Paul Rudolph was a monumental figure in the 1950s and 1960s, designing a number of important private and institutional projects and serving as chair of the Department of Architecture at Yale for almost a decade. His influence was strongly felt at that time, although it has waned since. Recognition of Rudolph's importance has increased of late, largely due to the renovation of his best-known commission, the Art and Architecture Building at Yale. Timothy M. Rohan's research has been central to the resuscitation of Rudolph and his legacy, and it is a pleasure finally to see it in book form.
In The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, Rohan wisely takes the vicissitudes of Rudolph's reception as a central theme: Why was he so important in the mid-twentieth century, and why is he so much less so today? One could ask this question about many once-prominent architects—Pietro Belluschi, Ralph Rapson, and William Wurster come to mind—who wrote and designed actively in the 1950s and 1960s but left few clear followers. Although Rudolph's situation is extreme, he exhibited a number of tendencies characteristic of American architects who emerged right after World War II: an admiration of interwar modernism, an interest in experimental materials and techniques, and a desire to adjust modern tenets to the cultural and regional conditions of the site. Rudolph was widely admired by critics and the interested public, appearing not only in industry journals but also in Time magazine—Rohan notes that he was “a ‘star architect’ long before the term was coined” (1).
Rohan's primary goal is to compensate for the contemporary lack of attention to Rudolph's career. His book is wide-ranging and thorough, tracing the architect's work from his early years as a design assistant to Robert Twitchell in Sarasota, Florida, through the apex of his monumental academic and civic buildings in the 1960s, to the later work in New York and the Far East. The book's coverage is encyclopedic, discussing in detail not only well-known buildings and projects but also many that have thus far escaped widespread attention. Even more important, the book offers readers the opportunity to assess all of Rudolph's work in one volume, giving them a clear sense of the scope and diversity of his production.
A number of key buildings stand out and receive excellent treatment in Rohan's account. The complexities of the concave roof on the Healy House (Twitchell and Rudolph, Siesta Key, Florida, 1948–50), for example, are clearly described and indicate how aggressively Rudolph pursued an experimental approach in his early work—an important precedent to later explorations. The Art and Architecture Building at Yale is also covered in great detail, as one would expect, with careful attention to the commission itself and Rudolph's support at Yale, as well as the iterations of the building's design—the details of which Rudolph published at the time—which well demonstrate the complexities of the program and of his interest in structural and material innovations. Rohan also clearly describes Rudolph's awkward attempts to build with semi-prefabricated parts, especially at Oriental Masonic Gardens (New Haven, Connecticut, 1968–71), in a discussion that serves to locate the architect within the economic, industrial, and sociopolitical aspects of the period in which he worked. Such issues could have been examined more closely in regard to the development of the Downtown Expressway project (New York, 1967), but Rohan focuses his analysis on the purported simplicity of the plan and its relationship to other megastructures rather than on the resistance that the project faced.
While the book is rich in description and illustrations, it offers only general suggestions regarding how to interpret Rudolph's work. Rohan argues for Rudolph's importance relative to a number of issues in architectural culture—debates over monumentality, the possibility of merging structure and ornamentation, the use of prefabrication, and, later, the elaboration of affective interior space—but he does not fully develop any of these arguments. Although Rohan repeatedly uses the word theory to describe ideas played out in Rudolph's buildings and writings, he does not elucidate any systematic approach, or any sense of architectural or sociopolitical criteria, that would justify the term. Indeed, the game is up early on when, in the first line of chapter 3, “Humanism, Yale, and New Haven,” Rohan writes, “For some time Rudolph had considered how an academic appointment could make him better known and advance his career” (56). In other words, Rudolph had no particular pedagogical, disciplinary, or social project; much like his close colleague Philip Johnson, he was simply concerned with getting the job. This tradition of a self-expressive and careerist emphasis is perhaps Rudolph's most significant legacy in the field, one that effectively calls the bluff of any attempt to find an intellectual project hidden within.
The book is clearest when Rohan accepts these limitations and reads Rudolph on his own terms. As Rohan admits, Rudolph was unabashedly focused on self-expression as the measure of architecture—his own and that of others. In describing Rudolph's rift with Twitchell at the beginning of his career and the tensions in his relationships with clients, students, and employees in the decades that followed, Rohan depicts these difficulties as emerging from Rudolph's insistence on the inherent value of his drawings and design ideas. This sometimes makes for a difficult historical treatment—Rohan never makes it clear what, exactly, “self-expression” means in this context, aside from an unwavering commitment to one's own ideas over those of others. In this account “self-expression” emerges as a mask, a dodge that allowed the architect to retain more control over his commissions. Rudolph's work is so varied in its formal treatment that his oeuvre does not appear to realize the goal of expressing a singular architectural idea or formal disposition, whatever that may be. Rather, it appears as an eclectic collection of different ideas appropriate to very different contexts. In this respect it is interesting that Rohan quickly follows the occasional reference to Rudolph's homosexuality with caveats that such personal issues are not legible in the buildings themselves. At the same time, Rohan acknowledges the seeming contradiction that an architect focused on self-expression was in fact not able to express himself fully. Perhaps an opportunity was missed here, a chance to analyze more critically the profession, its self-representation, and its tendency to idolize figures.
These complications are indicative of the current state of architectural history. Where is the place for a monograph on a single architect? One could imagine a number of means by which this book could have framed some of the complex problems of the built environment in the postwar period according to a set of broader themes within which Rudolph played an important role: monumentality, prefabrication, and the importance of the interior are perhaps the most obvious. Such themes could engage not only Rudolph's desire for self-expression but also a broader set of questions about economic, social, and cultural changes that these ideas bring to the fore. Instead, Rohan has chosen to write a semibiographical account, with only passing reference to events not seen as directly related to the architect's work. Such a treatment could be a polemic—the argument can be made that Rudolph, an architect obsessed with his own capacity for self-expression in buildings, is best treated in singular, biographical form. Such a polemic is not explicitly argued and would no doubt fall short. In the end, the reader is left with traces of sociopolitical issues embedded in numerous discussions and little sense of whether Rudolph was paying much attention to them.
Do scholars best serve Rudolph's legacy by playing his own game? Another approach might encompass not only Rudolph's place in the architectural culture but also the changing institutional conditions and the complexities of global life that intersected with his life and work. Rohan's book presents a number of opportunities to expand the discussion in this way. In several places Rudolph's work could be connected to that of other architects as well as writers and other cultural actors active in the period. The section on Rudolph's Florida houses—most designed with Ralph Twitchell—sheds new light on the dynamism of the immediate postwar period, as both architects and clients sought to understand experimental materials, climatic and other regional determinants, and new conceptions of space. Rudolph's late work in Asia established a template for Western architects working in the region, experimenting with program, façade, and materials at a scale even beyond what Rudolph was accustomed to.
Despite these frustrations, the book makes an important contribution. Whether or not Rudolph was indeed the first star architect, this work speaks volumes about the historical contours of architectural discourse and the relationship of architectural expression to the vagaries of the built environment.