This presentation is part of the Mid-Century Modern Structures: Materials and Preservation Symposium, April 14-16, 2015, St. Louis, Missouri.
Material Change: Attenuation to Significance
by Christopher Domin
Christopher Domin: Coming in this morning past the Central Library and the Wainwright Building, and then taking a right at the Gateway Arch, I get why we’re here. So thanks to Mary and the National Park Service and I guess especially the Center for Preservation Technology and also Training. Thanks to you all for putting this together and having this conference.
It’s important, I think, when we’re thinking about preservation- obviously everybody does a lot around this room, knowing where you came from and what part of this cultural heritage that’s establishing the intellectual logic of what we’re talking about. That’s where I’m changing gears a bit for this conversation. When Joe King and I first started working on the Paul Rudolph research and published the book in 2002, Rudolph’s private practice started in 1952, so the middle of that early first period of Rudolph’s work had just turned 50. I think a lot of people knew where that work was coming from grew up Gropius, coming over. It was well understood the sort of Harvard education system and the logic that set up that work that Paul Rudolph was good at, I would argue the best of his generation. That’s one of the reasons I think that a lot of that work is important.
I’ll talk a little bit about his work, setting up a new generation of architects I’ve become interested in recently. I live in Tuscon, Arizona, there’s a great architect that was trained under Rudolph at Yale named Judith Chafee. She graduated in the class of 1960. Doing the math, and thinking about when she graduated and when they were starting their practice, going back and thinking about 50 years, that work is coming up now for consideration, I think. Trying to figure out how to lay the groundwork for the intellectual structure for this group of architects.
When you look at this plan, this is Paul Rudolph’s first project which came out of his graduate master thesis, it’s all about thinness, this is the idea of attenuation. Rudolph talked a lot about some of the most important things in his life, one of them was working at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. This notion of getting things down to their efficiency, getting everything down to it’s material essence. You can see that coming through Gropius at Harvard and also he talked about travels in Europe. He talked about those things being the most important parts of his research. His drawings are what took him out into the world. I think that’s why, when you’re working off the radar in a place like the west coast of Florida in Sarasota, you needed something to get you out into the world. One of the ways he did it was through his drawings. This is that project for the Finney guest house that really took him out into the world when a lot of people couldn’t get to him.
One of the things that really changed everything I think, when he started thinking about becoming a spokesperson more than just a practicing architect, was a French publication called Architecture Today. They asked Rudolph to look at Gropius’s career and begin to figure out how that pedagogical structure began to create these architects that came out of that cultural time, that time in our culture.
A couple things stand out. It’s pretty clear what Gropius was trying to get at. He was very systematic about laying out what the pedagogical intent was for Harvard. There were a couple faculty there that were really important. There was Gropius, (Provoyer)?, I think Rudolph was very important, and also people like Siegfried Giedion. They had professional studies as one of their categories, field practice where you go out and you look at the building, and this is the surprising one to a lot people: the understanding of principles based on historical precedent. I think a lot of people talk about this generation not having a real strong sense of history, but if you’re looking at somebody like Siegfried Giedion talking about your work and the context of a lot of work that came before you, that’s a really important thing. I think, for us in this room, understanding the cultural context of the institute established that work, the cultural context for Harvard is pretty well known- has been pretty well known for a while. I think this new generation that everybody will start looking at very soon, I hope it’s less known. That’s what the paper that’s written that I hear possibly will come out in September, everybody can read all the papers from the conference, this talk will be slightly different. Hopefully it will be an extension of that.
These are some of the drawings that I’m showing right now that are a bit hard to read because they’re from this Architecture of Today publication. These are some of the drawings the systematic studies of everything from different structural systems to wind loads to even things like cost projections. What does it cost if you start to add floors to something? What’s the structural cost? What’s the cost for materials? Gropius was great about the science of design, really beginning to understand all these parts of it. I think that’s really fascinating to look at the evidence for that. There’s also these intangible things that he always talked about to his students, with the psychological nature of space, or even the importance of regionalism. There’s these things when we look back at archives we can begin to understand by looking at drawings like this and understanding how Rudolph began to draw and began to explain his projects based on this experience, but then trying to figure out some of those intangible parts too. That’s an interesting part of the puzzle to begin to untangle.
