Probably The Best - December 23, 1998


Peter Blake (1920-2006) was a practicing architect, an architectural critic, editor and educator. Blake’s association with the Museum of Modern Art and the Architectural Forum placed him in the perfect position to observe, work with, and comment on the great figures of 20th-century architecture. His lively critiques of Modern Architecture brought the avant-garde to the American mainstream.

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


By Peter Blake 

More than fifty years ago, the center of gravity of American architecture underwent a rather dramatic shift: quite suddenly the action shifted from various Beaux-Arts oriented institutions to one or two schools of architecture that were unmistakably modern, and dominated by teachers who bad come to the U.S. largely to escape Nazi persecution. The schools, in the U.S., that took the lead in this shift were, of course, Harvard (which hired Walter Gropius and Marcel Breuer to direct its architecture program), and Armour Institute (later I.I.T.) which hired Mies van der Robe ot run its school. Within a very few years—starting in the late 1930s—a new generation of young Americans, passionately committed to what became known the Modern Movement, began 'to dominate the American architectural scene; and, before very long, other schools followed suit—and nothing in American architecture would ever be same again.

The new generation of architects who emerged from those new schools of the Modern Movement was an extraordinary crew: it included people like Edward L. Barnes, Philip Johnson, I. M. Pei, John Johansen, Willo von Moltke, Landis Gores, Eliot Noyes, and many more whose names escape me for the moment. There were probably more than two dozen who out of Harvard and I.I.T. before and just after World War II—an interruption that seems to have done little to delay the dramatic shift. And once it was over, and slightly younger students began to look for ways of joining the avant garde, other schools divorced themselves from the Beaux-Arts academy and tried to join up. So that, by 1950 or thereabouts, very few reputable schools of architecture in the U.S. were anything but “modern.”

Among the people who began to emerge from Harvard that period were several who have left their mark in various ways, and continue to do so. But to me, and in the judgement of others who were on or near the scene in those years, a young man, born in Kentucky in 1918 and named Paul Rudolph was probably the most extraordinary.

Paul was unlike all other Harvard-trained modernists: for one thing, he was from a very “proper" conservative family, and had virtually no interest in political or social issues. He had never been to Europe, and be had been to see a movie before he arrived Harvard. By the time I met him, he was working Manhattan and renting a room in the house of Robert and Harriet Rosenberg, whom he had met when he was at Harvard (where Bob was a classmate); and Bob and Bettie me that whenever father, a Methodist Minister, came to visit his son, they would have to hide evidence of liquor and of cigarettes, to make sure Paul's father would not throw a fit. Paul looked an altar boy, come to think of it—complete with crew cut and somewhat military posture.

He still had both some fifty years later, he died from cancer last August 8th. By that time, Paul had built some 150 remarkable structures, small as well as very big; he had designed many, many more that survive primarily as beautiful, precise and eloquently drawings—some of which reproduced on these pages.

What made Paul’s built and unbuilt projects so remarkable was that unlike most of contemporaries, be had learned not only from the work his teachers at Harvard, but also from the work of everyone else whose buildings and projects he had studied with enormous care: be was probably the only student of Gropius and Breuer who had studied the works of Wright and Mies and Le Corbusier—and studied them lovingly and perceptively, and with deep insight. And not only works of his contemporaries and immediate predecessors: he was deeply interested in the architecture of the pest—of virtually every period of the past—and observed and interpreted and learned from everything from almost every period that he was able to study. In the early 1950s he won a fellowship that permitted to travel in Europe for the first time in his life, and he was virtually stunned by what he saw: when he came back, he told me that after Italy and Greece and France his life would never be the same again! He was breathless with excitement when he spoke to me. Needless to say, he made drawings of everything he saw, and more.

And he never stopped drawing: From the very beginning his career as an architect, Paul loved to draw and study everything, go beyond the examples that had first inspired him. For Instance. his first waterfront houses in Florida were not at all “Miesian” in appearance; but they were very "Miesian" in the way they refined every single detail and every spatial composition. The little Healy Guest House, completed 1949 in Siesta Key, Florida, is unlike anything Mies van der Rohe ever attempted; but it is so refined, so elegant in its details, so minimalist in its composition that it would have been admired by Mies, however grudgingly. What is even more extraordinary about this little pavilion is that is one of the first buildings actually completed by Paul Rudolph; yet it seems so self-assured that one assumes it must be the work of a very accomplished designer.

