Mike Basher

There’s one in every group. A nonbeliever, that is. Most of the people who have shown up on a recent Saturday afternoon for a tour of Paul Rudolph’s Government Service Center (1971) are already convinced there is something to see here. We take photos of the signature “corduroy” concrete at the entrance, as well as the patinated plaque with Rudolph’s name. We look sadly at the chain-link fences walling off Rudolph’s signature banquette seating (not to code). We listen as Timothy M. Rohan, author of the first complete monograph of Rudolph’s work, talks about the theatrical, even therapeutic, components of his Mental Health Building. The sinuous stair that spills, in concrete waves, down onto Staniford Street more than underlines the first point; we have to take Rohan’s word for the second, as the interior, still in use, is off limits. A middle-aged man in a plaid shirt is having none of it. He sputters, he shifts, his body language and his increasingly aggressive mutterings point to just one question: “You like this stuff?”

After too many such outbursts, he had to be asked to leave. But I had him in mind as I read Rohan’s The Architecture of Paul Rudolph. Could such a book—well-argued, well-illustrated, well-edited—convince him of Rudolph’s worth in a way the tour did not? It’s a timely publication, as Rudolph, embattled in life, has become a central character in present-day discussions of how, why, and when to preserve Brutalist buildings. Rohan’s book offers important context for those works, and new insight into Rudolph’s conflicted personality. That personality—obsessive, aggressive, vulnerable—took him from early life as a solitary minister’s son in Alabama to Harvard University, from building experimental seaside cottages in Sarasota, Fla., to creating concrete campuses in the Northeast. A change in the architectural weather in the 1970s pushed him offstage, but he kept working, revisiting his signature level changes and leggy structures in the Far East, with new (and questionable) cultural references.

Mental Health Building
Mike Basher Mental Health Building

Interior staircase (left) and chapel from the Mental Health Building
Mike Basher Interior staircase (left) and chapel from the Mental Health Building

Rudolph’s obsessive attention to detail, best showcased in his own Plexiglas-interior palaces, can sometimes best be appreciated through his drawings and photos. As Rohan writes, “Rudolph believed that he had to develop compelling images of his projects if he was to win attention for them.” He closely supervised presentation drawings, and worked closely with Ezra Stoller: “Stoller crafted dramatic depictions of Rudolph’s houses that emphasized the play of light and shadow in sunny Florida. Together they ‘styled’ interiors in order to photograph them to their best advantage.” Indeed, the interior photographs of the Mental Health Building show the concept’s softer side, with a skylit chapel and trailing plants in the staircase, both leitmotifs in Rudolph’s public work. 

One of Rohan’s key insights is his emphasis on Rudolph’s interest in interiors. From his first house in Auburn, Ala., in 1940, Rudolph was intimately involved with the art, colors, textiles, and furnishings of projects, big and small. This is something we should have known from the architectural fragments and orange carpet at his Yale Art & Architecture Building (1963), but given the episodic nature of Rudolph’s career, his later New York residential projects and his middle-period concrete works have rarely been considered as a continuum. The delicate 1950s Florida houses, the subject of their own monograph, can seem like they came from yet another hand. But Rohan returns to this theme and cracks open a whole discussion yet to be had about art, color, and ornament in Brutalism and beyond. 

Bass Residence
Mike Basher Bass Residence

Bass Residence
M ike Basher Bass Residence

Rohan keeps Rudolph in context in a way many monographs forget to do. I don’t think of Rudolph’s work as similar to that of Edward Durell Stone, Minoru Yamasaki, and Philip Johnson. But, indeed, critic Reyner Banham lumped them together as the “Ballet School,” its members more interested in ornament and aesthetics than the ethics of the British incarnation of New Brutalism. This critique occurs in Architectural Forum in 1961, as part of a review of Eero Saarinen’s U.S. Embassy in London, and while Rudolph is in a transitional stage, experimenting with different materials and languages. Rohan’s recap dramatizes the repressiveness of architecture culture at that moment, when anything but glass-box consistency could be pounced upon as insufficiently serious. Rudolph “redeemed” himself with his bush-hammered concrete oeuvre. Saarinen suffered the slingshots for decades after his death.

