New York

Tour Paul Rudolph's Light-Filled Library in Niagara Falls

An opportunity to take a deep look at the architecture of the Brydges Library in Niagara Falls—which has one of Paul Rudolph’s most luminous spaces.

An opportunity to take a deep look at the architecture of the Brydges Library in Niagara Falls—which has one of Paul Rudolph’s most luminous spaces.

NEXT WEEK: A SPECIAL TOUR OF A SPECIAL PLACE

Thursday, September 12, will be a tour of one of Paul Rudolph’s most luminous public buildings.

The Brydges Library—the central library of Niagara Falls, NY—was designed by Rudolph in 1969, at the height of his career.

A COMPELLING UNITY

The Brydges Library embodies most of what makes a Rudolph building so compelling…

  • interesting, interlocked geometries that are bathed in (and guide and modulate) the light

  • careful planning to arrange activities in a way that is enlivening and practical

  • bold and expressive use of structure and materials

  • sculptural mastery that brings the whole ensemble together into a forceful unity

The library’s entry facade, as seen in 1972, Joseph W. Molitor architectural photographs. Located in Columbia University, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Department of Drawings & Archives

The library’s entry facade, as seen in 1972, Joseph W. Molitor architectural photographs. Located in Columbia University, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Department of Drawings & Archives

BRYDGES PROJECTION.jpg

As an architect, Rudolph was the embodiment of daring—yet his work was tempered by years of experience in building, planning, and working with institutional clients. Photo by Kelvin Dickinson, courtesy the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation © the estate of Paul Rudolph

While the library’s sculpturally rugged exterior is certainly memorable, it is the light-filled interior—rising up three storeys to prominent clerestory windows—which uplifts the spirit. Joseph W. Molitor architectural photographs. Located in Columbia University, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Department of Drawings & Archives

While the library’s sculpturally rugged exterior is certainly memorable, it is the light-filled interior—rising up three storeys to prominent clerestory windows—which uplifts the spirit. Joseph W. Molitor architectural photographs. Located in Columbia University, Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, Department of Drawings & Archives

TOUR INFO

LOCATION: Earl W. Brydges Library Building

ADDRESS: 1425 Main St. Niagara Falls, NY 14305

DATE: September 12th

TIME: 3pm-5pm

RESERVATIONS: https://preservationbuffaloniagara.org/modernism-week/

BACKGROUND/DESCRIPTION: With the goals of city-wide revitalization and the provision of a larger library to its increased population, the city of Niagara Falls commissioned Paul Rudolph (a unanimous pick from a field of five finalists) to design this building, which was constructed from 1969-74. Each floor of the Brutalist structure has a distinct use, with library space on the first, an auditorium and offices on the second, local archives on the third, and mechanical equipment on the fourth, each getting smaller as they go up. Large dormers protrude from the roof, providing additional light and adding to the exterior’s dynamic, angled texture. Inside, the central space is open all the way up to the ceiling and is flooded by natural light from the clerestory windows.

MODERNISM WEEK

The tour is part of Buffalo/Niagara Falls’ MODERNISM WEEK in Western New York, which is put on by Preservation Buffalo Niagara—an organization established in 2008, committed to “bringing resources and results that ensure that our historic places thrive for generations to come.”

MODERNISM WEEK includes tours other great buildings in Buffalo and Niagara Falls, and you can see the full schedule (and make reservations) here.

MODERNISM WEEK   , in the Buffalo-Niagara area, includes a number of beautiful sites, such as Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo. The above is an excerpt from their web page, which has the full schedule.

MODERNISM WEEK, in the Buffalo-Niagara area, includes a number of beautiful sites, such as Louis Sullivan’s Guaranty Building in Buffalo. The above is an excerpt from their web page, which has the full schedule.

A HALF-CENTURY LATER—AND RUDOLPH IS STILL AVANT GARDE

Underground Interiors, published in 1972, showcased some of the world’s most unique, quirky, and creative new interior designs—tangible manifestations of that experimental late 60’s/early 70’s era. A work of Rudolph’s was included—of course!.

Underground Interiors, published in 1972, showcased some of the world’s most unique, quirky, and creative new interior designs—tangible manifestations of that experimental late 60’s/early 70’s era. A work of Rudolph’s was included—of course!.

