New York

Paul Rudolph

Max Protetch

The career of architect Paul Rudolph has spanned well over 35 years. Rudolph’s work is a testimony to the knotty relationship of architecture, politics, and criticism. His early work was promising, but he became the fallen angel of architecture in the ’60s with the construction of his Brutalist building for the Yale School of Art and Architecture (1958–62), which was defaced by outraged students who found Rudolph’s concept tyrannical and the building uninhabitable. After the Yale debacle Rudolph became a somewhat problematic presence in architecture, and few of his subsequent projects were realized. However, this exhibition confirmed that Rudolph has continued to aggressively explore the expressive potentials of a Modernist idiom.

Installed in chronological order, the exhibition began with a series of modest designs for houses, from the early ’50s. These spartan little buildings are illuminated by the sparks of friction between Rudolph’s austere design vocabulary and his ebullient, experimental ideas. His Theoretical Flap House (1952) has walls composed of vertical panels that can be raised with pulleys to admit light and air. This design is a precise balance between permanent and provisional architecture; its self-assured, even dogmatic functionalism is offset by its allowance for improvisation and modulation, which have been too often ignored by most contemporary architecture.

The Yale project has been well documented, but there was an interesting unpublished drawing here that was completed in 1970. This drawing is a perspective study in felt-tip pen and red pencil representing the movement of air through the building’s interior spaces. Given its later date, the drawing seems like a postmortem executed to understand the vulnerabilities of an architecture once it is inhabited. It is eloquent, painful, and finally redeeming. The building can now be seen for what it was, and is: not a straitjacket, but an eloquent statement in opposition to architectural conventions of that time.

Rudolph’s vision is both microscopic and macroscopic. He is fascinated with the idea of trailers and mobile homes as the molecular units of urban megastructures, and envisions these small components traveling down superhighways to congregate at their destinations. Some of his most recent proposals for multiuse high-rise buildings in Hong Kong and Singapore are complex structures variegated by a multiplicity of scale and detail that makes their titanism quite acceptable.

To look at Rudolph’s work is to realize the capriciousness of events. In the ’60s he was architecture’s adversary and its victim. In retrospect, he is an innovator who has always pulled away from the conforming forces of architectural convention and criticism. He remains a visionary, a builder, and an oppositional presence. His work deserves a most careful review.

Patricia C. Phillips