What is Quality? - July, 1963


The below text is a speech given by Paul Rudolph at the AIA 1963 convention titled ‘the Quest for Quality.’ The text was published in the July 1963 edition of the AIA Journal and the copy received on July 24, 1963 at Rudolph’s architectural office is in the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation archives.

[Note: in transcribing this text, we have retained most of the grammar, spelling, capitalization, and construction.]


Quality or excellence in architecture is impossible unless the creative act is embraced. A few days ago an expanded Canadian architect, offering multitudinous expanded services, expanded office force, expanded office space and expanded waistline, informed me that he remembered me (we were once classmates) when I used to work with a grubby pencil at a grubbier drafting board. This startled me for I still work with a grubby pencil (and I am very happy when doing so), although the drafting board is sometimes the conference table, a pad at dull convention lectures, the train or the plane. If quality is to be obtained then I would say every architect, no matter how much besieged by clients, planners, reports, consultants, art historians, critics and other assorted types, must simply pick up that grubby pencil again and think with the heart as well as the mind.

There is certainly confusion today. Most architects seem to think this is so because 1) things change too rapidly; 2) the so-called leaders often are capricious, irresponsible and mostly interested in having their own work published as the first of some movement or other; 3) the architect wishes he had the leaders' clients for then he could show them; 4) most architectural schools should train better draftsmen (not architects). To this I would say: Things change because 1 ) the problem changes; 2) the European theorists of the 'twenties left out a lot; and 3) we thought the planners were going to take care of large-scale three-dimensional design but they are concerned with analysis, programming, use of power, and reports, reports and reports about reports. Civic or urban design, as distinct from what has become known as planning in this country, is seldom discussed, let alone practiced by the profession.

Corbu wanted to tear down central Paris and rebuild it with his slabs. Wright wanted to abandon the city and give every man an acre, and Mies apparently felt that acres of curtain wall could make a city. They were wrong on most scores, but our own urban renewal program has not yet produced, to my knowledge, anything remotely resembling a work of art. Corbu did produce the twentieth century's greatest complex of buildings at Chandigarh. This lack of civic design theory leads to such things as a site selected in one of the Washington parks for the ill-fated Franklin Roosevelt Memorial where there was absolutely no chance of it having any true relationship to the Federal city.

How do you measure excellence in architecture? This is difficult because one architect addresses himself to one series of problems, and another, another. What was the architect trying to do in the first place?

This question is further complicated by the fact that there is no comprehensive academy today. As long as the Ecole des Beaux Arts reigned, one could measure design against their dicta. The nearest things approaching that today are the theories of the International stylist. But few find in them sufficient breadth today to form a valid yardstick. In truth we have no academy, and consequently "history" or what is currently interpreted as history, fends to be viewed as a potential yardstick. This is unstable ground, for historians love nothing better than to reinterpret history each generation and dispute their peers' findings. Art historians are first-rate detectives, often better than those in the flicks, but totally unreliable as yardsticks for excellence, because their interpretations will be quite different in the next decade.

Nor is the measure of excellence very much helped by that current crop of largely self-appointed would-be leaders. The critics tend to measure the work of each succeeding generation of a given movement by the work of the originators of that movement. However, if a given movement is truly to grow, then original assumptions and work must undergo incessant scrutiny. Principle is always elusive when it comes to art, for art is only a living force when it challenges, intrudes, upsets the establishment. Art is seldom concerned with refinements, more expensive materials and never with the merely polite. Art is always a rude intrusion at first, and no amount of wishing will change that. All of us miss today the opportunity to attack an establishment—it's positively frustrating. My own temperament, for instance, fits me best for an outside-the-establishment-man, hell-bent to wipe aside any head of a school of architecture.

But, alas, the tables are turned, and there is no establishment to attack, only the much more difficult task of searching, making dreadful mistakes, risking all every step of the way. Eventually there will be a new academy, based on the work of many.

Louis Sullivan took considerable delight in poking fun at all academies, but he never made it very clear just what an architectural student should do; he was against whatever it was that was being done in the academies. Mr Wright followed him in this, as he did in so many other ways. The creative American architects of the last century were in full revolt against all academies and felt that the apprenticeship system was far superior. It was not until 1938, when Walter Gropius arrived in the United States, that a comprehensible alternate was formulated. This alternate is now the established academy and in turn is being questioned.