This is the project that Rudolph included in that Architecture Today publication. This is his Revere Quality guesthouse with his then-partner Ralph Twitchell. This is a project that was seen by a lot of people in the day. Over 40,000 people came through this house. You can begin to see photographs, that great Ezra Stoller photographs, that he was able to capture the life of the place. You can imagine sitting in that chair. You can imagine the lawn, this courtyard. But you can also look at Rudolph’s drawings and see all those things that were important to him. Not well laid out but you can look at the bottom and see some structural understanding of this very attenuated- it’s called a landolithic concrete system, a cast in place residential concrete system. Understanding the relationships between the solids and voids and the placing of reinforcing materials, perspectives begin to show the spatial layout, how the column begins to connect to all the other structural system but the lally columns. You can begin to see Rudolph taking those drawings that were really important to Gropius and beginning to take an architectural practice out of them.
I’m going to talk about a series of drawings that he looked at, that I always called drawing construction, where he was beginning to look at the relationship, in this case between the spatial logic of something and the structural logic of something. I think this makes his work very indicative of this generation that came out of Harvard just before and after the war. This is the Leavengood house
and the structural framing system for that, in St. Petersburg, Florida. This is the Burnette residence overlaying the spatial layout with again the landolithic construction system with thin lally columns coming up. Through an Ezra Stoller photograph in here, you can really see this pushing of material limits that sort of culture and ethic of the naval yard coming in.
This idea of taking basic structural ideas like the vault and bringing that to marine-grade plywood and you get this absolute thinness in this plane above. You get a spanning of about 7’6″, 7’8″ depending. You get a very thin material profile. Trying to figure out ways, because he was competing with people that were in the merchant builder business. He had to compete in some way with other people that were building houses on the west coast of Florida. One way he did it, and he thought his training allowed for him to be special and I think competitive, was he could begin to sort of think about material logic in a very strategic kind of way, and think about material thinness.
He also knew how to build in the south. You can see where it rises out of the ground. It rises out in block, so you touch the ground in a particular way. You protect it and then the lighter construction sits above. Here again is the landolithic system, you can see the young architect trying to figure out how the spatial logic and the material logic and the construction logic comes together to make the space. I really appreciate these drawings, especially in this part of his career. I think they really tie him really closely to where he came from. All the things that Gropius talked about, he was the ideal practitioner for this way of thinking, the pedagogical logic.
There’s also a time thinking about the early 1950s, getting into the mid-1950s, Walter Gropius was worried about issues of reconstruction in Europe. There was a lot more discussion of large buildings, large complexes of buildings, urban design and that started putting a lot of pressure on Rudolph I think to begin to expand his thinking beyond the single-family house. He was really good at siting really sensitively a house on the west coast of Florida and thinking about this material logic and thinking about operable devices that go back to his time at Alabama Polytechnic, which is now Auburn, and all the lessons he took about regionalism. Now he was starting to think about how this culture was changing and the pressures that were being put on the profession to think about larger public buildings and civic space.
This is a really interesting period for me, a sort of time of change that happened. This is Victor Lundy, this is his thesis project at Harvard, he was a few years behind Paul Rudolph and a competitor of him on the west coast of Florida, a fine architect. You can begin to see how Rudolph has a single family residence finely tuned to a landscape to Victor Lundy’s project that’s a much larger urban inclined contextual project. This is I.M. Pei’s thesis. This was really praised by Rudolph, by Gropius and the faculty at Harvard in this magazine. They thought it had a monumental expression that a lot of other projects didn’t have. I think this kind of language is beginning to set up this culture of change in the environment.
At the same time, Rudolph’s work starts to change. He starts to get larger, there’s much more classical references to it. You can begin to see how it takes on a different scale, there’s a different relationship between the spaces. Instead of a simple bar, it begins to take on a much more complex relationship with spaces underneath. He’s really trying to force an urban logic into a residential program. You can see how he was very much leading up to some of his later work in Florida that really sets up the end of his practice in Florida where he begins to think about urban complexes, urban relationships, and how he struggled with the scale of material.
This is Riverview High School and you can begin to see the attenuation is still there, but the program getting larger and larger. This kind of change in his practices is a really interesting time to me, because at the same time, he was beginning to look at massive materials. That thinness of those 2 layers of plywood that are made into a vault, you start to see the Milam house rising up, this sort of monumental character. It has much more archaeological massive feel to it. You still see the material logic. You can read every block, he draws every 8x8x16 OCAL line block in the house. You begin to see how the logic of the spanning works in the precast concrete pieces. You see the continuation of that, but you start to see a heaviness that’s beginning to change in the work.
I think that goes back to Giedion. Even in the 1940s, Siegfried Giedion was writing articles about new monumentality or 9 points for a new monumentality, written with Sert and Leger, an architect and planner and painter. You begin to see how this different part of his education starts to take on a different character. I think something that is at the heart of this building culture but is taking on a different quality, it’s almost a diversion that’s happening.