The house Paul Rudolph did for Anne Bass in Fort Worth, Texas, some 20 years later, is a very different building, both in scale and in its inspiration. By this time, Rudolph had become increasingly fascinated by Frank Lloyd Wright's vocabulary of forms and spaces, and there are some obvious references in this house to Fallingwater and to other, late-Wrightian efforts. But it doesn't really appear very much like a Wright house when you look at it more closely: it is very "modern" in detail and in finish, and not the least bit artsy-craftsy in its execution. What makes it “Wrightian” is the spatial composition, and the way Paul Rudolph might and did dramatize what he had learned from Wright.

The house done shortly after Rudolph finished the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, which has been widely criticized by people not really qualified to do so. The A & A is a wonderful building, full quirky details and surprising finishes and vistas. I seem to remember Paul told me that It contained 28 different floor levels (or was it 34?), and I confess that have long ego stopped counting. It also, surely, must contain some 53 different ceiling heights, and an infinite number of interior and exterior vistas, with flashes of sunlight streaking through them at various times. It is “Wrightian” in many respects (Iike the Larkin Building?), and it even reminds me of one of Dudok's buildings and of projects by Sant’Elia and by Van Doesburg; but it not in the least bit Miesian! It is a wonderful exercise in spatial fantastica, and it isn’t anything that you or I would want to try and duplicate. to and duplicate. Or one would succeed in doing so…

What makes the A & A Building (and some others done by Paul Rudolph in those years) so remarkable is not that it was influenced by the likes of Wright and Le Corbusier—after all, everyone, those years, was a disciple or one sort or another: Johnson a disciple of Mies, Barnes a disciple of Breuer and Gropius, Gores a disciple of Wright, and so on….  What makes Rudolph's work of those years so remarkable is that be able to translate those influences and inspirations into images of his own creation.

The A & A Building probably influenced inside by Wright's spatial concepts—and on the outside, by Le Corbusier's work of the years after World War II, especially the “béton brut" buildings of that period, with their roughly textured concrete next to polished surfaces of glass and tile and stucco. Paul Rudolph took those images and translated them into his own vocabulary, and produced a language of his own making. In some of his other work of that period there were traces of Erich Mendelsohn’s romantic concrete forms, and even of Antoni Gaudi’s “organic" shapes at the Casa Mila; and Rudolph translated all of these images into a coherent vocabulary. I can think of no one else of that period who was so sophisticated, so knowledgeable, so subtle in developing his own, distinctive architectural idiom.

Rudolph’s work prior to the mid-1950s was done with Ralph Twitchell, a Sarasota, Florida, architect; but in 1957, Rudolph was appointed Chairman of the School Architecture at Yale, and he "stayed there until 1965. Although there were ideological conflicts—as there were in most universities in the 1960s—Rudolph established a remarkable record: not only with the Art and Architecture Building (and several other buildings of quality in the New Haven area), but also with various academic successes: for example, he established a special, advanced studio for students whom he considered exceptionally talented, and whom he would himself teach. The first two selected by him were two Brits—quite unknown at the time, needless to say—called Richard Rogers and Norman Foster. Those two, and others who followed him, did not do badly in subsequent years….

After Yale, Paul Rudolph moved office to New York City, and that is where he stayed for the rest of his life. His work became increasingly broad in scope and distinguished in quality—but, for various reasons (in part because of the rise of postmodernism, which Paul and many of his contemporaries considered e cheap marketing device), Rudolph’s work tended to shift to geographic areas outside the U.S. Most of it, in fact, tended to be in Asia—Hong Kong, Singapore, Jakarta, and elsewhere. And the he was able to do in those places expended several of the themes that he had explored earlier in the U.S.—especially the notion that large buildings created in this century and the next would consist of prefabricated "modules" supported, within structural steel or concrete grids. He called those modules “Twentieth Century Bricks,” and built several high-rise structures in Asia consisting of such “Bricks” or reasonable facsimiles thereof.

Although Paul Rudolph's recent work did not generate the amount of publicity that seems to be a prerequisite to architectural stardom nowadays—and he was passed over for the Gold Medal from the AIA and a Pritzker Prize from similarly tendentious juries—some of us who may somewhat better informed never ceased admiring the quality of his work and the extraordinary integrity with which he pursued it. Wherever he spoke, his audiences (mostly of young students) were "held spellbound,” as New York Times put it—not only by the quality of his work and his words, but also by the quality of his persona: on the occasions when he spoke at schools of architecture which I headed, it was difficult to persuade him to show his own work—he was more interested in speaking broadly about architecture and the ideas that shaped it. He was a person of vest modesty and integrity, and of very great accomplishment.

Peter Blake