UNDERGROUND—AND FAMOUS

We sometimes speak of Underground Culture: productions by independent makers, groups, and communities, which were created apart from the mainstream—and often in pointed challenge to it. The most well-known application of the term underground is in “Underground films”—like the kind originally associated with Andy Warhol and other independent filmmakers. Calling them “underground” allegedly came about because of where such films were first screened: literally, in basements—though the association of “underground” with secrecy and daring (and even Dostoevsky) may have given them some cachet.

Poster advertising several underground films, featuring one by Andy Warhol’s, for a showing in 1967. Poster courtesy of the    Underground Film Journal   .

Poster advertising several underground films, featuring one by Andy Warhol’s, for a showing in 1967. Poster courtesy of the Underground Film Journal.

The use of the term spread, and—while it certainly had a political face—”underground” was applied to all kinds of new and experimental things happening in the 60’s and 70’s:

  • Underground Press

  • Underground Music

  • Underground Comics (of which Robert Crumb is the most famous practitioner)

  • Underground Clubs

  • And even a popular guide to offbeat restaurants, The Underground Gourmet

An example of “underground” culture extending into wider use: the great designers, Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder, had a column in New York Magazine about restaurants that were out of the mainstream. Their recommendations were collected into a book, which used the zesty graphic style which they had pioneered. Image: Design of the book: by Glaser and Snyder

An example of “underground” culture extending into wider use: the great designers, Milton Glaser and Jerome Snyder, had a column in New York Magazine about restaurants that were out of the mainstream. Their recommendations were collected into a book, which used the zesty graphic style which they had pioneered. Image: Design of the book: by Glaser and Snyder

Even if you were labeled “underground”, that didn’t mean you couldn’t become famous—and Warhol, Pink Floyd, and Crumb are probably the most recognized example of that. Today marketers speak of an “underground brand” —and it’s a useful association (especially when promoting to the mainstream) to connect ones product with, in Ian Volmer’s superb phrase, “a soupçon of subversion.”

 UNDERGROUND DESIGN?

If films, music,media, and even restaurants could be “underground”, then why not design too?

By the mid-60’s, a spirit of cultural rebellion and lifestyle adventurousness was sprouting in every domain—and in just a few years designs with “experimental” color, layout, materials, and function were beginning to appear in design magazines. Ultimately, this included architecture—but buildings are expensive and clients are, on-the-whole, conservative. So this explosion of colorful creativity first manifest in interiors: after all, they’re more personal, temporary, and (compared to whole buildings) lower-budget—and thus more likely to be the sites, at least initially, for adventurous design.

A collection of these interiors was brought together for a 1972 book, Underground Interiors: Decorating For Alternative Lifestyles. It showed some of the most exciting designs to date, and the book was published by The New York Times.

The book’s writer-editor was Norma Skurka, Home Editor of the New York Times. The photographer, Oberto Gili, has a distinguished career taking photos of a great range of subjects—including interiors.

The book’s writer-editor was Norma Skurka, Home Editor of the New York Times. The photographer, Oberto Gili, has a distinguished career taking photos of a great range of subjects—including interiors.

Oberto Gili—still an active photographer, with a creative portfolio—started the book project for the publisher L’Esperto. When they dropped the venture, it was picked-up by the New York Times’ long-time Home Editor (and prolific author) —who no doubt (having also worked for House Beautiful, Interior Design, and Contract magazines,) was aware of the most exciting interiors then being done—and together they completed the book.

 SURREALIST, RADICAL, POP, SPACE AGE…

Those are not our descriptions of the work they included in the book—they were the author’s, appearing unabashed on their contents page. While some of the designers and artistic personalities they included have fallen into obscurity, a number of them were already gaining prominence.

Before he achieved ultra-stardom in the world of fashion, Karl Lagerfeld was already making fascinating juxtapositions, as in his own apartment:

A spread from the book, showing Karl Lagerfeld’s combination bath-sitting room, and gym-bedroom, for his Paris apartment.

A spread from the book, showing Karl Lagerfeld’s combination bath-sitting room, and gym-bedroom, for his Paris apartment.

Dream, parade, or baking contest?—this Paris home offered them all at once:

A spread showing the Paris home of Antony and Dorothee Miralda offers treats that are visual (and possibly edible)

A spread showing the Paris home of Antony and Dorothee Miralda offers treats that are visual (and possibly edible)

The book came out at in the midst of the US space program’s most active period—and some interiors embodied that futuristic flavor:

A spread from the “Space Age Habitations” section of the book, showing the home Victor Lukens designed for himself.

A spread from the “Space Age Habitations” section of the book, showing the home Victor Lukens designed for himself.