Today architectural education in the US is pursued in concert with the practice of architecture. The divorce between action and teaching is ended. This means, among other things, that the schools are subjected to constantly changing cross-currents; of changing sensibilities of architects themselves and architectural students; of the barrage of technical developments by industry; by the architectural press; and by the constant pressures of specialists such as the structural, mechanical, civil, acoustical and lighting engineers on the one hand, and the art and architectural historians on the other. The abdication of the architect to the planner in matters pertaining to large-scale, three-dimensional design has created a special and urgent problem, for the planner has clearly demonstrated that he is finally more interested in methodology than three-dimensional realities.

In short, the architect and the architectural student are surrounded in school and out of it by a veritable chorus of specialists clamoring for more attention for their particular specialty. Indeed, as the process of building becomes increasingly complicated, the architect is challenged in his traditional role.

Against such a background the architectural student is surprisingly aware of changing forces and he is, indeed, often a definitive weather vane. There are always a few gifted students, as yet unencumbered by the more mundane considerations, who can cut through current thought and intuitively suggest verbally and graphically new and valid possibilities. Of course, this is in no way a substitute for the rare architect who builds in such a manner as to change the course of architecture, but the fact remains that often the gifted student is able to anticipate the future. It can be argued that he detects sham, caprice and the merely fashionable more quickly than his elders, who are so intensely involved and harried that mere habit dominates.

The phenomenon of the brilliant architectural student, without much, if any, help from his teachers, arriving at new and valid points of departure is the architectural equivalent of children's painting. Just as children are seldom able to carry into adult life the immediacy and essential quality of their early untutored work, most architectural students lose their way when confronted with problems of translating the great conception into three-dimensional reality. Various maladies, flaws and omissions in architectural theory and education become glaringly obvious. Paralyzing fears grip the apprentice architect, and usually he settles down into someone else's office allowing the required three-year apprenticeship to extend indefinitely. By the time he has faced up to the various problems of building, he has lost his ability to think creatively; frustration, lethargy and newly-acquired personal responsibilities prevent him from making that contribution which seemed so imminent as an architectural student.

The schools approach architecture as a creative art, but this, as creativity cannot be taught. However, an atmosphere and approach can be nurtured, whereby the problems are defined, and the student can commence the endless journey to find himself.

An age expresses through its artists certain preferences and attitudes which are inherent to that age, but no man can ascertain at the time those which have validity.

When architecture as a work of art is discussed it is necessary to start with the particular set of prejudices of the architect in question. The artist always ignores certain problems, addressing himself to a selected few. He proceeds to solve these so eloquently that everyone understands the statement and its truly glorious solution. Thus, when one stands in front of the Mies van der Rohe office building on New York City's Park Avenue, it seems absolute in its authority although countless considerations are ignored. Another set of problems are ignored at Frank Lloyd Wright's home in the desert, although it has equal authority. It is axiomatic that certain problems must be ignored if a great work of art is to be created, and in the hands of the artist this is justifiable, indeed necessary. The students of architecture and many architects take to the refuge in this fact and often find their critics stodgy because they insist that all problems be solved, or at least recognized. In a sense this is unfair, for most architects feel that they too are great artists (if unrecognized) and must be allowed the same prerogatives as the great mature architect. Only time can ascertain the true artists, but everyone must exercise his right to try.

By 1955 the limitations of the European architectural philosophies of the first part of the twentieth century were crystal clear, but confusion had risen as to how to make more eloquent our efforts.

A growing awareness is causing many of this generation to question some of the early dogmas, especially the romanticisms regarding the machine, not because they were not partially valid, but because they often failed miserably on many levels, for the concepts were limited. There are many ways of organizing a building or, more importantly, an environment; sometimes alien ways are combined in a single building or a group, and disaster follows. The architect must search for his own way because there is not yet a universal outlook, and there are unique problems and unimagined possibilities. The International Style was only the opening chord in a great movement.

The site and the symposium of the particular building set the course. (Does respect for older attitudes in architecture lead to a new eclecticism?) A single building must be compatible with its neighbors plus suggesting that which could come next. Change is the only constant, but we do not know yet how to build in a compatible way with each other. Yale has found it comparatively easy to build a twentieth century building amidst its earlier buildings, but absolute disaster usually follows if two modern architects are within several blocks of each other. The process of change is the constant creative irritant.

Respecting the eclecticism of the nineteenth century may lead to movie-set-making unless there is an underlying attitude towards social forces, a set of preferences, a translation of the spirit of the times. It certainly leads to buildings which seem inconsistent, not only with their predecessors but with concurrent efforts. And yet the variety, scope and spiritual demands of a great country can only be met by emphasizing the honest differences in each situation, not resorting to packaged architecture.

