A life of reputations: genius, prodigy, beach house architect, maverick, brilliant instructor, virtuoso, failure and martyred saint, all for a single human being
Leading American Modernist Paul Rudolph established his fame as the innovative designer of Florida beach houses and monumental, concrete buildings. In the early 1960s, he had great promise and it seemed he could well eclipse his contemporaries, Eero Saarinen and Louis Kahn. But his reputation plummeted by the end of the decade, along with the prestige of postwar Modernism. Rudolph was often dismissed as a failure after that, but there was more to his story than just an Icarus-like fall. He had many reputations in his six-decade career, ranging from virtuoso to failure to saint.
Rudolph’s first reputation was as a genius. A preacher’s son born in 1918 and raised in Depression-era Alabama, he was shy and stuttered, but was determined to become a great architect. His friends considered him a genius because of his artistic talent, wild hair and dramatic piano playing, all of which gave him a resemblance to that other minister’s son whose architecture he emulated, Frank Lloyd Wright. A star at Alabama Polytechnic, Rudolph applied to Harvard’s Graduate School of Design where Walter Gropius recognised his skills immediately. According to classmate Philip Johnson, Rudolph was their cohort’s most gifted member.
The US entry into the Second World War in December 1941 interrupted Rudolph’s Harvard education, but serving as an officer in the Brooklyn Navy Yards proved instructive. His pompadour replaced by a crew-cut, Rudolph realised that new plastics and plywoods used for battleship repair and construction could revolutionise construction. Employing them straight after the war established Rudolph’s reputation as a prodigy and attracted attention for the sybaritic beach houses he designed with Ralph Twitchell in Sarasota, Florida. Though remote, the houses were published widely because of relationships Rudolph developed with New York journalists during the war and with European editors after. Establishing a reputation as a talented draughtsman, Rudolph executed drawings for the journals notable for their beauty and clarity while assisting photographer Ezra Stoller in crafting alluring images of the houses against an Edenic backdrop of palms and beaches.
‘Rudolph realised that new plastics and plywoods used for battleship repair and construction could revolutionise construction’
Wanting to be known as more than a clever beach house architect, Rudolph established a reputation in the mid-’50s as the maverick foe of the corporatised, postwar International Style, then at its apotheosis. Decrying the glass curtain wall for its monotony, he called for greater variety and better regard for traditional buildings and urbanism. In those heady years, Rudolph excelled at all he attempted and earned yet another reputation as a brilliant instructor teaching at architecture schools across the US in the ’50s. He became chair of Yale’s architecture department in 1958, aged 39, transforming it into the premier US programme. Rudolph’s reputation attracted talented students from abroad, including Norman Foster and Richard Rogers. Though he had become an Ivy League mandarin, complete with tweeds and grand pronouncements, Rudolph remained shy. Foster remembered that he had little to say at parties in the dazzling, all-white living room of his New Haven house.
Yale entrusted Rudolph with the design of the Yale Art & Architecture Building (1958-63), known as the A&A. Having built few large buildings, Rudolph knew that the A&A would be judged as a sign of his maturity. He was also anxious because for the first time, critics questioned his reputation, especially his skill at attracting favourable media attention. Henry Millon wondered if Rudolph was ‘a man of great genius, a better-than-mediocre figure, or perhaps a charlatan’ who might suddenly collapse. In 1961 one journalist wrote,’Rudolph is so tense I think he may yet maim his talent.’
The Yale building was a popular success. With its picturesque grouping of towers and huge textured concrete walls, it ushered in the concrete monumentality soon known as Brutalism. But approval was not universal. To Rudolph’s chagrin, Nikolaus Pevsner warned students at the 1963 dedication not to emulate it because he found it too dramatic and individualistic. Nevertheless, commissions for similarly monumental academic and civic structures flowed into Rudolph’s office. With each, he honed his reputation as a virtuoso, adorning them with turrets, swirling staircases, and his bush-hammered, corrugated concrete, a treatment soon emulated worldwide. The monumental buildings were also expressive of the zeitgeist, their bold presence embodying US confidence at its postwar peak. With his reputation at its zenith, in 1965 Rudolph left Yale for New York expecting to establish a large private practice and to achieve his life’s ambition, building skyscrapers.
WR Healy (Cocoon) House, Sarasota, Florida (1950)
Jewett Art Center, Wellesley College, Massachusetts (1958)
Masterplan for Tuskegee Institute, Alabama (1958)
Milam Residence, Jacksonville, Florida (1961)
Yale Art and Architecture Building, New Haven, Connecticut (1963)
University of Massachusetts Dartmouth Library (1972)
‘Cities like Tokyo are turning into Disneyland’
But then the world around Rudolph collapsed. The upheavals of the late ’60s undermined the confidence that had supported his grand gestures. Anti-Vietnam protests bred anti-Establishment fervour. The precipitous physical decline of Rudolph’s most famous building, the A&A, was used against him. Architectural journals suggested that his design was responsible for the sorry state of a building just half a decade old, not poor maintenance or changes made by Rudolph’s successor as chairman, Charles Moore. A critical blow came in 1969 when there was an accidental fire in the Yale building, rumoured to have been set by student protesters who considered it an Establishment symbol. Neglect over the next decades turned it into a symbol of how high Modernism and Rudolph had failed. Postmodernism’s bible, Learning from Las Vegas (1972), featured Rudolph as the exemplar of Modernist hubris. Stunned, Rudolph fell silent and retreated from the architectural world.
The recession of the ’70s harmed Rudolph’s practice irrevocably. He lost touch with the times, adamant in his mid-’60s Modernist views while decrying Postmodernism. He was too idiosyncratic for the corporate jobs that became American architecture’s mainstay once public sector commissions declined. He hoped to make a career comeback like his role model, Frank Lloyd Wright, but only a few young architects scornful of Postmodernism admired him. Rudolph’s reputation may have collapsed, but not his talent or work ethic. He laboured for his last decades over some magnificently intricate houses, including his own Manhattan penthouse, and a few tall buildings in South-East Asia that anticipated sustainability. Though often remarkable, these late works received little attention.
New recognition only came after Rudolph’s death in 1997, aged 78. Appearing just as Postmodernism waned and postwar Modernism was being rehabilitated, some obituaries admired him for maintaining his principles in changing times, seeing him as a Modernist martyr. Fittingly, the A&A Building was restored in 2008 and renamed Rudolph Hall. The man had many reputations: genius, prodigy, maverick, gifted teacher, virtuoso, failure, and martyred saint. But canonisation may come too late for Rudolph. McMansions are replacing his houses and the civic buildings are riven by neglect, straitened budgets and opportunistic privatisers of public space. Rudolph was prolific, but his reputation may one day be the most substantial part of his oeuvre left.
Illustration by LUKE FROST AND JON RUNDALL/HERETIC STUDIO