Paul Rudolph: the brutalist architect whose buildings people love to hate

Updated: Oct 12


Photo courtesy of Paul Rudolph Foundation

Beloved or reviled, (what brutalist isn't) Paul Rudolph's sculptural concrete buildings illicit strong emotions. He had a meteoric rise from a humble beginning to become a renowned architect whose work was featured in Time Magazine, the New York Times and many other prominent magazines in the fifties and sixties. Some of his most famous projects included the classic "brutalist" buildings such as the Government Services building in Boston, the Art and Architecture building at Yale and the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute, which all feature the corrugated concrete exterior that became his signature. By the seventies his reputation had declined as post-Modernism was getting started and his style of monumental architecture was seen as ego-driven and “establishment”. His commissions in the US declined dramatically in the eighties due to recession and changing aesthetics, but he continued to receive large commissions in Asia. In the late nineties people began to recognize the beauty of "brutalist" buildings again and with it the work of Paul Rudolph. Paul Rudolph also happened to be gay. Many architects think this statement is irrelevant; that the private life of an architect has no bearing on their work. And this is generally true for male, heterosexual architects. But the homophobia of the architectural community in decades past did affect how Paul Rudolph's work was perceived, and is still affecting how it is perceived. As recently as 2015, noted critic Martin Filler wrote an extremely disparaging critique of his famed Beekman Place apartment, (under the guise of a book review,) but it was clear that what he really objected to was the designer's gay lifestyle. (1) (There will be a separate post unpacking this book review.)

Paul Rudolph himself had no interest in discussing the subject and forbid others from mentioning it. In the Fifties and Sixties being openly gay was career suicide, (not to mention illegal) so of course it was not an option for him. (Check out the previous post about the Lavender Scare,) Even today his partner Ernst Wagner is understandably protective and does not wish to discuss this subject. In fact Ernst Wagner is only mentioned as a "close friend" in the literature of his foundation: The Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture. Despite this, Kelvin Dickinson, the president and CEO of the Institute has been incredibly generous in discussing Paul Rudolph's sexuality and sharing anecdotes from his personal life with me for this post. My main inspiration for this post was The Architecture of Paul Rudolph, written by Timothy Rohan and published by the Yale University Press in 2015. Although it is not the focus of the book, Tim Rohan clearly delineates how Paul Rudolph's homosexuality influenced his work and career and how incomplete any discussion of Paul Rudolph's work is when this subject is omitted. I would like to give special thanks to Emily Sherman, Paul Rudolph's muse and confidante, who generously shared her remembrances and personal photos with me for this post.


The Mental Health Services Bldg. 1962-71, photo by Timothy Rohan

Son of a Preacher Man

Paul Rudolph was born in Elkton Kentucky in 1918. His father Reverend Dr. Keener L. Rudolph was a Methodist minister, and his mother Eurie Stone Rudolph was an educator. His early childhood was basically itinerant due to his father’s frequent new posts throughout the South as a Methodist minister. He attended Auburn University to study architecture and designed his first house for a professor in 1940. After graduation he worked with architect Ralph Twitchell designing modernist homes in Sarasota, Florida.


Healy House on the Gulf Coast photographed by Ezra Stoller

In the fall of 1941 he attended the Graduate School of Design (GSD)at Harvard. He was only able to attend two semesters, fall 1941 and fall 1946 due to the interruption of WWII, when he enlisted in the Navy. In 1946, after completing his studies at the GSD, he returned to work with Ralph Twitchell in Florida. They collaborated on about 24 modern homes, which were widely published and generated a growing interest in Paul Rudolph’s work. In 1956 he went out on his own, commuting to his Florida office, living there in the summers but mainly living in New Haven or New York City.





photo courtesy of Gwathmey Siegle Architects

In 1958 he was made the chair of the department of architecture at Yale, which brought him professional acclaim and important commissions. This was perhaps the most successful and prolific period of his career. He received massive public commissions such as the Jewett Arts center at Wellesley College, the Blue Cross and Blue Shield building in Boston, and the Art and Architecture building at Yale (in 1959) to name a few. It is on this building that he perfected the use of hammered concrete that many associate with his work. (2)


photo courtsey of Gwathmey Siegel Architects

In 1965 Paul Rudolph resigned from his position at Yale and moved his office to New York in the hopes of finally getting a “skyscraper” commission. The skyscraper commission never came and as post-Modernism became more popular, his large commissions began to dwindle. In 1968, the Art and Architecture building at Yale, his most famous project, caught on fire and its interiors were gutted. The building was poorly renovated and maintained, so that by the late seventies it had become notorious. This was seen as a reflection on Paul Rudolph’s architecture rather than the lack of basic maintenance of a twenty-year old building.


