Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Paul Rudolph’s Designs of Doom

OK, let’s just say it. Paul Rudolph may have been the worst architect in America (which, of course, includes the world).

And as if to second the nomination, The New York Times has published two fawning articles recently about his dark genius and the fact that everyone wants to demolish his unsightly work.

On Friday the Times ran a long and profusely illustrated article by some sap who took a road trip to see as many Rudolph buildings as he could in a weekend. Sadly, there are many still standing.

The writer, a Times apparatchik named Fred Bernstein, marvels at the ploddingly dismal insanity that characterizes Rudolph’s buildings.

In describing one monstrosity, Bernstein writes admiringly that “a trip from one room to another can take you up and down six different stairways.” At another he writes, “Some of the exterior features – like stairs to nowhere – are confounding, but a Rudolph wouldn’t be a Rudolph without puzzle pieces that don’t quite fit.” If I owned such a defective puzzle I would throw it away. Unfortunately, Rudolph worked in raw poured concrete and throwing away one of his buildings would involve explosive force measured in megatons and a dozen landfills.

Rudolph’s modernist credentials, like his buildings, are bulletproof. He studied with Gropius at Harvard. He was Dean of the Yale School of Architecture and famously designed the bunker which houses the School. It’s notable that before the concrete had cured on their new home, the students attempted to burn the building down. They failed although you can hardly tell by looking at the place.

Funny how Rudolph buildings are always in danger of destruction by popular demand.

Perhaps the most perfect expression of Rudolph’s dreary brilliance is the sprawling Boston Government Service Center (BGSC), a mental health facility that is part of Boston’s dispiriting Government Center.

Say what you want about Boston’s brutalist City Hall (and I have), but that craptacular pile of concrete never killed anyone. BGSC has.

According to Metropolis magazine, Rudolph wanted to express mental illness in his building and so paid special attention to dank corridors and stairs leading to blank walls. As a result, Rudolph created a mental hospital that actually inflames patients’ emotional disorder. “The building programs disabled behavior,” says wrote Matthew Dumont, a Boston psychiatrist and author of the book, Treating the Poor. The building’s “chapel” was sealed shut after a patient ignited himself there and a catwalk over the lobby had to be glazed over after it invited too many suicide attempts.

Faced with heaps of empirical and intuitive evidence, our dogged Timesman Bernstein felt compelled to trot out reason number one for the unpopularity of modern architecture (Paul Rudolph variant) right up front.

“If Rudolph’s buildings aren’t as highly valued as those of some of his
contemporaries, that’s in part because they aren’t understood.”

Of course, the masses can’t stand architecture for the masses because they’re too massively schtoopid to understand it. What’s new about this statement is that Bernstein is suggesting that Rudolph’s buildings are hated even by the depressed standards of his hated contemporaries.

Interestingly, Bernstein’s tragical history tour brings him into contact with lots of people who understand all too well what it means to live and work all day in one of Rudolph’s reveries. And guess what . . . they hate it.

At the Orange County Government Center, which vandalizes the otherwise charming town of Goshen, New York, we meet Edward Diana, the County Executive who marvels at the building’s 87 separate roofs . . . “all of which leak.”

Is the building highly valued? “If I took a poll in town,” Diana says, “it would be demolished tomorrow.”

Rudolph’s inability to shelter occupants is a complaint at UMass Dartmouth, which may be the foulest college campus in New England.

According to Alan Bates, a chemistry professor (who starred in the earth-toned 70s classic "Unmarried Woman" if I’m not mistaken) no matter how much the school spends on roofing repairs, “we’ll have puddles in the hallway tomorrow if it rains.”

By the way, did you know that UMass students love the campus so much that many believe Rudolph was a Satanist? Fancy that.

The second article in the Times ad hoc tribute to Rudolph, “Another Building by a Noted Modernist Comes Under Threat,” is about the 1960 Blue Cross/Blue Shield Building in downtown Boston. According to the Times, this was the first Modernist office tower to rise in downtown Boston. Am I the only one to read that line and imagine the first smallpox pustule to disfigure a distinguished face?

Says David Fixler of DoCoMoMo, a snooty group of modernist preservationists, the wholly undistinguished pile of concrete is, “a very significant piece of Boston’s architectural heritage.” Perhaps, but its significance has nothing to do with its beauty or utility.

The wise men at 2 Blowhards have ruefully noted that preservationist organizations that were established to protect architectural heritage from the ravages of modernism are now circling the wagons around the offending modernist buildings themselves in a sort of institutional Stockholm Syndrome. The ultimate irony will be when the National Trust for Historic Preservation attempts to stop demolition of Pennsylvania Station in 2010.

The DoCoMoMo folks are furiously spinning the dials and pulling the levers in the hope of preserving this beast of a building. But time is running out and it, like the other Rudolph monstrosities, are doomed. That's fine with me since it's architecture like this that injected the desperate "kill or be killed" ethos into the downtowns of our once beautiful cities.

And as might be fitting for the master architect of doom, exposure to his own buildings ultimately doomed Rudolph. He died in 1997 of mesothelioma.

UPDATE: for a lovely tour of the world's ugliest buildings, do viist the Skyscraper Page.


angvou said...

fascinating tour of the ravages of Brutalism thanks. The A+A building was a filthy mess when I was in it and at that point it was only-- what 20 years old or so? Like a lot of classic Modernism-- these designs exist in ideal form on paper or through the photographer's lens. My new-found appreciation extended ONLY to finally seeing that some of Brutalism could be--abstractly-- grand.

Anonymous said...

With all the hubbub this November over restoration of Paul Rudolph's Art & Architecture Building, one might assume that a great work of modernist design had been reborn. It is more accurate to say that a dismal failure of a Brutalist classroom building was given a second chance which it -- or its creator -- didn't merit.

It should be remembered that not long ago Yale seriously considered replacing the A & A Building, but was prevented only because of the prohibitive cost to raze such a massive concrete bunker. So in what seems like misguided thrift, the dark, smelly and labyrinthine A & A Building missed its Darwinian date with a wrecking ball and was instead refurbished, right down to the original saffron-colored carpeting.

One thing that won't be saved, however, is the name. It has been rededicated as Paul Rudolph Hall, because the Yale School of Art leaped at an opportunity to relocate to less nightmarish quarters across the street.

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