Portrait of an Architect

By staff December 1, 2004

Back in the 1950s, when architect Paul Rudolph was churning out masterpieces of what came to be known later as the Sarasota School of Architecture, visitors arrived from all over the world to see the design genius who was attracting so much attention in the architectural press. Almost invariably, once inside the cramped, cluttered 12-by 24-foot space on Main Street, close by a blueprinter's office and Jack's Barbershop, they would turn to say to one of Rudolph's young assistants in puzzlement: "But we wanted the main office." "This is the main office," the assistant would reply, with a mix of amusement and weariness.

Once over their shock, the Sarasota guests might take a tour of Rudolph buildings completed or in the making, or spend some time one-on-one with the short, intense, high-energy guy with the bristly crewcut and the horn-rimmed glasses who seemed perpetually hunched over his drawing board. It was a time of great excitement in Sarasota architecture, with a number of aspiring talents creating buildings springing from a modernist ethic and combining new materials and approaches for a new style of Florida living. But of all the young architects of that period, only Rudolph, who went on to head Yale's architecture department and to design that university's Art and Architecture building as well as spectacular mega-structures across Southeast Asia before his death in 1997, had an influence, both as an architect and a teacher, that has been sustained and far-reaching.

Paul Marvin Rudolph was born Oct. 23, 1918, in Elkton, Ky., the son of a Methodist minister of some standing in his ecclesiastical world. According to Ernst Wagner, Rudolph's close friend for the last 20 years of his life, Rudolph was about seven when his father had occasion to commission an architect to build a new church. "Paul saw how the process worked," says Wagner. "And he knew immediately what he wanted to be. His focus only became stronger through the years."

His choice of a profession was apparently not one his father particularly approved of. Perhaps he had hopes that his son would follow him into the ministry, or perhaps he was simply concerned about the odds of making a living as an architect. But Paul, who seems to have inherited much of his father's discipline and drive if not his religious attachments, helped put himself through the architecture program at Alabama Polytechnic Institute partly by playing the organ at church services. (Rudolph was a talented pianist as well, although he gave up playing in his later years. Architect Gene Leedy, who was one of Rudolph's early employees before opening his own firm, recalls Rudolph's sister telling the tale of how her stern father would lock her in her room so she would practice the piano. Unbeknownst to the elder Rudolph, his son, to whom playing came more naturally, would sneak outdoors, climb through the window of her room, and finish playing the piece she might be struggling with, to the satisfaction of both the children and their father.)

Not long after his graduation in 1940, Rudolph arrived in Sarasota at the suggestion of a college friend and began his first term of employment with the dean of Sarasota architects, the innovative and urbane Ralph Twitchell. Twitchell, like everyone else who ever saw Rudolph's beautiful pen-and-ink drawings and designs, was impressed with the young Rudolph's talent as well as his work ethic. But Rudolph was here only a few months before he entered the Harvard School of Design, where he had a design class taught by Bauhaus eminence Walter Gropius, who was a huge influence on him and who later described his one-time student as "one of the outstanding brilliant American architects of the younger generation." World War II interrupted Rudolph's Harvard stint, and in 1942 he joined the U.S. Naval Reserve.

For three years he was stationed at Brooklyn Naval Yard (where he first saw a plastic roofing film material sprayed on mothballed ships, a tool he later employed in the famous Cocoon House on Siesta Key. Here, also, he presumably contracted the asbestos-related form of cancer that later led to his death). When the war was over and his term of service ended, Rudolph returned first to Harvard to complete his master's degree; then to the New Pass studio of Ralph Twitchell, where together the two would collaborate on some quintessential Sarasota School of Architecture designs.

The pair made something of a specialty of guest houses, a natural enough assignment for a coastal section of Florida. For client Merian Miller, Twitchell and Rudolph provided a residence on Casey Key consisting of floor-to-ceiling glass walls, flat roofs and exposed stacked lime block. The Miller guest cottage, completed later, was spare and also flat-roofed, with casement windows and cantilevered on either side, which writer John Howey says in his book The Sarasota School of Architecture: 1941-1966, "nearly relieved it of any sense of weight or gravity."

The Twitchell-Rudolph design team achieved further recognition with a never-built home design for client Roberta Finney, connected to its guest house by a wooden walkway over a lagoon (another case where Rudolph's pen-and-ink drawings, widely published in the architectural magazines of the time, gained wide attention); and with the Revere House, commissioned by the Revere Copper Company and eventually acclaimed as the classic 1950s Florida residence.

By 1951, however, Rudolph was ready to move into his own office and to move on to new designs and materials. Specific projects of the 1950s, often making use of marine plywood, include the Sanderling Beach Club, the Walker house on Sanibel and the Burkhardt house on Casey Key.