23 Beekman Place photo by Ezra Stoller

Homework

In 1967 the publication of his own disco glam apartment at 23 Beekman Place scandalized the architecture community. The photo spread published in the New York Times Sunday magazine included his bedroom which featured a mirrored wall and an enormous super graphic of what appeared to be a shirtless man being caressed by topless women, as well as lots of fur. ( and a roman statue.) It was deemed a “virtual coming out” when it was published. (3) Coming at a time when many of his colleagues had moved on to post -Modernism, and thought of his work as dated, these photos scandalized his conservative, mostly heterosexual (and homophobic) peers. After the publication of these photos many of the architectural elite no longer took him seriously


photo courtesy of 6squarefeet

Halston’s Designer

By the mid-seventies, the architect who had designed massive buildings in major cities around the Northeast, was mostly designing interiors for wealthy clients in Manhattan, many of them gay men. One of these projects, 101 East 63rd street, was purchased from the original owners by Halston in 1974. With its discreet, modern exterior featuring metal panels and smoked glass, the designer famously said, “ I know this house was built for somebody else, but I really feel as though it was designed for me.”(4) He asked Paul Rudolph to renovate it, including re-upholstering the custom furniture in his signature jersey fabric. Designer Tom Ford,who remembers visiting the apartment when Halston still owned it in 1979, (5) bought the property in 2019 for eighteen million dollars. (6) He also fell in love with the house that was "built for two gay men, and in the mid-Sixties, they wanted to live their life without being observed. And of course it worked well for Halston and the things that were going on when he was there. So it's really a kind of refuge in the middle of New York which is amazing." (7)


photo Paul RUdolph Institute for Modern Architecture

Learning From Las Vegas

In 1972 Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown published their book, “Learning from Las Vegas”, a manifesto for post- modern architecture and a highly effective critique of modernism, using Paul Rudolph’s work as an example. This critique, which took the form of a comparison between Rudolph’s Crawford Manor and Venturi’s Guild Hall, was devastating to Paul Rudolph’s reputation, condemning his work as dated. It was equally hurtful on a personal level as Robert Venturi had been his student and studio assistant at Yale.


(As a lover of "brutalism", I may be biased, but looking back at this comparison, I cannot understand for the life of me how anyone could look at these two buildings and not prefer Crawford Manor.)


Crawfor Manir Photo by Robert Perron Guild House photo by William Watkins

Partners

In 1975 Paul Rudolph met Ernst Wagner, who had immigrated to the US from Switzerland to work in the banking industry and the two began living together almost immediately. In 1976 Ernst and Paul created Modulightor, a lighting and design company that sold the lighting and furniture that Paul Rudolph had designed for many of his interiors. Paul Rudolph oversaw the design and Ernst Wagner oversaw the manufacturing in Switzerland.


photo Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture

Beekman Place

In 1976, thanks to the near bankruptcy of the city of New York, Paul Rudolph was able to buy the entire building at 23 Beekman place for three hundred thousand dollars. He demolished the top floor apartment and built a glamorous new penthouse for himself and Ernst, with a double height living room overlooking the east river. The minimalist, white, and silver apartment was revolutionary for its time, featuring elements such as open tread staircases, and differing spaces and experiences through platforms and catwalks, all of which are now common in contemporary interior design. It also featured a jacuzzi with a Lucite bottom, which acted as a skylight into the kitchen below. Critic Michael Sorkin described it as “one of the most amazing pieces of modern urban domestic architecture produced in this country.” (8) Close friend Emily Sherman remembers the sophisticated dinner parties attended by architects, clients, and even the occasional financier such as Paul Volker, with Ernst serving classic Swiss dishes such as Fondu Bourguignonne (9) 23 Beekman Place impressed many young architects who visited; its influence can be seen in much of the interior design of the late Nineties and early Aughts.


photo, Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture

Frenemies Paul Rudolph and Philip Johnson had been close since their days studying architecture at the GSD (Graduate School of Design at Harvard) together. They were both part of the queer social circle that included cultural power brokers such as Lincoln Kirstein, Edgar Kauffman Jr, and Henry Russel Hitchcock. (10) One can imagine that as two famous architects in the fifties and sixties, who were gay, that they had a unique friendship. Unlike Philip Johnson, however, Rudolph did not seamlessly transition from modernism into post-modernism and their paths began to diverge in the Seventies. Legend has it that over lunch at the Four Seasons (no doubt at Philips table) when Philip Johnson asked Paul Rudolph for his opinion of his AT&T building, Paul’s response was simply, “ You finally figured out where to put the hole.” Johnson responded in kind with “And I know exactly what you want to stick through it.” (11)


Just as Halston had his muse Liza, Paul Rudolph had Emily Sherman. Emily started out as a client and became one of his closest friends. The two traveled the world together, with Emily acting as muse and confidante. A wrist watch belonging to her is rumored to have inspired the design of the Bond Centre in Hong Kong.

photo courtesy of Emily Sherman

Emily remembers his incredible kindness but also his risqué sense of humor. The photo below was taken in her garden, with Paul yelling "I'm horny!" as she took the photo. (12)


photo courtesy of Emily Sherman

The Eighties In the eighties Paul Rudolph stayed afloat by working in Asia, like many other modernist architects whose work was no longer fashionable in the US. In addition to skyscrapers in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Jakarta he also designed office towers in Fort Worth Texas for his loyal clients the Bass family. These later buildings use glass curtain wall systems instead of concrete and are not as sculptural as the "brutalist" work, he is known for. (No doubt a result of the structural requirements of skyscrapers as well as the demands of clients.) While these projects may not have earned Rudolph the acclaim or respect of his peers, they were very lucrative. In 1989 he was able to buy a small townhouse at 246 East 58th Street to house Modulightor. In the same fashion as Beekman place, he built a new steel exterior as well as glamorous penthouse apartment at the top, where his partner Ernst Wagner continues to live.


