PRINT April 1999


Edward Durell Stone and Paul Rudolph

AS WE APPROACH THE MILLENNIUM, in architecture as in fashion, our appetite for salvaging designs from recent decades grows ever more voracious. But would some artifacts do well to simply remain in the closet? Many fail to see how critically maligned buildings might get better with age, and on the short list of most endangered mid-’60s structures are Edward Durell Stone’s Huntington Hartford Building and Paul Rudolph’s Beekman Place triplex.

The city’s recent selection of David Child’s proposal for replacing the Coliseum on Columbus Circle has cast a spotlight on its vulnerable neighbor, Two Columbus Circle. Known in a previous life as the Gallery of Modern Art, this poured-concrete marble-clad structure was commissioned in 1965 by Huntington Hartford to rival the Museum of Modern Art. The current owner, the City of New York, is considering selling the off-white elephant to Donald Trump, who plans to demolish it, or making a sweetheart deal with the Calder Foundation or Dahesh Museum, both of which promise to respect Stone’s design.

Critics have pleaded for razing Stone’s creation since its unveiling. John Canady wrote that the building “demanded so much elevator and stairway space that the exhibition galleries were reduced to boutiques clustered around palatial escape routes.” But what really riled critics was the infamous porthole-studded arcaded exterior, described by Ada Louise Huxtable as a “die-cut Venetian Palazzo on lollipops.” Understood as a raised middle finger to the prevailing International Style, Stone’s early attempt at historical pastiche was considered as reactionary as the figurative painting collection the building was designed to complement.

If protopostmodernism is still too echt-’80s to embrace, our assessment of the building’s skin shouldn’t blind us from crediting its novel interior. In sharp contrast to the White Cube, Stone outfitted his galleries with book-matched wood paneling and parquet floors, sumptuous materials that lent the spaces a domestic air. Curtained ocular windows perforated the museum’s corners, admitting natural light and glimpses of Central Park. Behind an upper story loggia, a cocktail lounge and Polynesian restaurant commanded sweeping views. Melding patterned wallcoverings with Knoll furnishings, Stone’s interiors crossed high and popular culture, offering art lovers an early, if wide-eyed, alternative to the modernist museum.

Like Stone’s structure, the fate of the apartment Paul Rudolph designed for himself remains uncertain (two years after his death, Sotheby’s has been unable to unload the property). Obituaries portray the former Yale University dean as a High Modernist holdout, but a closer look at his iconoclastic abode suggests his relationship to his forefathers was in fact much more complex. While Rudolph’s bold use of materials like acrylic, Plexiglas, and Mylar are perfectly in keeping with the modernist penchant for experimentation, these mass-market products culled during his routine Canal Street shopping sprees would be more at home in a Vidal Sassoon hair salon or at the Electric Circus. To be sure, the architect employs a quintessentially modernist monochromatic palette (white surfaces, metal, glass), but in his own house? And where modernists typically deploy glass-window walls to promote visual extension in the horizontal dimension, Rudolph rotates the transparent picture plane ninety degrees. His acrylic catwalks induce vertigo and disorientation, heightening awareness of the eye and body as one moves through space.

Created by an influential but professionally closeted architect, Rudolph’s house is nothing less than the ultimate queer bachelor pad, whose every subversion of modernist convention effectively reconfigures traditional models of domesticity. The infamous Plexiglas floors function as horizontal apertures that frame views a card-carrying modern architect would consider unthinkable. Describing a recent fête at the town house, a columnist wrote that a partygoer looking upward “might have caught a glimpse of something more than just a plain white ceiling.” By rendering bath fixtures transparent (the guest room offers a particularly revealing view of the Plexiglas Jacuzzi in the master bedroom above), Rudolph transforms a traditional site of bodily shame and abjection—the bathroom—into a playful scene of voyeurism and display. The architecture sponsors a reversible gaze that allows new domestic transactions between inhabitants living under the same (transparent) roof.

In New York’s heated real estate market, the fate of these two structures will set an important precedent. Given the appetite for recent history, perhaps we’ll finally begin to appreciate the postwar buildings so commonly demonized for displacing New York’s prewar past.

Joel Sanders is an architect and writer based in New York.