By the mid-1950s, Rudolph had so many commissions he needed someone to run his office for him. A rarity among architects in that he always did his own design work, rather than making rough sketches to pass off to others to complete, Rudolph was by all accounts a workaholic who found the drawing board a jealous mistress. When it came to organization, though, the associates of his Sarasota period and his later New York days were unanimous in their descriptions of Rudolph's work surroundings: They were always a mess.

Architect Bert Brosmith, who met Rudolph while he was a student at the University of Pennsylvania, jumped at the opportunity to run Rudolph's Sarasota office for him while Rudolph went on to open another in Boston. "It couldn't have been better," he says of the offer. "I was just 25 or so, and he was a fellow coming up as one of the leading architects in America. The first office was a hole in the wall. But we moved from there [to another spot on Main diagonally across from the old Sports Shop run by Eleene Cohen, for whom Rudolph also designed a house on Siesta Key] when Paul got the commission for doing Riverview High School."

That commission came about, in part, due to a chance meeting between Rudolph and Shirley Hiss, who was married to influential amateur architect and Renaissance man Philip Hiss. She lived at the time in a home on New Pass, near Twitchell's studio, and the two met by accident and got to talking. "I invited Paul for dinner one night, and said to Phil, 'I think this is a person you'd be interested in,'" recalls Hiss, who still resides in Sarasota. "They shared a lot of the same ideas and attitudes toward architecture-the whole idea of indoor/outdoor living, the walls of glass, the ventilation. Of course, whenever he came to dinner, he always had to leave by 11, to go back to drafting. He was totally dedicated; I think he slept under that drafting board."

As a result of their meeting and compatibility, Rudolph came to design for Hiss the famed Umbrella House on Lido Shores-a spec house that was designed to garner publicity, which it did. And through Hiss' recommendation, Rudolph also received the commissions for Riverview and for the 1960 addition to the Sarasota High campus, his last major area project.

But, says Shirley Hiss, "Paul really wanted to succeed, to get on top." Designing intimate guest houses or even talked-about schools in Sarasota, Fla., was not the peak of his ambition. And by the early 1960s, the euphoria of those Sarasota School days was disappearing. Rudolph began spending more time away from Florida.

One of the reasons: He had begun to explore another facet of his talent, teaching.

Architect Leedy, who maintained a long friendship with Rudolph from the 1950s on, remembers how Rudolph's position as chairman of the Department of Architecture at Yale came about. "I was with him when the president of Yale came to see him in Sarasota and asked him to be dean," Leedy says. "Rudolph said at first he didn't want to do that, he wanted to continue working as an architect. 'Well,' the president said, 'you could be the dean 50 percent of your time and still do your work, in a building on campus. And you can have an assistant dean for the meetings and the red tape.' They shook hands on it, and that was it." You could never get away with such an informal hiring process today, Leedy chuckles.

In any case, the arrangement was fortuitous. "He was probably the greatest teacher I've ever known," says Leedy. "He could just reduce a real complicated subject down to its simplest terms. Students would tear off his comments he made on their projects and save them. You know, in architecture schools you often see bitter, failed architects doing the teaching, but Rudolph was a god, a hero to these students, because he really did buildings."

One of those students at Yale was longtime Sarasota architect Carl Abbott, who concurs with Leedy's assessment of Rudolph's teaching gifts. "Oh, he could rip people good," says Abbott. "Richard Rodgers [who went on to become a renowned architect and city planner] would get so upset by some of his criticisms he would leave the room sometimes. But I've never met anyone who could see architecture so three-dimensionally, like a computer. And he could just fly aggressively at architectural inconsistencies or problems and say, 'Let me show you.'"

Abbott's graduate class at Yale included such future luminaries of architecture as Rodgers and Sir Norman Foster. It was an international group, Abbott says, that Rudolph called his "little United Nations. A couple of people did leave after a week, because it was always a highly charged, intense situation. But Rudolph could be so supportive, too. And unlike with many teachers at that level, who showed up occasionally and left much of the teaching to assistants, we always had Rudolph in the classroom. There was just nothing like the master coming to your board and saying, 'You have many things going on here-what's the most important?' He would help us sort it out ourselves. I chose to study with Rudolph rather than Louis Kahn because I felt that with Kahn I would end up learning to design like Kahn. With Rudolph, he would say, 'I think I'm one of the most prejudiced architects in the world, but I will do my best to strip my prejudices away.' He would teach you to design in your own style."

Rudolph's effect on his students was also measured by the respect, if not fear, with which they regarded him. It took Abbott years, he says, to finally be able to comfortably call his former mentor "Paul" and not "Mr. Rudolph."

But those who were allowed to penetrate into Rudolph's inner circle often describe a man who was fun to be with, with a dry sense of humor, a love for travel and collecting things, and a spirit of generosity. "If he liked a person, he liked a person," Shirley Hiss says simply, and that description is echoed by others who formed lasting bonds with him.