One of the most influential designers included in the book was Gamal El-Zoghby. “Minimalism” does not do justice to the careful thought and planning he brought to each project. His modulated spaces, carpet-covered platforms, deftly-detailed built-ins, and hidden storage (designed to lower the distractions of everyday life) inspired a generation of designers—and helped create the vocabulary for multi-level living spaces.

A page from the book showing an El-Zoghby design: a NY apartment for entertainer Jackie Mason.

A page from the book showing an El-Zoghby design: a NY apartment for entertainer Jackie Mason.

RUDOLPH: AVANT GARDE AND TIMELESS ?

Paul Rudolph, most known for his muscular buildings, was also focused on interiors. He used his own home and office spaces as laboratories, trying out different spatial arrangements, lighting techniques, materials, and details—and, if pleased by the results of those experiments, he’s apply some of those lessons to the work he did for clients. [This was the subject of the Rudolph centennial exhibit, Paul Rudolph: The Personal Laboratory] Rudolph had a significant number of commissions for interior design, most often residential, but sometimes commercial (including an innovative dental office!)

In Rudolph’s design for a home of Mr. & Mrs. Elman in Manhattan, the walls remained unchanged—but he was able to shape the existing spaces through the placement of hanging light fixtures (of his own design) on an unexpectedly low plane, textures that flowed from floors to furnishings, and the creation of a living room that partakes more of landscaping than of traditional notions of room design.

Rudolph’s shows up too: a page in the Underground Interiors book.

Rudolph’s shows up too: a page in the Underground Interiors book.

Here’s the book’s caption, with what the author’s had to say about Rudolph’s interior:

Rudolph capton.JPG

Many of the rooms in the book (a sample of which we’ve shown above) are amusing, but also like they’re “of their time” [and maybe a bit too much so?] If “timelessness” is one of the criteria for good design, It’s hard to imagine—with some exceptions, like El-Zoghby—later designers choosing to create them.

What about Rudolph’s design?

It is nearly 50 years since he received the commission. Yes, back then, it was an era identified with “shag carpets”—and we all make fun of that. So if Rudolph were doing this interior today, he might dial-back the woolly-mammoth textures a bit.

But—

But the room still looks striking, enticing, fun—and quite livable and flexible: a place one would like to visit and hang-out. A place that could accommodate a large party, yet maintains a sense of intimacy. A place to unwind—and a place to be theatrical. A place to shock—and a place to relax. We contend that Rudolph’s design, overall, holds-up rather well, even a half-century after its conception—another sign of a master.

Rudolph's Shoreline Apartments in Buffalo - an Artist Responds - Artistically!

“Disposable: Shoreline Apartment Complex Unit”  Plastic canvas, acrylic yarn, tissue box, 8 X 16.5 X 21 inches, 2016.    An artwork by Buffalo-born & based, fiber artist Kurt Treeby. This is his depiction of Paul Rudolph’s    Shoreline Apartments    in Buffalo. It is part of a set of works by Treeby, the “Disposable” series, involving—in the artists recounting—“thousands of precise stitches, all sewn by hand…”    Photo:    www.kurttreeby.com

“Disposable: Shoreline Apartment Complex Unit” Plastic canvas, acrylic yarn, tissue box, 8 X 16.5 X 21 inches, 2016.

An artwork by Buffalo-born & based, fiber artist Kurt Treeby. This is his depiction of Paul Rudolph’s Shoreline Apartments in Buffalo. It is part of a set of works by Treeby, the “Disposable” series, involving—in the artists recounting—“thousands of precise stitches, all sewn by hand…”

Photo: www.kurttreeby.com

SHORELINE APARTMENTS IN BUFFALO

Shoreline Apartments is a fascinating complex of residences on Niagara Street in Buffalo, NY, completed  in 1974 to the designs of Paul Rudolph. To say that it “is” is a bit problematic, because the entire set of residences is slated for demolition - and, as of this writing, about half of the complex still exists (but how long that extant portion will remain is unknown.)

