Paul Rudolph:  Inspiration, Design, and Friendship - August 12, 2018


For Paul Rudolph’s centennial celebration in 2018 we asked Ernst Wagner, his business partner and friend of many years, and the founder of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation, to reflect on Rudolph and his many interests, the projects on which they collaborated, and his significance.


Paul Rudolph:  Inspiration, Design, and Friendship
By Ernst Wagner

My name is Ernst Wagner and I was a close friend of Paul Rudolph for almost a quarter of a century. I feel that I was incredibly lucky to have gained the friendship and trust of this great man. One of his legacies to me was his ongoing curiosity: a way of experiencing the world which encouraged discovery, with freshness and vividness. He taught me how to see, and this has affected me deeply.

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Paul Rudolph and I bought 246 East 58th Street in 1989, and developed it as the Modulightor Building. At the time of this venture, we’d already been friends for almost 20 years. Though Paul died in 1997, his spirit is still very much alive here after over 20 years since his passing.

Paul designed a dynamic composition: a work of architectural-artistic intensity, and a practical building that would be a home for Modulightor (the lighting firm we co-founded), and his office, as well as residential space. Paul never lived here, but for years his architectural firm was on the second floor---and he was ongoingly involved with Modulightor, including his designing of several of the “classic” fixtures which we still make today.

For the interiors, Rudolph became his own contractor, meeting with the craftspeople each morning and carefully—like a sculptor—arranging mock-ups with foam-core boards: shifting, adjusting, and balancing the forms and voids until he was satisfied. Sometimes, he’d come back the next day and say “Oh, I made a mistake—take it all down.” So they’d rework the elements—the kind of thing you can do when you’re your own client!

He thought in terms of spatial movement, creating intricate, multi-tiered spirals of space. As you transition from one level to another, the width and the height of the space keeps changing, adjusting and expanding through a series of movements of vertical & horizontal planes, creating a kinetic assemblage and multiple viewpoints. Yet the spaces feel dynamic and serene at the same time.

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For me, the experience of living in these spaces—first on Beekman Place, and later on 58th Street—was like living in a work of art: wherever you move, wherever your gaze alights, one sees fresh vistas and unexpected facets of the design. Also, one has the feeling of being hugged and embraced.

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The Modulightor Building should be considered en suite with his other NYC projects. Earlier, he had undertaken, with me “as a small sail,” the development of 23 Beekman Place—his celebrated townhouse residence near the UN. He also designed another well-known residence in New York: the elegantly proportioned and detailed townhouse on East 63rd Street—“101” as it was known to the glittering cast around its most famous owner, the fashion icon, Halston.

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Rudolph’s 23 Beekman “Quadruplex” was his most spatially rich—and very personal—vision of the possibilities of design: intimate and Piranesi-like, soaring and layered—an orchestration of interlocking-interwoven spaces. It was his home, and his own design laboratory, where he’d constantly experiment with new variations—a composition of rich textures and reflective materials catching the light in magical ways. No less than 17 levels could be counted which, pinwheel-like, float and lead one to the next luminous experience.

At one point, I asked Paul, “Is it not going to be too complicated?” To which he replied, “No, no, you don’t understand! Architecture is like music! Do you think that a Bach fugue is too complicated?”

Later in his life, in the early 1990’s, Rudolph used to hold informal meetings at his home: on the weekends, groups of students would be welcomed to discuss and debate design, urbanism, and the roles of the architect in society. These were very lively, exciting exchanges, with ideas freely and rapidly flowing back-and-forth! Paul’s intention was that his home would continue to be a place for such meetings: where debates, seminars, colloquia, and events of an architectural-social-cultural nature would be held—and I promised him that I would see to it that this would happen. For a variety of reasons, this did not come to pass at 23 Beekman—but I made a solemn promise to Paul, and I hope to fulfill it at the Modulightor Building on 58th Street.

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He thought furniture should reflect the character of its architectural context, and resonate with the spaces’ other elements. But he could not find commercially available furniture which fit harmoniously—so he created his own.

