Yale University was the scene of an extended love-fest for Paul Rudolph last year, beginning with the September 2008 unveiling of the gloriously restored Art and Architecture building. It climaxed in November with the rededication of the A&A as Paul Rudolph Hall and the opening its new addition, the Jeffrey H. Loria Center for the History of Art. (Both the restoration and addition were by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates Architects.) The Rudolph celebrations came to a contemplative conclusion in January 2009 with the symposium Reassessing Rudolph: Architecture and Reputation. At the calm center of this activity was the exhibition Model City. Timothy Rohan, associate professor of architectural history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, curated the exhibition and also organized the symposium. The handsome installation was the work of Dean Sakomoto, Yale School of Architecture's Director of Exhibitions. One of the many pleasures of this excellent exhibition was seeing it in the beautifully renovated, newly accessible, well-lit gallery space at the heart of Rudolph Hall, at long last a venue fitting for Yale's exemplary program of architecture exhibitions.
New Haven in the 1950s was branded "Model City" in reference to its status as the premier laboratory for postwar urban renewal in the United States. The force behind this phenomenon was the town's ambitious mayor, Richard Lee, who served from 1954 to 1970. One of his signal accomplishments was to secure more federal urban redevelopment dollars per capita than any other municipality in the country, which moneys he spent to clear swathes of the city and replace supposedly blighted neighborhoods with large-scale building and infrastructure projects. Mayor Lee had a colleague of comparable vision in Yale's president, A. Whitney Griswold, who, during his tenure from 1951 to 1963, transformed the campus with no fewer than twenty-six building projects by leading architects of the day. Between them, Lee and Griswold brought capital-letter Modern Architecture to New Haven. It was into this propitious setting that Paul Rudolph arrived in 1958 to chair Yale's department of architecture and, with impressive speed, to assume a major role in serving the visions of his new town and gown patrons.
Model City examined thirteen works that Rudolph designed for Yale and New Haven between 1957 and 1968, juxtaposing built icons with less-known projects. On display were exquisite models, photographs (both documentary and journalistic), contemporary publications, and, rising above all, Rudolph's glorious drawings (shown as high-quality digital prints). The inclusion of so many drawings————many large in format, like Rudolph's vision————imbued the show with the architect's spirit, for his confident hand conveys the bold intentions of his architecture as no other medium can. To view what is surely one of the greatest American architectural drawings (the perspective section, ca. 1961, of the Yale Art and Architecture Building; Figure 1) within the actual space it depicts was an incomparable experience.
The exhibition was divided into three thematic sections: Critiquing Modernism, Monumental Urbanism, and Prefabrication. These provided a vehicle for Professor Rohan to situate Rudolph's work of this particular time and place within the larger context of postwar modernism, the problematic history of urban renewal, and the experimental nature of Rudolph's practice.
When he came to Yale, Rudolph was already known to be a fierce critic of establishment architecture. His first commission at the university, the Greeley Memorial Laboratory (1957––59, awarded while he was still a visiting critic), offered him an opportunity to test an alterative modernism at a scale larger than the Florida houses for which he had earned early fame. It was, for Rudolph, an early essay in reinforced concrete and shows his delight in the plasticity of the material. As seen in the model of the laboratory's intricate ceiling, the sinuous beams and integral light coffers suggested an Art Nouveau bas-relief. The Greeley Lab and an unbuilt addition to the Payne Whitney Gymnasium (1959), with a sculptural faççade evocative of Gothic architecture, were mere warm-ups for Rudolph's hyper-expressive work in concrete, such as the Art and Architecture Building and the Temple Street Parking Garage (both 1958––63 and lavishly documented in the exhibition).
The narrative that Rohan constructed in the Monumental Urbanism section of the exhibition depicts Rudolph as exceptionally sensitive to the existing fabric of the city, but the evidence is not fully convincing. A drawing (ca. 1958) of Rudolph's makeover of the massive Church Street Redevelopment project shows a hotel slab flipped across Church Street to create a monumental gateway to downtown, a dainty precursor to his later schemes for highway-straddling megastructures for Lower Manhattan. The Temple Street Garage——the one realized portion of Rudolph's Church Street plan——extinguishes commercial life on the blocks that it occupies. One suspects that Rudolph's true self-image as a city-shaper is captured in a 1962 photograph displayed at the entrance to the exhibition: Taken from a distant vantage point, it shows him standing at military ease beside a sports car on the top deck of the Temple Street Garage, its structure extending beyond the frame as if it might go on forever, with the old city spread out behind, ready for wholesale reconstruction. It is the picture of the master builder, taken before the urban renewal schemes of the decade were discredited. Yet the work presented in this exhibition makes one grateful for the masterpieces of modern architecture that New Haven's public investment yielded during these years and wish that more had been realized, such as Rudolph's project for the New Haven Government Center (1968––1981, designed after he left Yale and moved his practice to New York), a sophisticated composition in concrete and glass that knits together a set of historic buildings on the Green (Figure 2).
Rudolph's fascination with prefabrication——not an uncommon interest among progressive architects of the day——is illustrated by the sad tale of Oriental Masonic Gardens (1962––66), a large, low-rise cooperative housing project erected on the outskirts of New Haven. Enabled by a relaxation of building codes that the mayor's office negotiated, Rudolph composed the complex using factory-fabricated modules the size of mobile homes ("the twentieth-century brick," Rudolph liked to call them). Although heralded at the time as a breakthrough for affordable housing, Oriental Masonic Gardens suffered from construction flaws and poor maintenance and was demolished in 1981. Enduring today as a local landmark is Crawford Manor (1962––66), a fourteen-story tower with apartments for the elderly. Here Rudolph collaborated with the local New Haven company Plasticrete to develop ribbed and fluted concrete blocks to achieve with economy the vertical corrugation that had required such elaborate formwork and laborious bush-hammering at the Art and Architecture Building. A catalog of the Plasticrete block shapes and a section of the A&A formwork were both included in the exhibition, effectively connecting the monumental and the minute.
A short film, Rudolph and Renewal (produced by Elihu Rubin and directed by Stephen Taylor), transported the exhibition visitor to New Haven of the 1960s. Injecting welcome immediacy, it includes footage of Mayor Lee talking about his grand Model City plans as well as interviews with architects and others who knew and worked with Rudolph.
Model City would have told a more complete story if it had included reference to the work of other architects working in New Haven at the same time as Rudolph. Thanks to the enlightened patronage of Mayor Lee and President Griswold, New Haven boasts more top-quality modern architecture than any other city of comparable size, with prime works by Eero Saarinen, Louis Kahn, Gordon Bunshaft, Marcel Breuer, Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo, and Philip Johnson, among others. Such context would only have enhanced Rudolph's standing among his peers.
For all of the scholarly rigor and celebratory tone of the exhibition, it was impossible to view Model City without stirring up a triple dose of nostalgia: First, for the days when hand drawing was the prime medium for communicating architectural ideas (computers just don't do it). Second, for a time of enlightened leadership when a university like Yale would call upon the most advanced designers of the day to invigorate a historic campus with bold new forms (rather than the regressive historicism that has lately been the preferred idiom). And third, for an optimistic era in which plans were made proudly large and contemporary architecture was believed to have the power to revitalize our cities and improve our lives——sentiments that might be heard again as this country enters a new period of investment in public works.
[Timothy M. Rohan], Model City: Buildings & Projects by Paul Rudolph for Yale and New Haven. New Haven: Yale School of Architecture (no. 29 in a series of exhibition publications), 2008, 22 pp., 9 b/w illus. Complementary at the exhibition, ISBN 978098205927