photo Modulightor and Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture

Paul Rudolph died in 1997 of asbestos -related disease at the age of 78. His architecture and interiors have been re-evaluated and embraced and are now highly sought after. Despite this, many of his single-family homes in Florida and elsewhere are in danger of being demolished. Most recently United Therapeutics demolished his Burroughs Welcome building in January of 2021 . Post Script

Controversy has continued to surround Paul Rudolph even in death. It was his desire to leave both the Beekman Place apartment as well his entire archive to the Library of Congress. However shortly before his death the government informed him they didn’t have the resources to manage and retain the home and that they would be selling it. It was sold in 2000. The building was declared a historic landmark in 2010 but the interiors had already been lost. The bulk of his financial estate and the Modulightor building were left to his partner Ernst Wagner. While it seems completely natural to most that Paul Rudolph would want to leave his estate to his partner, his family disputed the will because they felt Paul should have left more to his sisters. According to friends, Paul Rudolph had little contact with his family who did not approve of his gay lifestyle. In fact Paul Rudolph did not wish to leave anything to his sisters and it was Ernst Wagner who asked Paul to include them in his will.

The Library of Congress took the bulk of Paul Rudolph's archive, but not everything. The remainder of the archive was left to Ernst as a residuary beneficiary of the Paul Rudolph Estate. Ernst Wagner created the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation shortly after Paul’s death as a non-profit to preserve his work and legacy. But according to Kelvin Dickinson, some academics-including several former graduates of Yale, felt that Ernst was an outsider given he was not an architect, and that the estate should be managed by an institution instead of Paul's partner of 25 years as per his final wishes. It is interesting to note that Ernst Wagner appears never to have been accepted in the way that Philip Johnson’s partner, David Whitney was. In 2008 at the re-dedication ceremony of Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture building, (at Yale) Robert Stern threw a private party at his apartment and invited some of the Paul Rudolph Foundation to attend; except for Ernst Wagner and other non-Yale graduates, who he made a point of not inviting. Eventually a dispute erupted between the Yale faction and Ernst Wagner over the group's priorities, and the Paul Rudolph Foundation removed Mr. Wagner from the organization and subsequently moved out of the Modulightor building. Mr Wagner, intent to keep his promise to Mr. Rudolph to create a foundation to preserve his legacy, then created the Paul Rudolph Heritage foundation with several of the original members (such as Emily Sherman)of the Paul Rudolph Foundation.(13) The Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation is now the Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture. The Institute, located in the Modulightor building continues to showcase the work of Paul Rudolph, with tours of the building as well as programming special events. https://www.paulrudolph.institute/

While most of Paul Rudolph's drawing archive is located at the library of Congress, the Institute has amassed a collection of original drawings and other materials featuring Paul Rudolph's work. Because the majority of Paul Rudolph's interiors have been destroyed, the photographs in periodicals such as House and Garden are the only documentation left. The Institute intends to digitize this collection and has set up a fund raising campaign to enable them to purchase the equipment for this. If you would like to contribute to their digitizing fund raising campaign you may do so here: https://gofund.me/a7e34a66 DOCOMOMO is the primary NFP dedicated to the preservation of modernist buildings. If you want to help save the remaining Paul Rudolph buildings from demolition, including Boston's Government Services building, please join or donate to

DOCOMOMO:https://www.docomomo-us.org/


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Notes 1. Filler, Martin. The Hard Case of Paul Rudolph The New York Review of Books, February 5, 2015

2. Rohan, Timothy. The Architecture of Paul Rudolph Yale University Press 2014 p. 93 3.Filler, Martin. The Hard Case of Paul Rudolph The New York Review of Books, February 5, 2015 4. Lewis, Jeremy. "Hall of Mirrors: The Rise and Fall of Halston" retrieved from pinupmagazine.org Fall/Winter 2012-2013 5. Hamish Bowles interview of Tom Ford and Ryan Murphy, "Style For Ages" retrieved from Vogue.com posted April20, 2021 6. Haley Chouinard. Manhattan's "Famed Halston House Sells For Eighteen Million" retrieved from galeriemagazine.com posted January 18, 2019 7. Emma Specter and Jared Ellner. "Tom Ford Just Bought Halston's Famed Upper East Side House" retrieved from garage.vice.com posted March 22, 2019 8. Filler, Martin. The Hard Case of Paul Rudolph The New York Review of Books, February 5, 2015 9. Interview with Emily Sherman on May31,2022 10. Rohan, Timothy. The Architecture of Paul Rudolph Yale University Press 2014 p. 183 11.Interview on May 24 ,2022 with Kelvin Dickinson, president of the Paul Rudolph Institute For Modern Architecture 12.Interview with Emily Sherman, May31, 2022 13.Interview with Kelvin Dickinson president and CEO of the Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture, May 24,2022