Rudolph was interested in modular systems—a “kit of parts” that could create multiple (and more economical) solutions—whether it be at the scale of furniture or of whole housing developments—and he thought that architects should “speak the language of modularity”. When he encountered a system of shelving components that allowed for varied combinations, he jumped at the possibilities inherent in that system, seeing that it could be used to create other kinds of furniture, as well as lighting configurations. Based on his sketches, Paul and his staff would assemble prototypes of chairs and tables using that system—and when a design had been refined, a number were made for use in his own residence.

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Throughout his life, he received many acknowledgements, awards, and tributes—and it’s worth recording some special ones here:

Philip Johnson: “Rudolph was the Frank Lloyd Wright of his time.”

Walter Gropius, Rudolph’s teacher at Harvard, when asked about his most talented students, responded: “Paul Rudolph and I.M. Pei”—and in that order.

Norman Foster: “Paul Rudolph was the single most formative force in my life.”

Robert Ivy, editor-in-chief of Architectural Record, mentioned that Rudolph’s Milam House—which they made the “House of the Year” in 1963—was the most influential example of house design for the rest of the century.

The US Postal Service issued five stamps of notable 20th Century architects:  Wright, Pei, Kahn, Meier—and Paul Rudolph!

Further testimonials can be found on the website of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation.

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The effect of light and lighting (as “a fourth dimension”) was of intense interest to Rudolph: he cared about the way light worked in his buildings, thoroughly analyzing the effects as part of his design process, and even inventing his own fixtures. He thought “Reflected light coming from the wall is the most humane of all light.”—and, when achieved, it was “…as if the walls are caressing you with their light.”

In the late 1970’s I became aware of his experiments in this domain. There was his “Infinity Light Room” in which he would create “light curtains”: vertical strings of Christmas bulbs, connected horizontally with frosted Plexiglas tubes, which were then placed in front of dual mirrored walls and a mirrored ceiling. When the room’s lights were dimmed, a thrilling vision was to be seen: seemingly zillions of little stars exploded into infinity, and I felt like I was floating in the Milky Way. I thought: “This lighting magic is for me!” and—with Rudolph’s support—we co-founded Modulightor. At that time, in the mid-70’s, the architectural lighting industry offered few choices, limiting the architect’s imagination. We came up with a flexible, scalable system, along with a number of cutting-edge technical innovations, which give designers wide design freedom.

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I grew up in a small Swiss village near Ronchamp, the Alsatian village where Le Corbusier’s chapel was built in the late 1950’s. In 1958 we kids biked there, and I remember how the villagers revolted against the “unfamiliar, hideous pile of concrete”. It was built in an architectural language they did not understand at that time, and there were threats to demolish it. They were nearly successful, and only financial reasons prevented its destruction. If the will of many of the villagers had prevailed at that time, we would have lost this world-icon of design.

In 1995 Paul Rudolph and I visited Ronchamp. I could hardly believe how this backwater village had become a pilgrimage site and architectural destination. Tourism was helping the local economy flourish, and the locals were now bursting with civic pride about having a famous work of architecture in their town—and praised the town council for their “foresight” to not let their previous emotions prevail.

I do understand the reaction of the Ronchamp townspeople: originally, I too did not see that work’s greatness. Often a culture—as well as an individual—has a long long learning curve until one “grows into it.” Until that happens, a culture sharply clashes with the new. There are parallels in all fields: the changing valuations of Gauguin, Picasso, and Bach are prime examples—yet they’re now are seen as landmarks of our civilization.

I bring this up because this repeatedly happens with architects and their buildings—works whose beauty is sometimes “tough” and takes getting used-to.

Thus it has been with Paul’s work and reputation. We’ve lost some of his most significant works, due that lack of understanding—the recent destruction of his civic center in Goshen, NY being a prominent example.

But as with other artists—and Rudolph was a great artist whose medium was architecture—he is now attracting renewed attention. I see many examples, day-after-day, wherein his ideas are being used integrated into current practice—the “DNA” of his design work, particularly his interest in modular systems.

His star is rising again—and with it, his legacy: a reminder of the value of visual-spatial-architectural-urban richness—and the power & delight & adventure of never-ending invention.