“Rudolph’s original scheme, composed of monumental, terraced, prefabricated housing structures, provided an ambitious alternative to high-rise dwelling that was meant to recall the complexity and intimacy of old European settlements.” – Nick Miller, in The Architect’s Newspaper

“Rudolph’s original scheme, composed of monumental, terraced, prefabricated housing structures, provided an ambitious alternative to high-rise dwelling that was meant to recall the complexity and intimacy of old European settlements.” – Nick Miller, in The Architect’s Newspaper

Here’s a good, concise background on the project, as reported by Nick Miller in The Architect’s Newspaper (November 5, 2013):

[Arthur] Drexler exhibited Rudolph’s original, much more dramatic scheme for Buffalo’s Shoreline Apartments alongside pending projects by Philip Johnson and Kevin Roche in an exhibition entitled Work in Progress. The projects on display were compiled to represent a commitment “to the idea that architecture, besides being technology, sociology and moral philosophy, must finally produce works of art.”

Completed in 1972, the 142-unit low-income housing development was featured in both the September 1972 issue of Architectural Record as well as the 1970 exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Like many of their contemporaries, the inventive, complex forms and admirable social aspirations of the development have been overshadowed by disrepair, crime, and startling vacancy rates (30 percent in 2006 according to Buffalo Rising).

The Shoreline Apartments that stand today represent a scaled down version of the original plan. Featuring shed roofs, ribbed concrete exteriors, projecting balconies and enclosed gardens, the project combined Rudolph’s spatial radicalism with experiments in human-scaled, low-rise, high-density housing developments. The project’s weaving, snake-like site plan was meant to create active communal green spaces, but, like those of most if its contemporaries, the spaces went unused, fracturing the fabric of Buffalo.

Here’s an image of a portion of the Shoreline complex, as built:

The Shorelines Apartments in 1975, shortly after opening. The large Art Deco skyscraper, at the rear-right, is Buffalo’s City Hall.    Image: Courtesy of EPA/Library of Congress

The Shorelines Apartments in 1975, shortly after opening. The large Art Deco skyscraper, at the rear-right, is Buffalo’s City Hall.

Image: Courtesy of EPA/Library of Congress

THE ARTIST:  KURT TREEBY

Mr. Treeby, a fiber artist that’s a native of Buffalo (and who is based here), does fascinating work, and—on his website—you can find his own text on his career, from which we quote:

Kurt Treeby first studied art at the College of Art and Design at Alfred University. While at Alfred he studied painting, drawing, and art history. After receiving his MFA from Syracuse University Treeby develped a conceptual-based approach to art making that continues to develop as he works with a wide range of fiber and textile processes. His work comments of the production and reception of art, as well as the role art plays in our collective memories. He focuses on iconic imagery and the connection between so-called "high" and "low" art forms. Treeby has exhibited his work on a national and international level. He teaches studio art and art appreciation at the College at Brockport, State University of New York, and Erie Community College.

KURT TREEBY’S “DISPOSABLE” SERIES

The artist has done a series of artworks, each of which is a significant building (or complex of buildings) that has been demolished—or, like Shoreline, is on the way to being demolished. Among the building’s he’s focused on are: The Larkin Building (by Frank Lloyd Wright), BEST Products Showrooms (by SITE), the Niagara Falls Wintergarden (by Cesar Pelli), and various other structures. The one he did, of a  portion of the Shoreline, captures the Paul Rudolph’s design very nicely!

Here are some excerpts from Mr. Treeby’s beautiful and sensitive artistic statement on his work—and this series in particular:

Every city includes a variety of structures including historical landmarks, industrial factories, and utilitarian homes. My work examines the architectural ecosystem of production, consumption, and destruction embedded into the social, economic, and physical landscape of cities, reimagining a future apart from their industrial or commercial past.

Focusing on iconic structures, I faithfully replicate architectural and structural details from an alchemy of historical records and collective memory. I recreate these buildings in plastic canvas and craft-store yarn, amplifying the tension between fine art and craft. The final sculptures function as the visual embodiment of the restoration process, as historical records, and as personal memories; all imperfect and incomplete.

I use the medium of plastic canvas because it is rooted in domestic crafts. Traditionally, the medium is used to construct decorative covers resembling quaint cottages or holiday-themed houses for disposable items like tissues and paper napkins. Unlike the fantastical commercial patterns, my sculptures are often larger, replicating complex buildings that have been demolished or significantly altered over time. Because I cannot always experience the original structures, I combine archival records and satellite imagery to help me understand the building’s original site.

The hours spent on each piece are a meditation and a reflection on loss. Engaging in this meticulous process is my way of paying tribute to the original architects. My imperfect buildings act a stand in for the original, and as monuments to memory itself.


We urge you to visit Kurt Treeby’s website, and explore his movingly intriguing work for yourself: http://kurttreeby.com

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?