Our office at 246 East 58th street (the Modulightor building):
background, parallels and precedents
Paul Rudolph and Ernst Wagner bought 246 East 58th Street in 1989. At the time of this venture, Rudolph and Wagner had been friends for almost 20 years.
Originally a commercial, nondescript structure, Rudolph wanted to create a special environment and, most importantly, a contribution to the urban landscape. The original building was torn down and Rudolph designed for himself an 8-story steel structure to be used as a commercial rental property on the twenty-by-one-hundred-foot lot.
First Phase of Construction - 1989 to 1993
The narrow facade of the building exhibits Rudolph's typical spatial complexity and movement. The 3'-0" depth of the building's street elevation is composed of steel and glass interspersed with concrete panels to brace the construction. The final design is reminiscent of an earlier townhouse designed by Rudolph at 101 East 63rd street.
The first phase of the building, including floors 1-to-4 with 3 cellars, was constructed from 1989 to 1993. The foundations and vertical structure of the building were designed to support the eventual construction of the remaining floors. For the interior construction, Rudolph became his own contractor - meeting with the project manager and craftspeople on a daily basis.
For almost a half-decade, Paul Rudolph's architectural office occupied the second floor including the area where the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation's office is currently located.
On floors 3 and 4, Rudolph designed a pair of duplex rental apartments, with one facing 58th street and the other facing the back of the property. Rudolph chose to paint the exterior and interior of the building white, so the complexity of the double-height interiors was projected onto the building's Piet Mondrian-like exterior.
After Paul Rudolph died in 1997, Donald Luckenbill - an architect who worked for Rudolph and knew his design approach very well - combined the two apartments and added shelving throughout. It is upon this shelving that items from the Collections (as well as books from Paul Rudolph’s own library) can be seen today.
Second Phase of construction - 2007 to 2015
Floors 5 and 6 with a Roof Deck were added by Ernst Wagner beginning in 2007. The architect for this phase was Mark Squeo - chosen because he worked for Rudolph and was familiar with the “design DNA” of Rudolph’s original approach.
Squeo referenced drawings, sketches and documentation available from Rudolph’s archives to discern his original design intentions for the additional floors.
The Modulightor building should be considered in context with Rudolph’s other NYC projects. Earlier he had undertaken, with Wagner’s assistance, the development of 23 Beekman Place - his celebrated residence near the United Nations (and the final location of his office). He also designed another famous residence in New York: 101 East 63rd Street - a classic modernist design, beautifully and elegantly proportioned & detailed (whose most famous owner was the fashion design icon, Halston).
Starting in the 1970’s - Paul Rudolph’s famous Quadruplex Townhouse
A spatially rich and very personal vision of the possibilities of architecture was constructed at 23 Beekman Place. It was both intimate and Piranesi-like, soaring and layered: an orchestration of interlocking spaces. It was Rudolph’s design laboratory, where he would constantly change, try out, and experiment with new variations - a composition of rich textures and reflective materials that caught the light in magical ways. No less than 17 levels could be counted which, pinwheel-like, floated harmoniously and lead from one luminous experience to the next.
23 Beekman Place was constantly moving: light plays, water falls, and canals on the terrace were built. There was a plexiglas jacuzzi on the top level through which you could see down over 30 feet, to dazzling spaces below—a 20th century version of Sir John Soane’s House Museum in London.
At one point during the design, Wagner asked Rudolph; “Is it not going to be too complicated?” to which Rudolph replied, “No, no - you don’t understand! Architecture is like music! Do you think a Bach fugue is too complicated?”
When they built 246 East 58th Street, Rudolph would (like at 23 Beekman Place) meet with the workers each morning and carefully - like a sculptor - arrange mock-ups with foam-core boards: shifting, adjusting, and balancing the forms with the voids until he was satisfied.
Influenced by the minimalism of Mies van der Rohe, the richness of Le Corbusier’s design vocabulary, and the harmonious and dynamic complexity of Wright, Rudolph created his own language of intricately interwoven spaces.
For Wagner, who resides in the Modulightor duplex today, the experience of living in these spaces is like living in a sculpture; in a work of art: wherever you move - wherever your gaze alights - you see new, fresh and unexpected facets of the design.
The Spatial Concept of the MODULIGHTOR building
The living quarters are a spacious two-story apartment - or more correctly, one floor and a mezzanine. Rudolph did not just do 'duplex' apartments (with one floor just stacked over another). Instead, he thought in terms of spatial movement - psychology of space, proportion, and balance - and used his knowledge and artistry to create an intricate, multi-tiered spiral of spaces.
As one transitions from one level to another - the apartment has several levels - the width and height of the space keep changing, adjusting in a series of movements of vertical & horizontal planes, creating a kinetic assemblage of spaces and multiple viewpoints. It feels dynamic and serene at the same time.
