Paul Rudolph, Tragic Hero

November 11, 2008

Last weekend the Yale School of Architecture celebrated the restoration of not only a building, but also the reputation of one of its most controversial educators. Paul Rudolph’s enigmatic masterpiece, the Art & Architecture Building (1965) reopened with a gala celebration attended by many of his former students, a who’s who of current architectural lions. Lord Richard Rogers, Lord Norman Foster, Dean Robert Stern, Vincent Scully, Stanley Tigerman, Allan Greenberg, Carl Abbott, and Alexander Tzonis were speakers at the event, but many other luminaries also came to honor a mentor and and sometime antagonist, perhaps the most talented and charismatic architect of the 1960s.

History was made under Rudolph, so it is fitting that the commemoration take on the gravity of its moment, only a few days after the Obama triumph. YSA installed a fine exhibition on Rudolph and the Model City in the refurbished gallery at the center of A&A, and the new Gwathmey Siegel addition made splendid foil for the reopening of the old building. In all the event was a success, though it seemed at times like old boys meeting at a Pall Mall club.

My recollections of the building during my undergraduate days in the early 1970s were tinged with the flavor of the times-that is to say,  bittersweet at best. Nevertheless, the power of the building over my imagination seemed very much in tune with memories of other students. A&A, now called Rudolph Hall, is a masterpiece that speaks so eloquently of its moment that it is hard to imagine another building with any claim to similar significance. It spurred so many young designers to reach for great spatial and formal invention that it seems now like the Parthenon of an era of heroes–John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Lyndon Johnson, Malcolm X.

Paul Rudolph was such a hero, similar in his ambition to the political figures of his time. Like them, he saw almost unlimited potential in the American dream, and like them, he fell quickly from the firmament as the decade ended. Commemorative remarks by many of his students painted his genius in terms that can only be called tragic. Tigerman called him the most “pure” of architects–an uncompromising artist who never came to terms with the limitations of construction and economics. Once he left Yale, at the zenith of his powers, all the promise of a brilliant mature career seemed to vanish with the idealism of Camelot and the Model City. Not only did Rudolph fail to produce another building of similar quality, his career took an alarming dive and never recovered.

One cannot help but wonder how such a talented and charismatic artist, a leader in his profession, could fall so quickly from grace. Perhaps it was partly a matter of the decade in which he flourished coming to an abrupt end with the oil crisis, Watergate, and a repudiation of utopian thinking of any kind. There was also something in his ucompromisingly modernist philosophy that proved unsustainable and even destructive, as Vincent Scully remarked in a film shown at the exhibition. His professional competence was also questioned, as many of his buildings failed in some manner shortly after they were constructed.

Nevertheless, Rudolph reached high and inspired a generation of designers with his vision and energy. Like Eero Saarinen, his closest competitor in the early 1960s, he had a brief and glorious moment in the sun. Both will be remembered as exemplars of American exceptionalism and technological leadership during the midcentury. Rudolph should also remembered as a poet of space, a counterpart to Robert Lowell, who soared like a comet and vanished in a burst of flames.