Rudolph Redux

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Richard Barnes

Yale University Art Complex, New Haven, 2008/photo: Richard Barnes

Redux — it means reborn. On Friday I headed up to New Haven for the two-day festivities to celebrate the rededication of Paul Rudolph Hall, the new name for the great, vexed, endlessly abused and now beautifully restored building that was completed in 1963 to house Yale’s art and architecture programs. in the picture above that’s Rudolph Hall at left. The building to its right houses Yale’s new Jeffrey H. Loria Center for the History of Art and the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library, both designed by Charles Gwathmey, who also oversaw the restoration of the Rudolph building.

In the year that Rudolph Hall first opened — it was known then as the Art & Architecture building — Paul Rudolph was chairman of Yale’s architecture department and also an architect approaching the height of his power and influence. (After the assassination of John F. Kennedy, Jackie would even tour the place when she was shopping for an architect for the JFK library in Boston — a job that eventually went to I.M. Pei.)  The A&A building was Rudolph’s masterpiece.

Ezra Stoller — Esto

Rudolph Hall in 1963/photo: Ezra Stoller — Esto

But it wasn’t understood that way by everybody. A lot of students hated it. They complained about overpowering sunlight in the drawing studios, bone chilling cold in winter and confusing circulation. It’s not every ten-story building that manages 37 changes of level in its interiors.

Richard Barnes

Paul Rudolph Hall, fourth and fifth floor interior, 2008/photo: Richard Barnes

And though Rudolph thought of himself as a forward-looking thinker — he was right — in the Oedipal youth culture of the late ’60s his big, raw-boned concrete building might as well have come with a sign that said “Daddy built this.” Eventually its open spaces were ruthlessly partitioned and in 1969 it suffered a fire that some people suspected, wrongly as it turns out, might have been set by disgruntled students.

Rudolph’s building owed a lot to Frank Lloyd Wright’s rethinking of architectural space in terms of thrusting planes and volumes, and to Wright’s way of interlocking compressed and open spaces. It’s practically a posthumous tribute to Wright’s great Larkin Administration Building of 1904, which had been demolished in 1950.

Larkin Building, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1904 (demolished 1950)

Larkin Administration Building, Frank Lloyd Wright, 1904 (demolished 1950)

And it’s easy to see Rudolph’s debt to Louis Kahn’s Richards Medical Research Laboratories at the University of Pennsylvania, which was completed in 1960. As it happen, Kahn’s great Yale University Art Gallery is directly across the street from Rudolph’s building and Kahn’s magnificent Yale Center for British Art is just across from that. Talk about fancy intersections.


Richards Medical Research Laboratories, Philadelphia, Louis Kahn, 1960/photo: MOMA

All the same, Rudolph Hall remains a powerfully original building that produces a brilliantly paradoxical effect, weighty but light, solid but penetrated, dense but permeable. It’s a building that has authority, an almost Egyptian tonnage — as mentioned, that may be one reason it was unpopular in the rebellious ’60s — but it’s an authority that seems to invite — even to symbolize — the slippages of unorthodox thinking. To quote Andre Gide: “Do not understand me too quickly”. It’s hard to imagine that there was ever a time when it wasn’t recognized for the complex masterpiece it is, but that time is over.

Richard Barnes

Yale University Arts Complex, 2008/ photo: Richard Barnes

Postscript: In his decade as dean of Yale’s architecture school Robert A.M. Stern has made it a mission to restore the mid-century Modernist buildings on the Yale campus. For last week’s rededication of Rudolph Hall he exercised networking force majeure to bring in some of the now famous architects who passed through Yale’s program over the years as students or teachers. Before the rededication ceremony — cue the French horns — there was a lecture and dinner on Friday night and a couple of panels on Saturday led by Paul Goldberger, the indispensable ubermesnch of architecture criticism, that tried to give a sense of what Rudolph, who died in 1997, was like as a teacher and architect. (Short answer: demanding, tireless — the Yale program when he ran it seemed to run on midnight oil — and, key word, inspirational.) At various events I spotted Norman Foster, Richard Rogers, Peter Eisenman, Charles Gwathmey, Stanley Tigerman, David Childs, James Stewart Polshek and Tod Williams and Billie Tsien. As somebody said to me at the Friday dinner, if you set off a bomb in this place tonight you’d wipe out half the architectural establishment.