A Road Trip Back to the Future
Published in The New York Times
March 25, 2007
Visiting Paul Rudolph's Buildings in New England
ONE of the high points of my childhood on Long Island — where most buildings were as ordinary as Monopoly houses — was driving past Endo Labs, a pharmaceutical company headquarters in Garden City made of undulating surfaces of corduroy-textured concrete. Endo was part medieval castle, part flying saucer and unlike any building I had ever seen.
Much later I learned that it was the work of Paul Rudolph, a Kentucky-born architect who, in the second half of the 20th century, produced a remarkable series of buildings, virtually all of them of concrete poured into shapes so complex that users were both exhilarated and mystified, often at the same time. When he died in 1997, he was lauded as a homegrown talent who had adapted the ideas of European modernists — like Le Corbusier and Mies van der Rohe — into a uniquely American body of work.
But just a few years later, much of that work is in danger. In January, a Westport, Conn., house was bulldozed, joining several other Rudolph buildings in architecture’s junkyard. Right now, at least three buildings — a high school in Sarasota, Fla.; the Orange County Government Center in Goshen, N.Y.; and an office building in Boston built for Blue Cross/Blue Shield 45 years ago — are threatened with destruction. Still others face death by neglect.
If Rudolph’s buildings aren’t as highly valued as those of some of his contemporaries, that’s in part because they aren’t as well understood. But it isn’t difficult to become familiar with Rudolph’s prodigious output. In a Rudolph-themed road trip last month, with New York as a base, I was able to see nearly a dozen of his buildings in three days.
Rudolph’s earliest buildings are in and around Sarasota, where he worked in the 1950s after studying architecture at Harvard and serving in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II. His final works are in Singapore and Hong Kong, where he was welcomed after falling out of favor with American developers. But much of his midcareer output is in the Northeast, where I made my pilgrimage. (Manhattan, Rudolph’s home for decades, has three Rudolph buildings, all town houses, but two are never open to the public and the third, completed after his death, offers only a glimpse of his talent.)
The largest of Rudolph’s works in the United States is the campus of the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, in southeastern Massachusetts, built in the 1960s, after Rudolph’s tenure of six years as dean of the Yale architecture school. As a young man, Rudolph had visited medieval towns in Europe, and at Dartmouth he created the equivalent in poured concrete: two vast, twisting buildings circle a campanile. At a time when modernism was largely about mass production, Rudolph went the opposite route, creating a seemingly infinite variety of forms. Inside, the trip from one room to another can take you up and down six different stairways.
AFTER four years here, you get to know your way around,” Rob Dellibovi, a senior who was leading a campus tour, said. “I didn’t like it at first, but over time I’ve come to love it.”
Alan Bates, a chemistry professor, told me that no matter how much money the university spends to fix the roofs, “we’ll have puddles in the hallway if it rains tomorrow,” yet he said he was proud to work in such a distinctive setting. Friendly librarians let me tour the media center, where the screen savers on dozens of computers display the very building that contains them.
Ashley Sweeney, a high school senior from Webster, Mass., taking Mr. Dellibovi’s tour, pronounced the buildings “cool.” And they are cool, representing Rudolph’s astonishing ability — working in an age before computers — to conceive structures as complex as anything drawn by M. C. Escher and then to realize them in three dimensions.
Sixty miles to the north in Wellesley, I visited one of Rudolph’s most successful buildings. Commissioned by Wellesley College to design an arts building overlooking a collegiate Gothic courtyard, Rudolph responded with a remarkable mix of creativity and restraint. Exterior details of his Jewett Arts Center are subtle references to Gothic brickwork and tracery. Still, Rudolph’s trademarks are there: the concrete columns, shaped like four-leaf clovers, are like no others in the world, and the indoor sculpture court is a complex, multilevel space.
Some of the exterior features — like stairs to nowhere — are confounding, but a Rudolph wouldn’t be a Rudolph without them. At a time when most new buildings hid their guts behind glass “curtain walls,” he prodded people to notice how his buildings were assembled.