"If he was a friend of yours, he was one of the most loyal friends you could have," says Leedy. "He was guarded professionally, but he knew I was a loyal supporter of his and no threat at all. At one time he asked me to come teach with him at Yale. He said, 'You're qualified, and you've got a Southern accent. I want to load that place up with Southern accents.' He remodeled a residence there for himself, two stories with lots of high ceilings and glass, and he told me, 'Gene, I have revamped the parking lot and can now get more spaces, so I think I'll rent them out.' He was sort of an architectural priest in some ways, but he did have parties. I especially remember one at his penthouse on Beekman Place in Manhattan. He had Plexiglass floors in an upper-level bathroom, and I looked up one time and saw quite a sight"-a man making use of the facilities.

Rudolph had by this time established his New York practice, where he increasingly found clients based in Southeast Asia. One of his most eager employees was a just-out-of-school architect named Larry Scarpa (now a principal in the well-regarded architectural firm of Pugh and Scarpa based in California).

"I went to the University of Florida," says Scarpa, "and my first job out of school was with Gene Leedy. When I moved to New York, I parked myself on Rudolph's doorstep begging for a job. He'd always refer to me as 'that damned Floridian.' He finally did break down and hire me as a designer, and I learned a heck of a lot there. It was definitely one of my most influential experiences, although I was a bit shocked at first to see his office. It was just this huge open space with no doors, and it was [predictably] a mess. He would get mad at us for ordering supplies like rulers and triangles and pencils. So I found that if you went through the files and cleaned up, there were all sorts of supplies hidden under the layers, and then we didn't have to order anything for a while."

More important, Scarpa says, was the discovery of how talent meets process. "I had fallen in love early on with the Milam house that Rudolph did in Ponte Vedra Beach, and one of the first things that I did when I worked for him was go to this little place in Soho where he kept his archives, to study his drawings of that house. Well, I discovered that the first drawings were horrible, and nothing like what he eventually built. I saw how it evolved and was transformed into a gem. And I learned then that talent was one thing but hard work meant a lot, too. Paul Rudolph bled architecture."

Scarpa describes Rudolph as the Frank Gehry of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s-hot and in demand. "Then, he kind of disappeared," at least in the eyes of the architectural press, Scarpa says. "He was actually working in Southeast Asia a lot," where they hadn't yet welcomed the advent of the postmodernist movement Rudolph detested. While part of Rudolph's semi-eclipse was due to changing trends in architecture, Scarpa adds, "While I really liked him and he was a good man, by and large he treated clients as if he were doing them a favor. With the work he did in Asia, he was the design architect, and I think that buffered him from the client somewhat, which was good for him. He may have been somewhat bitter about the changing times, but he always kept himself so busy he didn't dwell on it. He was a master of light and space, and he practiced what he believed."

Does Rudolph's influence show in Scarpa's own work? "On the surface, no," he says. "I think it's the mark of a good teacher that you don't impose your style on your students."

In New York City, besides his famed multilevel Beekman Place dwelling, Rudolph also maintained a space on East 58th Street, which became both the headquarters for a lighting firm called Modulightor, carrying out Rudolph's aesthetic principles through flexible lighting designs, and living space for his friend and companion, Ernst Wagner. Wagner still lives there today, and occasionally opens the space for tours by architectural classes. He and other Rudolph colleagues and admirers have also established the Paul Rudolph Foundation, based in the building, which includes a Web site that's a growing resource for Rudolph researchers.

"There's so much interest in Paul's work, and such an incredible wealth of his drawings," says Wagner, who met Rudolph when he came to the United States from Switzerland as a young man, back in 1974. "This building [on 58th Street] is very much a building Paul built for himself; there was no client involved. You get a great feeling of expanse here. It's a breathing space; it moves and changes."

Wagner, who often traveled with Rudolph throughout the world, saw Rudolph both at work and play during their long relationship. "He became another person at work," Wagner admits. "He could be abrupt, and had no patience with incompetence. But with people he liked, he could be a pussycat. He would give and give and be so patient. He was a great storyteller and a true natural intellectual, so curious about everything. When we traveled, he would point things out to me I would never have noticed; he taught me to see, really."

Wagner says Rudolph never stopped working, even as his health failed and doctors ran out of options to treat him. "The dying process lasted for months," says Wagner. "He was such a fighter; he absolutely refused to die.

"In his last years, he got a commission for a museum at Auburn University. He was totally lost in that; he put everything into it. He told me, 'Ernst, it just eats me up.'

"The strongest, most forceful thing I can say about Paul is that his integrity and the quality of his work were unbelievable. He would not give up until he was 100 percent satisfied. In the early 1990s, our cash flow was miserable, and his tenacity during the design and construction process [of the 58th Street building] made me nervous and impatient. But his stand was, 'Ernst, I remain an architect,' and looking back, I am glad he took it."

Paul Rudolph died on Aug. 8, 1997. He was 78 years old, and left behind a legacy of more than 50 years of designs of private homes, multiple-family housing and major public buildings in North America, Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia-along with the immeasurable impact he had on future generations of architects through his teaching and his example.

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