This is Sarasota High School which I think is the ultimate building of his in Sarasota, done while he was no longer a Florida architect. This is when he had a practice in Cambridge. You can begin to see some of these large relationships that begin to get established. There’s a surge in modules that could almost go on forever. It still has this finely tuned sort of sun shades that come down operable windows that allow, in an age of pre-air conditioning, time for air to move through the building. It’s trying to think about how the culture is changing but still staying close to your roots.
What’s really interesting to me right now is these are the buildings that he was talking about in 1958 when he took over as the chairman of the Yale School of Architecture, when he met this class that would graduate in 1960. This is while they were students, this was before the Arts & Architecture building. He was teaching at Yale, and Kahn was teaching at Yale, and had been there for quite a while, actually. This is the Yale University Art Gallery. We look at this building- everybody has spent some time looking at it. This is the studio for the school before they moved into Rudolph’s Art & Architecture building, which is right across the street. They had the top floor of this building.
They talked about- the students that I’ve talked to and I’ve contacted every student in her graduating class, one woman, by the way; 3 started, 1 finished, Judith Chafee- we talked about being up here and how it was an ideal studio environment. They were really inspired by the flexibility of the building, it was like a warehouse. You had these quadrants, you can see the plan up here on the wall. It also has this ceiling plane that held a lot of Kahn’s ideas about space, about program and how you begin to put material at the service of an idea. I think that’s a really an inspiring building to a lot of people.
I’ve heard the term Brutalism a lot in the past day, and I hear it all the time. This is the one building that Banham talks about that seems to stick when it relates to ideas of Brutalism. You think about this notion that there’s a formal of legibility in the plan, check. You can see this formal axial legibility in this plan so a clear exhibition of structure. You can begin to see the structural logic of this. You can understand whether the ceiling might be a very difficult convoluted thing but there’s a clear logic to it. There’s this notion that the value of material for its inherent qualities. You know that there’s a brick doing a certain thing. You know the concrete is doing a certain thing. Banham, Reyner Banham finishes it out with there’s a bloody mindedness to it. There’s a bloody mindedness to the way a brutal building, in his terminology, a new Brutalist building is organized. There’s a single mindedness to it.
I think a lot of this term has gotten out into the world, to talk about Rudolph’s building, which I would argue the Arts & Architecture building is not a Brutalist building. It doesn’t meet any of those criteria. Trying to figure out as we sort of go into this unknown territory, is we’re beginning to name things, trying to figure out how we do name them. I think that’s a really fascinating thing.
Here is that ceiling. Literally the students, when they were daydreaming, would look up and this was their inspiration. I think that’s a fantastic lesson to begin thinking about. It’s just really logical space. It was set up in these 4 quadrants, you’ve got 4 years of the undergraduate and you’ve got 1 year of graduate school. That’s how the program established itself, it just fit nicely into this very flexible place.
This is Judith Chafee. This is the architect I’ve been spending a lot of time working on recently. This is her in the Kahn Art Gallery Building. The people that I’ve talked to have discussed the first year students thinking about design principles. They were sitting right next to Kahn’s master class, so as they were going around the building- each year you take on a new quadrant- they happened to start right next to Kahn’s master class. They started out with Kahn teaching a master class right next to them. They were infused with his theories. That’s a very nice beginning I think, thinking about principles.
That was really the first class that graduated with Paul Rudolph’s undivided attention. That’s after he’d been there for a couple years. He was the thesis advisor for these students. They started with Kahn and they ended with Rudolph and they had all the debates of the changing architecture culture in between. That’s one of the things that’s been fascinating with this research is to interview the students that were in this class. Thank goodness I was able to talk to a lot of them and get some good quotes.
This is her thesis project, this is her thesis review. You can begin to see a lot of this young faculty. This was a very intense group of people. There’s a series of these photos that has Judith Chafee with a wide range of facial expressions. You see John Paul Carlhian, which was the principal at Shepley Bulfinch, Hope Johnson, 2 students, Paul Rudolph and then Henry Pfister, the former Dean of the program. This is Judith Chafee presenting her thesis project, which was an art school for Bennington.
She is clearly thinking about these more massive larger or complex buildings. The students were encouraged to think about large planning problems, major public buildings, and the idea of permanence. Somebody was talking in the beginning of the day about this notion of permanence. I think that’s a lot of the discussion. These buildings are meant to last for a long time. If you see a lot of the large, heavier Rudolph buildings, they still look pretty good today, even though a lot of administrators have put Coke machines in all the wrong locations, and moved a few things around.
