Paul Rudolph

Paul Rudolph Paul Marvin Rudolph (1918-1997) was an internationally acclaimed architect with a lengthy and varied career designing residences and commercial buildings. First trained at Alabama Polytechnic Institute (present-day Auburn University), he went on to design numerous houses in Florida and is best known in Alabama for designing homes in Auburn, Lee County; Athens, Limestone County; and the Tuskegee University Chapel in Tuskegee, Macon County.

Rudolph was born on October 23, 1918, in Elkton, Kentucky, to Methodist minister Keener L. Rudolph and Eurye Stone Rudolph. He had three sisters. The family moved to Athens, Limestone County, in 1936, and he attended Athens High School. He would later design houses there for the Martin (1957) and Wallace (1961-1965) families.

He received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from the School of Architecture and Applied Arts at Alabama Polytechnic Institute, in Auburn, Lee County, in 1940. His senior thesis topic, Glass in Architecture and Decoration, was the first exploration of an interest that would continue throughout this career. Before graduating, however, Rudolph had the opportunity to build his first house on East Samford Avenue, a 1,500-square-foot residence designed by commission in 1939 for T. P. Atkinson, a professor in the university’s Department of Foreign Languages. The design for the one-story home displays several technical innovations for the time, including central heating, corner windows, and a copper standing-seamed roof. Rudolph designed and carved in plaster a large-scale decorative mural that is situated above the central freestanding fireplace.

Paul Rudolph at Alabama Polytechnic Institute Rudolph then entered the Graduate School of Design at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and studied under Walter Gropius, renowned founder of the Bauhaus School. Also known as the International School, the focus in architectural education was primarily on the integrated harmony between a building’s function and design. Through Gropius, Rudolph learned the guiding architectural principles that formed the basis for his prolific career in Modernist design, which, in the United States, emerged in the early twentieth century as simplified designs with little ornamentation that incorporated advances in new technologies and materials.

Rudolph’s graduate career was interrupted by World War II, and he served three years in the U.S. Naval Reserve from 1943 to 1946, supervising crews repairing vessels at the New York Naval Shipyard. His experience proved beneficial, however, as it enabled him to observe ship building and heavy construction techniques and allowed him to encounter and manage real problems in the field. He thus was able to view the design process through the lens of a worker. These situations would later influence his use of region-specific design techniques, particularly when designing residences in Florida and the Deep South.

After graduating from Harvard in 1947, Rudolph moved to Sarasota, Florida, and formed a partnership with fellow architect Ralph Twitchell that lasted from 1948 to 1952. Briefly in 1949, Rudolph travelled to Europe as Harvard’s Wheelwright Travelling Fellow to oversee and edit a special issue of L’Architecture d’Aujourd’hui, (Architecture Today) titled “Walter Gropius et Son École,” (“Walter Gropius and His School”) that was published in February 1950. In Florida, the Twitchell-Rudolph practice focused on small-house construction for the semi-tropical climate. The Healy Guest House, or Cocoon House, at Siesta Key (1950) and the Walker Guest House (1952-53) on Sanibel Island are among the best known examples of Rudolph’s Florida style. They were characterized by lightweight open construction with shuttered wall panels, or jalousies, to admit light and cooling breezes while preventing sun and rain from entering in the days before air conditioning. These houses would become known as part of the Sarasota School of Architecture, a post-war modernist design style.

Applebee-Shaw House Returning to Auburn in 1954, Rudolph designed the Applebee-Shaw House for Frank Woodberry Applebee, then head of Alabama Polytechnic Institute’s Art Department, and his wife, Martha. As an undergraduate student, Rudolph had been enrolled in Applebee’s history of painting and sculpture course. In constructing the home on Chewacla Drive, Rudolph used cantilevers to create varying floor levels and form differentiated spaces. The region-specific design took into account weather patterns common in the Deep South. He installed sunshades and glass panels with mosquito netting to keep out the muggy heat and insects. A continuous row of windows runs above the paneled doors, allowing for ample natural light. Harold Swindell, an Opelika contractor, took on the building challenge. The residence was named one of Architectural Record’s “Eight Adventuresome Houses with New Ideas” of 1956. Neighbors in the small town, however, referred to it as the “flying boxcar” because of its radically modern appearance. Rudolph also designed the Kappa Sigma fraternity house at Auburn in 1961.

