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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!