To Celebrate His Centenary, A 1988 Interview with Paul Rudolph on His Most Controversial Project
Since its dedication on a crisp November morning in 1963, Paul Rudolph’s Art & Architecture building at Yale University (now called Rudolph Hall) has drawn praise and condemnation. For some it has served as the catalyst to pursue the study of architecture. For others it remains an obstacle in that pursuit. Within seven stories, the building’s dizzying thirty-six levels are a mystical revelation in the art of space making, prompting the late architect Joseph Esherick to remark that you couldn’t go to the restroom without having a spatial experience.
In 1988, on the 25th anniversary of the building’s completion, I interviewed Rudolph at his office in New York City about the importance of the A&A in his oeuvre for an article published in Architecture magazine. By then, the building was only marginally as he had intended it to be. In June 1969, a devastating fire (the cause of which was suspected but never conclusively proven to be arson) gutted the fourth and fifth floors and provided the occasion to make the building over. Double-story spaces were divided into single stories, space use and allocation were changed, open spaces were subdivided, fluorescent lighting replaced incandescent, and hung ceilings appeared. Eleven years after Rudolph’s death, Dean Robert A.M. Stern spearheaded the Charles Gwathmey-led restoration of the building, to nearly as Rudolph had envisioned it.
This fall marks the centenary of Paul Rudolph’s birth. (He died in 1997, at the age of 78.) He began working on the design of the A&A building in 1958, when he was 40—a relatively young age for an architect to design a work of this stature. In the interview I conducted with him, partly presented here, Rudolph discussed his most controversial creation for the first time since its completion, his views on architectural education, and the nature of architecture.
MJC: Michael J. Crosbie
PR: Paul Rudolph
When was the last time you visited the A&A building?
I think in October of last year–I lectured at Yale.
I understand that at the Yale lecture you said that you didn’t want to talk about the building.
I almost never talk about it. It’s a very painful subject for me. I talk quite freely about many of my buildings when asked, but I never talk about this building. It’s partially because I don’t think I can look very objectively at it.
What’s your attitude about the building now, 25 years later?
It’s a little mixed.
Obviously buildings have a life of their own. This one has had a rather unusual life, I suppose. It takes its toll, in terms of one’s attitude about it.
What were your thoughts about how the building would serve as a model, pedagogically?
I thought it was important that first-year architecture students be very aware of what their elders, the older students, were thinking and doing. To that end, the drafting rooms were a multileveled affair, so you couldn’t help but see and be quite aware of what other people were doing. You looked down.
Beyond just the functional requirements of the spaces themselves, how does the building itself, as an object, work pedagogically?
I don’t think of it as an object. I think of it as participating in urbanism. It’s freestanding, but it was always intended to grow toward the north. Yale at the time didn’t own the two buildings to the north, and it was perfectly clear that the building wasn’t really large enough the day it opened. The building is intended to be read from the New Haven Green, and the building certainly is intended to turn the corner; and therefore the configuration, at least from the outside, is an effort to turn the corner. The fact that a wall aligns with Lou Kahn’s building [the 1953 Yale Art Gallery across York Street] is an intention to embrace his building, with an invisible plane connecting to other points of the building across the street. I don’t think you’d ever build a building in this configuration if it weren’t for the fact that it’s at a corner, and that Kahn’s building is immediately across the street. There was a filling station on the site, so everyone was at least happy to get rid of the filling station.
Once the students are inside, though, how is the building something they could look at and learn from?
This is complicated, from my viewpoint. I was the chairman of the Yale department of architecture, a post which then and now I was never too sure was something I really wanted to do. I’m interested very much in the theory of architecture, but I regard that as different from the teaching of architecture. I had taught in various schools as a guest, so it was not that I was new to the academic world. I was a gadfly, it was all great fun, and I’m sure I learned much more than the students. But, for very complicated reasons, I found myself responsible for a school of architecture. To this day I think of myself as a very bad teacher, as opposed to a critic or a theoretician.
I say this because I think for certain students my attitude was okay, but for others it was not, in spite of the fact that I felt there should be something for everyone—the good students as well as the not-so-talented ones. I think I was much better for the good students or the talented students than with the less talented students. But the mark of a good teacher is that he really cares equally about everybody. And try as I might, the truth of the matter is that’s not within me.
At the same time, it seemed to me that [as a teacher] I should never ever talk about myself as an architect, and indeed I didn’t. I never talked about what I was doing. I tried to talk in terms of principle, and to this day I think that’s very important–the differentiation between an architect and a teacher or a theoretician or a critic is the difference between night and day. As a teacher or critic, it seems very important to me to be as objective as possible and to talk only in terms of principle, never how I myself, as an architect, would try to carry something out. I really learned that from Gropius. All of us have our biases, and no matter how much we’d like to get rid of those, we can’t totally. But it’s the job of a teacher, I believe, to look objectively at something—not how he would do it, but to talk in terms of principles. Because I think principles don’t really change. How you carry them out changes and the problems change, but not the principles. But as an architect, I become a different person. I become very passionate, I suppose is the best word. I did and still do, and I can’t tell you why but certain things make an itch and I…well, the attitudes are different. I know that really well, and for the eight years I was at Yale I tried to be two different people, and finally I could not tolerate that any longer, so I left.