After moving his solo practice to New Haven, Connecticut, in 1957, Rudolph served as Chair of the School of Architecture at Yale University until 1965. During his tenure, he designed the university’s Art and Architecture Building (1958-64; now the Rudolph Building), the 1,500-space parking garage for the city of New Haven (1959), and Yale’s married students housing dormitory (1960), among other residential and commercial commissions. Eventually, Rudolph decided to leave academia and return to professional practice.

Tuskegee University Chapel In the late 1950s at Tuskegee Institute (present-day Tuskegee University), Rudolph assisted with designs for the institute’s master plan. More notably, in 1960 Rudolph and African American architects Louis Fry and John A. Welch, and Moreland Griffith Smith, architectural consultant for campus buildings, collaborated to design a new interdenominational chapel for the campus. The original chapel at Tuskegee had been designed by Robert Robinson Taylor, the first African American architect classically trained at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Tragically, Taylor’s chapel was struck by lightning and burned to the ground in 1957. Rudolph’s structure, completed in 1969, is situated at the campus center. Rudolph had planned to construct the building from concrete, but cost issues forced him to switch to mechanically produced bricks. He was initially concerned about the bricks’ contrast because the majority of the original buildings at Tuskegee were constructed using bricks handmade by students from local clay.

Tuskegee University Chapel, Interior The chapel’s design is well known for its steel trussed roof, which weighs more than 71 tons and has 117 open-web steel joists that are angled to create the ceiling’s accordion-fold appearance. It is also noted for two interior focal points: the pulpit, with its dramatic sounding board, and the elevated choir area. Four entrances with exterior winding steps lead to the main floor’s terrace. Natural light streams through two rows of skylights in the blue-painted ceiling and flows parallel to the walls. Light also shines through colored-glass windows set into the exterior walls. The asymmetrical nave flows beneath the undulating accordion-fold roof as it slopes in two directions toward the pulpit and choir areas. Behind the chancel is a small meditation chapel, lit primarily by skylights and colored-glass insets. Its tall ceiling gives a sense of limitless space in the small area. The chapel has a seating capacity of 1,200 and also serves as a concert hall for the famous Tuskegee Choir. In fact, Rudolph paid great attention to the acoustic qualities of the space, and reverberation is cushioned by the natural materials. As the son of a Methodist minister, his work on the chapel held special importance.

Rudolph’s commissions declined in the 1970s, partly as a result of the nation’s economic recession, changing architectural tastes toward emerging Postmodernist designs, and a widespread reaction against the use of natural concrete, a material frequently showcased in Rudolph’s designs. Despite these trends, he continued to work internationally, designing buildings in Singapore and throughout Southeast Asia. In the 1980s, he designed three major skyscrapers: the Colonnade Condominium in Singapore (1980-87), the Wisma Dharmala Tower in Jakarta (1982-88), and the Bond Centre Office Towers in Hong Kong (1984-88). In particular, the Dharmala Tower is considered one of his most successful projects embodying the best principles and techniques of Modernist design.

In 1996, Auburn University offered Rudolph the commission of designing Alabama’s first university art museum, the Jule Collins Smith Museum of Fine Art. Unfortunately, Rudolph died on August 8, 1997, in New York City from cancer related to asbestos exposure before he was able to begin the design process. His longtime partner, Ernst Wagner, along with friends and associates, established the Paul Rudolph Foundation in his honor in the couple’s former home in midtown Manhattan; the foundation works to preserve Rudolph’s work and legacy. Rudolph donated his archive, spanning his entire career, to the Library of Congress, as well as all intellectual property rights to the American people. His bequest also helped to establish the Center for Architecture, Design, and Engineering at the Library of Congress. The Paul Rudolph Penthouse, which he worked on from 1977 to 1997, at 23 Beekman Place in Manhattan, was designated a New York City Landmark in 2010.

Further Reading

  • Bjone, Christian. First House: The Grid, the Figure and the Void. Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley-Academy, 2002.
  • Bowsher, Alice Meriwether. Alabama Architecture: Looking at Building and Place. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2001.
  • De Alba, Roberto. Paul Rudolph: The Late Work. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003.
  • Domin, Christopher, and Joseph King. Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses. New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2002.
  • Monk, Tony. The Art and Architecture of Paul Rudolph. Chichester, United Kingdom: Wiley-Academy, 1999.
  • Schmertz, Mildred. “A Chapel for Tuskegee by Rudolph.” Architectural Record 146 (November 1969): 117–26.

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