  Several authorized copies were made - one of which will always be on permanent display in the Rudolph-designed residential duplex within his Modulightor Building. But the other authorized copies are available for sale to benefit the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation. Please contact the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation for further information.

Remembering Paul Rudolph with Metropolis Magazine

Photography by Annie Schlecter, courtesy the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

Photography by Annie Schlecter, courtesy the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation

Paul Rudolph’s Centenary and the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation’s exhibitions ‘Paul Rudolph: The Personal Laboratory’ and ‘Paul Rudolph: The Hong Kong Journey’ are covered in an online article in Metropolis by A.J.P. Artemel.

Writes Artemel,

There was a time when Paul Rudolph was the most famous architect, if not in the world, then at least in the United States. As the leading emissary of “heroic” Modernism, he was responsible for some of the most innovative and audacious concrete buildings of the 1960s. Current stars Richard Rogers and Norman Foster went to Yale to learn from him. But after the devastating, epoch-ending fire at Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale and multiple broadsides penned by Postmodern critics, Rudolph’s stream of projects, as well as his American following, seemed to evaporate overnight. Though much of Rudolph’s work from his early period in Sarasota, Florida, and from the height of his career in the ’60s has been rehabilitated and rediscovered by new audiences, his later work—roughly defined, those buildings completed between 1970 and his death in 1997—remains relatively unknown.

Two exhibitions organized by the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation to mark the architect’s centenary aim to address this blind spot.

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It is indeed an exciting time to examine this material, not only in light of the anniversary but because of what this collection of buildings and designs may come to illustrate: a daring and often lonely effort to continue the Modernist project.

For more information about the current exhibition ‘Paul Rudolph: The Personal Laboratory’ at the Modulightor building, and the upcoming ‘Paul Rudolph: The Hong Kong Journey’ go to the Centennial page here.