The contradiction to that is the fact that I indeed was the architect of the A&A building. I assure you that many times I thought then and still think that maybe I was the last person in the world to undertake such an assignment. It muddies the waters in terms of putting aside one’s prejudices. But, at the same time, I think people learn from buildings, not just the buildings that they’re in, but any building, good, bad, or indifferent. They learn positive things and negative things. So I thought that a building to house the people it was intended to house should be a work of architecture in as true a sense as I could make it.
Now, having said all that, as a would-be, sometime educator, I truly think there have to be things that students can fall back on—not formulas, but principles. It’s not that you follow someone else’s articulation of principles necessarily, but at least you know if you want to go in the opposite direction. There has to be a sounding board, there has to be a guidepost. That is the intention of the building. Whether or not it works that way is another matter. To me, you see, it doesn’t matter whether people like something or dislike it. The fact that they encounter this thing is important.
Do you think that the fact that this building is still generating love and hatred simultaneously is a real measure of its success in the way you’ve described it?
The fact that there are those who have strong opinions about it, negative as well as positive, is okay. It’s a part of it. Maybe the degree of this is, for me personally, a little difficult to understand, sometimes. If I can look at it objectively, I would say that’s the purpose which it’s intended to serve.
What did you learn by doing this building? How has it touched you in the way it’s evolved over the past 25 years?
I don’t know how to answer that. I regard it to this day as an expression of many things that I think as an architect, not as a sometime teacher–although that too, in a strange kind of way. I suppose this might sound like sheer obstinacy, but if I were to do it again, in detail I would certainly modify certain things.
But in principle, I’m not sure that I’d modify it a lot. In fact I’m quite sure that I would not. I’m sure this probably sounds like, “Oh God, he hasn’t learned anything.” Architects cannot look truly objectively at what they’ve done, and twenty five years later I find myself being still too close. A building for people as well as for architects is one of the most emotional affairs you can imagine. I think all of us know that, yet we talk about the tangible things and deal by and large with what is ostensibly very tangible. But the net result is a highly emotional affair, for its users, the commentators, and for the architect. And that can’t change.
So how do you see the building now, and how has it changed you?
The two things that I believe to be the weakest points in 20th-century architecture are the fact that we cannot make cities—not cohesive cities or even one building next to another and that we don’t understand very well what I call the psychology of space, both interior and exterior. Now this building addresses both of those. I believe its strongest point in fact is that it’s sympathetic to its site and the Yale campus in general. By that I mean it does have a silhouette, a configuration in relation to the street, and a scale in relationship to the adjacent buildings. Not the immediate adjacent buildings, but this neck of the woods in general. Those formal relationships are there. I am talking about it essentially from the outside. I think that its character, without at all copying details from earlier buildings, blends in terms of its color, scale, texture, its placement, its dimensions, its profile. It’s a building that seems to belong. I believe that the A&A building demonstrates that you don’t have to pick up details from a Gothic building nearby to make it sympathetic. Now, the appropriateness of space inside is a mixed bag. I regret very much for instance my inability to get natural light into the second floor as it was intended. But the fire laws and so forth made that difficult, although I think that if I pursued it a bit further I could have managed it. But I didn’t, and the importance of natural light, and artificial light as far as that goes, becomes an integral part of the psychology of space. And the variety of space being simultaneously intimate and grand, sophisticated and simple—I think you find those characteristics in the A&A building, and subsequently I feel that I’ve carried many of those things much further. After all, this was an early building for me.
How do you react to the fact that the building now seems to be enjoying appreciation among current students?
Buildings have lives of their own. Buildings are like people, they’re sometimes honest or sometimes not so honest. Attitudes change. The fact is that the building is in another cycle, opinions oscillate, and it matters little to me whether it’s up or down. It’s the nature of the beast. It brings up the question, of course, of whether the students set the building on fire. I don’t know. It’s what everybody’s pleased to say.
What do you believe?
I don’t really know. I talked to the fire marshal.
Were you satisfied with his report that it wasn’t arson?
I don’t know if that’s true. I don’t know. But I would prefer to think that it was not the students of architecture. All of us can deal in wishful thinking. It would be wrong of me to say that I’m not touched by the idea that students of architecture set the building on fire. Of course it touches me. But the worst fate from my viewpoint would be indifference. I’ve never worked on a building that affected me as much as that one does. I’d like to think that, in spite of everything, it says something about the nature of architecture.
Featured image: photo by Gunner Klack, via Flickr.