It was a very exciting place to be I think. This is Rudolph at 40 years old. A lot of people who were trying to find their way starting these major public projects. A group of architects trying to figure out what this next place is, knowing very well that they were at the center of change in the culture.
This is Stanley Tigerman’s thesis project, an apartment building for Chicago, so thinking back to his home place. You can begin to see that pinwheel design coming in. Solid and void, almost like the Harvard box, do you add things or do you subtract things. A lot of these lessons, but not taking on as much heavier, larger form, clearly out of concrete.
Interestingly enough, I think a lot of the students worked in Rudolph’s office, they took a lot about how you set up a practice based on looking at how he worked. He had an office at 31 High Street, which is just 2 blocks away from the Arts & Architecture Building and the Kahn University gallery. One part of it was dedicated to his residence and the other part was in a multi-story Italianate building. He renovated that building and the top floor was his studio. He would go back and forth between- usually as the chair, he was entertaining and then he was going right back to the studio up here working. You can begin to see these 2 sort parts of things and having your life in a very sort of close proximity meant a lot. You look at a lot of these architects that came out of Yale, they have very similar arrangements. Everything from Norman Foster who lives right above his office along the Thames to Judith Chafee, who renovated an old adobe in Tucson.
Here are some of those pictures that Judith Chafee and Stanley Tigerman, renderings that they worked on in Rudolph’s office this time of change. By the way, if you think of Banham’s definition, there’s no way any of these iterations are new Brutalism. There’s no way you can make the argument.
The other projects that were going on at the time, this is the Yale married student housing project. Even Rudolph’s rendering style was changing at this time. A lot of students actually stayed on at Rudolph’s office. People like Stanley Tigerman and Judith Chafee went off into private practice. Around 1965 and ’70 they started their own offices. But a lot of them stayed on and worked in Rudolph’s office on projects like the Government Service Center in Boston or the labs.
This is one of Stanley Tigerman’s early projects. You can really begin to see even that of idea of weight rising up out of the ground and this heavy timber roof coming down on top of it.
This is Judith Chafee working at Edward Larrabee Barnes’s office. After she graduated, she worked in Rudolph’s office for a while, worked on the A&A Building and worked on married student housing, and also a house in Baltimore. Then she worked for Gropius in TAC and Ben Thompson. She worked in Saarinen office and then finally with Edward Larrabee Barnes. This is her working on a large project for Yale University.
She was really something during her period. And I think like Rudolph, really set up with an ideal education. She was set up to do great things. I think it’s really fascinating to track what she did. Her first project was a P.A. award, on the cover of P.A., this was the first project she did, still in the northeast. She stayed there and this is a client she has in Guilford, Connecticut. This is the house taken from the shores of Guilford.
Pretty remarkable, your first house, the cover of P.A., a P.A. award. I think she started feeling this notion that she needed to get back to her home place, to try to do the work that she wanted to do which is the work that Rudolph and his work in Florida really inspired. She thought going back to Tucson and the southwest might allow her to do more work that she thought- and she uses the word authenticity.
She moved back to one of the most historic neighborhoods in downtown Tucson and she makes a drawing to figure it out. Her office is a north court, it’s the building with 1 door and 3 punched openings in the bottom. Thinking about the city fabric, not just this individual building, she took 3 or 4 old adobe buildings and put them together, pulled the roof off of one of them and made a courtyard. In the back was her residence, in the front was her studio. She practiced there until she died in ’98.
Here it is, you can begin to see those parts. The front part being the most public, behind the door. You go back and there’s this inner sanctum of the public area and you have an open courtyard, then you have her residence behind. Obviously this idea of mass is really important to her, so I think this idea of rising in weight of the architecture of that period made a lot of sense to someone like Chafee. She’s coming from a culture that built with dirt, if you’re thinking about adobe. In her case, a lot of times there was very- it was difficult to actually find adobe craftsmen and the codes wouldn’t really allow it.
There’s a lot of use of different kinds of block. In this case, 8x8x16 block, mortar washed. If anyone has been to San Javier, south of Tucson, you can begin to see her references to a lot of the regional endemic culture in the area. In those lessons that you learn to survive in a place that’s really harsh. The west coast of Florida is a pretty hard place to live without air conditioning. That is pretty easy compared to Tucson in the summer.
Here is just a basic cross section, trying to figure out how you get light into the building and there’s essential characteristics that make good buildings or a good room. I think she learned a lot from Kahn, if you’re just thinking about the start of a good building, is making a good room that is well lit that has a connection to the outside and is loyal to the program. She understood that. She also knew that if you’re going to build in the southwest, you make a tough building. Luckily she also knew to inhabit the building with things that make a gracious place to live.