Rudolph was the anti-Skidmore, Owings & Merrill in other ways, too. Though Rohan reports he dreamed of a skyscraper, his architecture was too idiosyncratic and his office too small for much corporate work. (His East Fishkill building for IBM, a client for many contemporaries, was a disaster.) Rudolph always ran his office as an atelier, preferring to work with a small group of younger architects—a teacher with pupils—rather than trying to scale up to a practice with an organizational chart. A stickler for design details, he could be cavalier about construction. And despite his falling-out with Robert Venturi, FAIA, and Denise Scott Brown about the criticism, in Learning from Las Vegas, of Crawford Manor’s duck-like use of ornament that aped structure (1966), he seems never to have cared about truth to engineering. The ideas were all—more important than theory, more important than Miesian integrity. Rohan suggests that Rudolph’s career-in-exile in Asia in the 1980s was a recapitulation of the spatial concepts of the 1960s, tweaked to other scales and other climates. Some of those ideas seem even more terrible at developer scale, particularly the relationship of Rudolph’s lifted-up lower floors to the street. One can still appreciate the Colonnade (1986) in Singapore, a residential project where the faux-prefab checkered façade responds to the climate, giving the apartments double-height, shaded interiors. 

Perspective section of Rudolph's 58th Street office in New York (left) and his office's reception area.
Mike Basher Perspective section of Rudolph's 58th Street office in New York (left) and his office's reception area.

Isomteric aerial view of the Bass House in Fort Worth, Texas (left), and the house's entrance court.
Mike Basher Isomteric aerial view of the Bass House in Fort Worth, Texas (left), and the house's entrance court.

Rohan rightly gives short shrift to Rudolph’s own writings. Rudolph spent his life giving essentially the same speech: that of his 1954 AIA address on “The Changing Philosophy of Architecture.” The key quote is this: “Modern Architecture’s range of expression is today from A to B. We build isolated buildings with no regard to the space between them, monotonous and endless streets, too many gold-fish bowls, too few caves.” Goldfish bowls versus caves would become Rudolph’s recurring rhetorical trope, one whose results were visible in every sunken conversation pit, every seashell space lit from above, the underground cafeteria at Blue Cross Blue Shield (1960) in Boston, the triple-height entry to his New York City office on East 58th Street (1965), which was designed by Der Scutt, later the architect of the equally mountainous Trump Tower. Even those Florida houses, photographed from the water side as glassy and open, often included secluded interior spaces, thickened outer trellises, or drop-down shutters.

Milam Residence in Jacksonville, Fla.
Mike Basher Milam Residence in Jacksonville, Fla.

Perspective section of the A & A Building
Mike Basher Perspective section of the A & A Building

Every believer will have favorite Rudolph projects that get short shrift (the book includes a complete chronology). I missed the spectacular Milam residence (1961), the Rudolph-does-preservation First Church in Boston (1968), and the science fiction-ready Burroughs Wellcome Corporate Headquarters (1972). But it is a sign of a good monograph that it does not exhaust your interest. I also wanted more interpretation, whether from critics of the time or Rohan himself. There’s a moment, when writing about the Art & Architecture building, when Rohan describes the intense spatial sequence that carries you up into the body of that structure. This passage is effective because it accesses the emotional quality of Rudolph’s work, a quality that can be either a turn-on or a turn-off.

I doubt it will be history that convinces the man in the plaid shirt these buildings are worth our time. Rather, it could be the ability to feel their power through experience and image, to experience the personality in architecture that Rudolph espoused. How bland, how plastic, the newer buildings around Government Center seem after a moment on those stairs.