Stair Concept & Detailing
The several stairs in the duplex create some of the most powerful effects - both as sculptural compositions viewed from afar, and especially when traversed. Instead of the usual heavy diagonal structure supporting solid steps and risers, Rudolph created a delicate sequence of ‘floating’ planar steps - cantilevered and suspended, merging almost seamlessly into the composition of the apartment’s shelves. The stairs - floating, visually kinetic, and changing direction - are integral parts of the residence’s spatial concept, the view of which dynamically alters as one moves throughout.
Furniture and Modular Systems
Paul Rudolph thought that furniture should reflect the character of its architectural context and resonate with the space’s other elements. Such design coherence has been the case in all centuries and stylistic periods - but in the seventies he could not find commercially available furniture that fit harmoniously with his architecture & interiors. So Rudolph created his own furniture.
Rudolph discovered a shelving system of components which could be flexibly combined, and he jumped at the possibilities that were inherent in that system. Rudolph saw that not only could it make shelving, but its modular 'kit of parts' could be used to create other kinds of furniture. The components allowed for quick assembly into many different arrangements and groupings - and that lent itself to both experimentation and to the fabrication of completed designs.
Rudolph was very interested in modular systems, and welcomed economical approaches to solving design problems. He thought that architects should 'speak the language of modularity' - whether it be at the scale of furniture or of whole housing developments - and that a skillful designer could make such a system do what he wanted it to do (rather than being limited by the system).
Today, the efficiency of modular approaches to design & manufacturing are part of our culture’s current discourse - but when Rudolph was investigating this, he was one of the pioneers. Indeed, we can cite other examples of his design foresight and inventiveness:
- his use of plexiglas for stairs and walkways in his Beekman Place home - this greatly predated the use of glass floors & staircases that one sees in today’s iconic Apple stores
- the use of ribbed concrete to enrich a building’s visual texture and later, to economize - the translation of that material into prefabricated concrete masonry blocks
- the use of modular components in creating a whole lighting system
About the Collections found at Modulightor
Throughout the interiors, one can see displayed a fascinating array of objects - many of them vintage, and some are serious antiques. They are carefully placed - not only do they each have intrinsic design interest, but they also to ornament/enhance the space. Ernst Wagner refers to them as 'The Collections': collections of artworks, tools, industrial forms, and everyday objects from different cultures.
They come from years of travel by Ernst Wagner and Paul Rudolph - both internationally and across the US - and were purchased from a variety of sources: flea markets, antique stores, and even roadside craftsmen. What you see in the duplex apartment is a combination of things that Paul Rudolph and Ernst Wagner collected.
You can find many of these objects in original photos of Paul Rudolph’s apartment at 23 Beekman Place. When Rudolph died, many of his possessions were inherited by Ernst Wagner and integrated into the Modulightor Building’s duplex apartment (where Ernst Wagner now lives).
Paul Rudolph was a collector of things of artistry: he would have liked to own a Giacometti or a Moore - but not having the funds - he created his own art. Rudolph also thought that his dynamic-but-calm spaces needed decorative accents.
Rudolph constantly looked for intriguing objects. By grouping or assembling them into artful compositions, they would become true ‘objects d’art’. These were often seemingly mundane ‘things’ that visually appealed to him - but in his hands and through his interesting arrangements - these assemblages became works of decorative art, fresh and original.
When traveling he constantly had his visual radar on. For example, in Mexico he bought a box of milagros (religious folk charms traditionally used for healing purposes and as votive offerings) at the flea market. Once back home, he placed them on plexiglas panels to create an effect of veil-like delicacy. He also arranged old Moroccan textile combs with the overall composition evoking two opposing armies.
In Mexico, he discovered a group of inexpensive plastic 'Transformer' robots. This electrified him and he summoned his employees to get all of them available in the city. He then patiently painted them on Sunday afternoons, then positioned them in a totem-like column of lit coves. It was as though an army - a rather colorful army - from outer space had arrived.
At Maison Drouot, the Parisian auction house, he discovered a group of ancient Roman terracotta heads and bought all of them. He grouped twenty of them on delicate plexiglas stems, creating a dance-like assemblage as his dining table centerpiece. The rest became a miniature “Antiquities Cabinet” on a shelf. Andy Warhol’s work and Marcel Duchamp’s compositions - using multiples and 'readymades' - have similar approaches.
Ernst offers this quote from Oscar Wilde, which captures the reason for the visual appeal of so many of these objects: “I have found that all ugly things are made by those who strive to make something beautiful, and all beautiful things are made by those who strive to make something useful.”
One may not exactly agree with Mr. Wilde, but he has a point: often certain ordinary things - tools or other utilitarian objects - when mounted or placed in a new context, become a fresh visual experience.