In Boston, the Government Center, designed by Rudolph and a team of associated architects, is a vast fortress-like complex of corduroy concrete sweeping around a huge site at the base of Beacon Hill. The building is overwhelming: its facade is nearly a third of a mile long. Though some find it off-putting — it may be the high-water mark of a style known as Brutalism — it represents Rudolph’s efforts to express government authority without resorting to historical motifs (though the corduroy concrete does recall the fluting of classical columns). Far more inviting is First Church in Boston, in Back Bay, which replaced a Gothic building that burned in 1968. Rudolph left the remains of the old steeple, but added his own angled sanctuary. And here the corduroy concrete is given a function: Names of church members, some from as far back as 1630, are written on strips of copper foil that nestle in the crevices lining the sanctuary.
Somewhere between the off-putting Government Service Building and the inviting church is Rudolph’s 13-story Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building, a commercial building wrapped in crisscrossing concrete struts. It is now threatened by a developer backed by the city’s mayor, who would like to put an 80-story building on its site in the city’s financial district. On March 13, the Boston Landmarks Commission issued a 90-day demolition delay, so that the developer could explore alternatives to demolition, said Roysin Bennett Younkin, the architectural historian for the commission.
From Boston, it’s a two-hour drive through Sturbridge and Hartford to New Haven and Rudolph’s most famous building: the Art and Architecture Building at Yale. Although parts of it are closed in preparation for a renovation starting this summer, it’s possible to see a lot, starting with the ground-floor architecture gallery (where a sign warns visitors to beware of unexpected steps, a trademark hazard of Rudolph’s architecture). The building, though only seven stories high, is said to have 37 separate levels. Across the street, Louis I. Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery is a model of modernist simplicity; the contrast couldn’t be greater, and yet each building has its place in the history of architecture. Fittingly, they are reflected in each other’s windows.
Rudolph designed half a dozen other buildings in New Haven. At his Temple Street Parking Garage, the lampposts are concrete curlicues. The Mansfield Street Apartments, owned by Yale, are a kind of hill town of brick and concrete blocks.
But it was depressing to discover that Rudolph’s 1968 Oriental Masonic Gardens complex, an experiment in prefabricated housing featured in many architecture books, has been demolished. And at his Greeley Memorial Lab, soaring spaces supported by treelike columns have been broken up into a rabbit warren of offices, a virtual shantytown within what was meant to be a light-filled pavilion. Dorie Baker, a spokesman for Yale, said, “The administration is well aware that something needs to be done.”
Another two-hour drive took me from New Haven west to Goshen, the seat of Orange County, N.Y. Goshen prides itself on quaintness, which makes the vast Paul Rudolph building in its center something of a shock. “If I took a poll in town, the building would be demolished tomorrow,” Edward A. Diana, the Orange County executive, once told me. The building is startlingly complex, a series of concrete boxes piled atop each other, creating, by Mr. Diana’s count, 87 separate roofs — all of which, he said, leak. Richard Mayfield, a spokesman for Mr. Diana, said recently that while the future of this 40-year-old building is still being debated, demolition is its most likely fate.
Ten years after he completed the Orange County Government Center, Rudolph (working with Jerald L. Karlan) sent corduroy concrete shooting 40 stories into the air in his Tracey Towers in the Bronx. Right angles are rare; the floor plans of these apartment buildings near Van Cortlandt Park suggest palm fronds drawn on a child’s Spirograph. In the words of Robert A. M. Stern, Thomas Mellins and David Fishman, authors of “New York 1960,” they are “New York’s ultimate example of futuristic design.”
The lobby incorporates half a dozen levels, not always sensibly; ramps lead to stairways that lead to ramps — to nowhere. But Rudolph’s use of curves, in both plan and section, makes this one of the city’s great interiors. On three visits, I had no problem getting into the lobby (despite the presence of guards meant to turn nonresidents away). I even rode the elevators, where I told people that I had come to see the architecture. Most of them were shocked. Not one person I spoke to recognized the name Paul Rudolph.