Here is one of her most famous project, which is the Ramada house, You’ve seen Paul Rudolph’s umbrella house or the work of Le Coubusier you begin to see where she came from. Rising up
these 2 systems, 1 mass rising up out of the earth and the other one, how to deal with the sun and shade coming down from above. Even just, how do you make an opening? How do you make an opening that has a connection to the outside? She makes a prismatic glass, where the glass actually folds down instead of a picture window. It puts you into the exterior space. Just taking time in her practice to really think about how to make the logic.
This is the last project I’m going to show. This is the Hydeman residence. These are projects that we’re all photographing right now with Bill Turinemen who is a great architectural photographer. He’s helping us document a lot of these original projects that you have because original owners are still in the houses but they’re leaving. They’re selling these houses slowly.
If you look, this is a- she called it a soil cement house, which was actually a double cast-in-place concrete wall that uses material from the site and also has insulation built into the side of it. This the 1970s, think about the energy crisis. People were really struggling to try to build something that is actually much more habitable during the summer. What I like about this building and thinking from a preservation standpoint, this is a photograph that was taken last month and it looks as good as it did when it was constructed in the late 1970s.
If you’re thinking about that notion about materials that don’t change, a lot of Rudolph’s early light buildings changed very quickly. It was easy to pull down a vault or change a light attenuated building. These massive buildings, the weathering, Rudolph always talked about buildings being understood in the rain and the different seasons, in sun and shade. I think a lot of those lessons were taken to heart by this series of architects that went on the practice half a generation after him.
Here you begin to see the light top coming down, the sheltering roof that protects you from the sun. The stereotomic mass rising up out of the ground. This was a photograph that was taken last month. Judith Chafee got a Rome Prize- she accepted a midcareer Rome Prize fellowship and she decided to study something that we talk about a lot in Tucson, the difference between latitude and longitude. The argument that latitude is much more important if you’re an architect trying to study precedent because you can begin to go around and look at possibly a much more similar climate condition.
She went to study the Mediterranean and some of the traditional architecture and how that adapted to that culture and that climate and then brought back those lessons to Tucson, thinking about that ongoing education, especially connected to vernacular culture. I think that’s one of those great lessons for this generation is trying to unpack, in a different way than Rudolph’s generation, that connection to vernacular culture to high building culture.
I have about 20 seconds left so I’m going to talk about a symposium that took place at Wash U. William Curtis was teaching at Wash U in the late 1980s and this is the exciting part for writing I think, if we’re thinking about a culture of change. There is this bifurcation that happened in the architecture culture between maybe what Robert Stearn is doing now at Yale, who is also just behind Judith Chafee. We just saw a building by Michael Graves, and people like Judith Chafee and Doshi and different architects that took on a different interpretation of what was going on at Yale. There’s this difference that was happening.
William Curtis here at Wash U in 1987 had a symposium and it was based on an article called Principle versus pasdish and about this cultural change in the world of architects during that period. I think that’s one of the challenges that we have coming up, how we’re going to deal with understanding that cultural change and taking that understanding and beginning to make decisions about preservation or whether buildings should die.
Thank you very much.
Paul Rudolph (1918-1997) accepted the Department of Architecture, Chair position at Yale University in
1958 after spending over twenty years practicing architecture on the West Coast of Florida. The wellpublished
work from his Sarasota residency in private practice, and with partner Ralph Twitchell,
established Rudolph as leader in the development of American Regional Modernism. This presentation
will analyze the evolution of Paul Rudolph’s output from the relative lightness of his finely tuned woodframed
construction implemented after graduation from Harvard University Graduate School of Design
under Walter Gropius to later Florida work engineered in concrete and steel. The advancement of
monumentality and material performance in Rudolph’s design methodology will be tracked through his
teaching at Yale University and evaluated in relation to the outcomes of student work from a new
generation of experimental architects.
Direct access to the Paul Rudolph Archive at the Library of Congress: Prints and Photographs Division
and the Judith Chafee Archive located at the University of Arizona Library: Special Collections
Department provides the primary source material for this investigation along with entree to the remaining
Christopher Domin is an architect and educator at the University of Arizona. He specializes in teaching
design studios, material technology courses and seminars that focus on mid-twentieth century
architecture. Co-author of the book, Paul Rudolph: The Florida Houses, published by Princeton
Architectural Press. Research is supported by grants from the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies
in the Fine Arts, the J. B. Jackson Endowment, and the Paul Rudolph Foundation.
Professor Domin lectures internationally on the topic of regional modernism and technological
innovation. A new book about the life and work of Judith Davidson Chafee, Architect (1932-1998) is in