Why can’t Paul Rudolph’s buildings take a break?

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Below is the latest of three articles written as part of the New Voices in Architectural Journalism grant, a mentorship-based program The architect newspaper and the Pratt Institute School of Architecture. All three articles appeared in the June 2022 issue of A; a second round of tracks written by New Voices’ founding cohort – Ekam Singh, Catherine Chattergoon and Monty Rush – will be published in the July/August issue of A. Find out more about New Voices in A Foreword by Editor-in-Chief Aaron Seward.

Being a conservationist is hard. It is even more difficult to be a monument conservator for the buildings of Paul Rudolph. Rudolph is often cited as the unluckiest architect of his generation considering how many of his buildings were hit by the wrecking ball. Anti-Rudolph sentiment began when the architect was alive but intensified after his death in 1997. Concerned activists have already placed high alert about the fate of the Boston Government Service Center and other beleaguered projects.

Rudolph was born in 1918 to a Kentucky minister. He studied architecture at Auburn University (then known as the Alabama Polytechnic Institute) and earned a master’s degree from Harvard after a stint as a shipbuilder in the Navy. Rudolph moved to Sarasota, Florida and wasted little time opening his own office in 1952, designing modern single-family homes that defined a new way of life. He consistently produced buildings throughout the 1990s and was recognized as one of the country’s most important architects at the time. The numerous projects he designed (more than 150 were realized, about the same number never built) were acclaimed for their formal ingenuity and bold use of concrete, Rudolph’s material of choice.

Then, given his reputation, why are Rudolph’s buildings so vulnerable to demolition?

A historical image of the Biggs Residence (1955) in Delray Beach, Florida. (© Ezra Stoller/ESTO/Courtesy Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture)

There are a number of overlapping forces that can lead to an older building being demolished, from fluctuations in the economy to public taste. In Rudolph’s case, a distaste for the associations that connect brutalism (the style often attributed to his work) with urban renewal and ideas of government overreach explains the tenor of the backlash. More specifically, the lack of funding to continue maintaining Rudolph’s buildings, which were often very large and required dedicated maintenance, was a contributing factor to the demolition.

Timothy M. Rohan, a leading Rudolph scholar at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, said conservation and sustainability advocates would do well to prioritize maintenance in their campaigns. Establishing and maintaining maintenance programs allows problems that could be jeopardizing a building’s performance to be caught before they spiral out of control. “You can keep anything. You just have to have the will,” Rohan said. He suggested that incorporating maintenance into sustainable practices could be a way to overcome the fact that many Rudolph projects stand on land that has skyrocketed in value in the years following their construction. Unless a compelling case is made for landmarking and redevelopment or adaptive reuse, property values ​​will always prevail.

Built in the 1940s in Siesta Key, Florida, the Twitchell Residence was demolished in 2007 after falling into disrepair. Like other Rudolph-designed homes of the period, the house promoted passive cooling in a humid, hot climate decades before such ideas became popular. But updated fire and housing codes prompted owners to sell the property, which was on an attractive, expensive lot. Conservation arguments are even less likely to sway individual owners who may not wish to be burdened with the responsibilities that come with caring for an important piece of architecture.

breeway at a modernist high school in florida
Sarasota High School Extension. (Francis Dzikowski Otto/Courtesy The Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture)

Landmarks are useful but not a surefire way to get Rudolph’s Preserved Residences. In August 2020, the owners of Biggs Residence all but demolished the house, keeping only the metal frame. They did so without notifying the city, which would have asked to review the demolition plan since the property is listed on the Delray Beach Local Register of Historic Places.

Riverview High School, built in Sarasota in 1958, was demolished in 2009. The original design considerations of Brise-Soleils and Briseways, tailored for the subtropical climate, did not sit well with the introduction of air conditioning following a building renovation. Sealing the building led to mold problems that could not be fixed without additional costly renovations. Despite opposition from historians, architects, and local residents, the district school board did not rescind the demolition order.

Yet it is precisely this passion for architecture that communities and conservationists have that can save buildings at risk. Rudolph’s Sarasota High School Extension, completed in 1960 in a style similar to Riverview, underwent a redevelopment in 2015. In addition to strengthening the structure and removing the asbestos stucco on the exterior, Harvard Jolly Architecture and local architect Jonathan Parks preserved the original windways. According to Rohan, the renovation would not have happened without the efforts of Sarasota’s Historic Preservation Program, which helped the school board recognize the importance of Rudolph’s architecture and doubled down after the loss of Riverview. “The value of the buildings is tied to a sense of place and identity, and the value goes beyond the building’s immediate financial gains,” he said.

Interior of a space age office complex
Interior of the Burroughs Wellcome headquarters in North Carolina. (Joseph W. Molitor/Courtesy Columbia University, Avery Architectural and Fine Arts Library and the Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture)

The cachet of mid-century modern design certainly raised Rudolph’s early work above his mid- and late-career work, which is often erroneously labeled a Brutalist. (Buildings from the 1970s onward mark a return to steel and glass, albeit coupled with large masses.) Both criticized and applauded as an “elusive” style of architecture, Brutalism, with its affinity for unadorned concrete, implacable forms, and expressive structural systems, raises mixed feelings among the communities living and working in these projects. Rudolph’s municipal buildings are under even greater public pressure than his other housing projects due to their high visibility and contextual ties to government agencies. Rohan said these buildings are often used as “financial and political footballs,” especially when administrations change.

The Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York was scheduled to be restored after a 2011 flood. But the project was botched, resulting in the building’s multi-story interiors being removed and the exteriors partially smoothed to match a new adjacent structure. More recently, the Rudolph-designed Government Service Center in Boston faces similar disfigurement, if not demolition. In an attempt to redevelop portions of the site, the Massachusetts Department of Asset Management and Maintenance has signaled it is ready to demolish the Charles F. Hurley Building, a key element of the multiblock project. writing for A, local architect Chris Grimley defended the “radical vision” of Rudolph’s broader plan, which was only partially realized. The fact that the complex is connected to the failure of the American welfare state is regrettable, but reason enough for its preservation. “Such a perspective,” Grimley wrote, “celebrates all elements of the city’s history, including those we do not find particularly beautiful, for, as history shows, standards of beauty are not fixed but fluctuate over time.”

Archival photo of a modernist home in Florida
The Twitchell Residence in Sarasota, Florida. It was built in 1951 and demolished in 2007. ((Joseph Janney Steinmetz Collection/State Archives of Florida, Florida Memory)

Architecture critic Kate Wagner laments the conversations these actual or impending demolitions often spark. Echoing Rohan, she notes that little effort is made to understand the richness of Rudolph’s architecture; Instead, more energy is being put into painting projects like the Burroughs Wellcome building or the Government Service Center with a broad political brush. “These buildings fall victim to polemical arguments that modernism has failed or is too ambitious for its time,” she said. “It’s just easier to say they’re falling victim to time. Every single building can fail. We must take care of what we bring to this earth.”

Rudolph’s work, which includes ingenious little Florida homes and schools and unforgettable civic citadels, still captures the imagination of many. Advocacy groups like Docomomo have made strides in spreading the cultural values ​​of modern architecture in general, while the Paul Rudolph Foundation and Paul Rudolph Institute for Modern Architecture actively work to preserve the architect’s legacy. Through these efforts and the thoughtful work of designers and clients, many are promoting a culture of care towards what has already been built, including the architecture of Paul Rudolph.

Monty Rush is a BArch student at the Pratt Institute School of Architecture. In 2021-22 she was one of three New Voices in Architectural Journalism fellows. The program was sponsored by Pratt and A.

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