There were many who felt that the idea of building a flexible, loft-type space, sheathed with curtain walls, which of course was Mies' notion of "universal space," would make it possible for many less talented architects to build within this framework, and a vernacular architecture would emerge. Some thought that this packaged architecture required little talent or sensitivity, and the Europeans still find it the architectural equivalent for the machine age. Time has proven these notions to be a complete fallacy. Only Mies, Johnson and Bunshaft have been able to make of the loft-type building sheathed in curtain wall a work of art. Indeed, many who might well have succeeded in doing so actually turned to a meaningless elaboration of structure thereby reducing their efforts to mannerism. In this sense the seductive precast columns of Yamasaki, the carved stone columns and vaults of Johnson, the slightly tapered and formed columns and window mullions of Pei are all members of the package design school of architecture. Lincoln Center is fundamentally a package design contest: Which building will have the most seductively shaped columns and the slickest skin?

Of course, one of the original impetuses of modern architecture was that no valid traditional forms of architecture could accommodate the intricate, complex twentieth century programmatic demands, nor the leaps in sheer size necessitated by the population explosion. It was argued most eloquently by Le Corbusier that modern life could be accommodated only in new forms, and it was implicit that the new forms would read clearly, eloquently explain their purpose and be poetically manifest in the new architecture. This is the opposite of packaged architecture.

The harmonious relationship of parts eludes most architects today. Unless there is a single generating idea, an idea strong enough to bind all parts into a whole, no work of art will emerge. All of us have seen ludicrous and inappropriate combinations of structure systems, methods of handling light and space, multitudinous ways of relating building to the sky, the ground, the site, violent changes in scale, proportioning systems, etc, all in the same building.

Today we see many who would like to make their buildings more articulate by showing the uniqueness of the various parts. For instance, vertical circulation and toilet facilities are indeed the only desirable fixed elements in office buildings. Why must they always be buried within the package, when their nature is uniquely different from open office space? Similarly, the absolute boredom of uniform ceiling heights with cosmetic-like acoustical tile hanging precariously from the beautiful structure is characteristic of most architectural output today. Even the king of Seagram has the same measly, Miesian ceiling heights and therefore space that everyone else has, although the mere finishes are certainly lusher. Auditoriums and special purpose rooms are also constantly buried within the package. Of course, the volumetric arrangement of any building is a matter of choice, but this does profoundly affect the scale and relationship of buildings to each other.

Architecture cannot continue to be a series of packages placed about the city. Size and placement may depend on the owner's pocketbook, but the scale (not size) can be controlled by the architect. Witness Lu Kahn's Medical Arts Center where he broke down the scale, to bring it into harmony with its Gothic neighbors. The scale of a given building can be reduced or heightened according to the environmental needs of a particular site. Buildings can be made to obey age-old optical laws as demanded by their sites. Buildings can have a sense of presence, a sense of relating and belonging, by fulfilling their assigned role in the cityscape, but little of this can be accomplished by packaging.

Our commitment to individualism, not teamwork in the sense that Gropius suggests, is partially a reaction to growing conformity in the twentieth century, but more importantly an excitement when we sense magnificent new forces and their possibilities. There are too many new worlds to explore, too many new problems crying for solutions, for there to be a universal outlook (every critic implores the gods to make us the same) in an age of profound transition.

The ever-evolving cycle in human affairs is at that point where action has outstripped ideas and theory.

The architect must be uniquely prejudiced. If his work is to ring with conviction, he will be completely committed to his particular way of seeing the universe. It is only then that every man sees his particular truth. Only a few find themselves in such a way. However, as a teacher he must put all of this aside and look dispassionately at the students' efforts and try to understand what it is he is trying to do. The teacher must be unprejudiced.

Now as never before all of us are students and teachers. Our first concern is to perpetuate a climate where the architect-student is acutely and perceptively and incessantly aware of the creative process. We must understand that after all the building committees, the conflicting interests, the budget considerations and the limitations of his fellow man have been taken into consideration, the architect's responsibility has just begun. He must understand that in the exhilarating, awesome moment when he takes pencil in hand, grubby or not, and holds it poised above a white sheet of paper, he has suspended there all that has gone before and all that will ever be. The "Agony and the Ecstasy" of the creative act cannot be delegated.