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You Talkin’ To Me? A Parable About Audience Retention, Smoke, And Mirrors.
Happy Valentine’s Day and a belated Happy New Year.
Here is a corny little love letter I penned to the great architect Paul Rudolph 12 years ago.
It was presented as part of "Flip Your Field," an academic conference at the UIC School of Architecture in Chicago. The panel I was on was focused on the idea of the “architectural audience.”
For that conference, I tried to “Retcon” Rudolph— that is make a quasi Back to the Future version of his life story. It has been lightly rewritten for clarity and I have updated some of the content to reflect some more recent cultural developments.
The next spring, in 2011, I presented a follow-up at the “Future of History” conference at the University of Michigan's Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning.
I have lost the text for that talk but you can watch it here. In that talk, I tried to extract some lessons learned from Rudolph in my own work circa 2010.
I don’t give these sorts of academic talks or write these sorts of conference papers anymore.
Like the essay I posted last November on Frank Lloyd Wright, this one is also heavily footnoted and dense with architecturespeak.
So this post is basically a somewhat mortifying relic from a part of my life that I have pretty much closed the door on.
But, right now while I am figuring out if it is even possible to atone for the sins of cheesy academic writing I am going to keep republishing my older essays— if only to gather them in one spot.
Obviously, I am hoping this will aid some yet-unborn future academic’s navel-gazing! So to whomever that person or bot may be, have at it!
Once I get done design-building this house I should be back in a month or two with some fresh new writing.
2/15/23. PS. After reading this post, architectural historian Daniel Paul sent me this great video of Paul Rudolph talking about the Bond Centre, probably circa 1981/2. I think the video really proves my point. Rudolph hardly seems either defeated or concerned about what his peers might have been thinking about him, his work, or his career.
“Retroactive continuity [Retcon] ultimately means that history flows fundamentally from the future into the past, that the future is not basically a product of the past.”
Elgin Frank Tuper1
“You asked if there was anything in our writing that I would want to change. When I criticized Paul Rudolph’s building it was a convenient way to explain what I was doing by explaining what I was not doing. But since then I feel very guilty about that. Paul Rudolph was the head of the department who invited me to teach at Yale. I later wrote him a letter saying “look, I’m sorry, that was a dumb idea.”
In the immediate few years following his appointment as Chair of the Department of Architecture at Yale University in 1957, Paul Rudolph was arguably the most influential architect in North America. At the height of his powers, Rudolph’s audience was broad, prominent, and likely to take his direction.
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His now well-documented and disastrous decline in popularity in the United States and his re-emergence, Lazarus- like, in another, more global context presents an alternate conclusion to American modernism- one that challenges the official story, a saccharine tale about the insincerity of post-war modernism and the redemption of American architecture via the well tempered and “modest” Forgotten Symbolisms of Architectural Form a la Denise Scott Brown, and Steven Izenour and Robert Venturi.
This paper aims to construct an alternate, retconned (or slightly fictionalized) narrative in which 1980s architect/anti-hero Paul Rudolph strikes out for the developing world in search of new audiences for his debased and maligned, but tough-minded architectural principles.
His project, although now semi-recuperated, remains under-theorized within the current discourse.
At most Rudolph remains a bit-player or a walk-on within contemporary revisions to the modernist storyline. For instance, Rem Koolhaas uncharitably characterized Rudolph’s Singaporean work as little more than the end cycle to the Team X / Metabolist saga.3 Even alongside several other second-generation American modernists (notably Pereira, Portman, and Roche), who disappeared from the public eye during the Reagan/Bush era, Rudolph mysteriously seems absent from most contemporary discussions of late modernism.
However, viewed from an alternative vantage point, Rudolph’s uncanny ability to summon up new audiences seems exceptional. Within the parallel architectural universe that will be sketched out here, Rudolph ultimately achieves escape velocity, spinning so far out of the dominant but entropic Venturian/Jencksian worldview that he successfully lays out the foundation for what is termed here a parallel post-modern project.
By theorizing how the present could be different as if past events had not happened (or as if they had happened differently), we will discover why Rudolph should now be the go-to model for any architect interested in how to resurrect a career in the event of catastrophic failure.
Many of my peers, eg contemporary practitioners who are unquestionably skilled at convincing their core audience (e.g. curators, critics, and their IG followers) that they are on track to being celebrities, but perhaps rightfully concerned that they may be only talking to themselves (this is known in the military parlance as a circular firing squad), Rudolph provides an instructive model for surviving the inevitable doldrums of audience fatigue and conjuring new audiences whenever and wherever audience loyalty lags, just disappears or perhaps artistic cancellation is imminent.
Maximum Audience Capture
Between 1960 and 1965 Rudolph’s work was featured, on average, in nearly every month or every other monthly issue of Architecture Forum, Architectural Record, and Progressive Architecture. Championed by editors, critics, and taste-makers, Rudolph’s name regularly popped up in the New York Times, Time-Life, and Vogue. For better or worse, he was the leading American architect to emerge during the Cold War era.
He owned that terrestrial space race, at least on US soil. During the years 1960-1965, Rudolph’s work or persona was featured in two hundred national magazines and newspapers-- twice as many as in the previous decade. In 1961 he appeared twice, for good measure, in Time Magazine. For a golden-- but in the end tragically short-- period, Rudolph commanded the attention of large swathes of American academia and virtually whole sectors of the professional world.
Rudolph strode, as the late Michael Sorkin brilliantly noted, a “brush-cut colossus” atop the American architecture scene.4 Yale under Rudolph became a hotbed of academic activity. Rudolph used his muscle and charm to invite and promote promising young international figures such as James Stirling and, conceivably to his later regret, Robert Venturi. He also supported or tolerated to some degree, established voices such as Serge Chermayeff and Vincent Scully within the school. In doing so, he attracted a generation of students (Norman Foster, Robert Stern, Richard Rogers, and Stanley Tigerman among them) who would leave Yale to go on to illustrious careers.
In the decade following his appointment as Chair, Rudolph’s office completed approximately fifty buildings in North America. Many of these projects were of a significant institutional or urban scale, including the Government Services Center in Boston, the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, and the SMTI / UMass Dartmouth campus. Less than a quarter of the work from this period was made up of family residences, in contrast to his early career as a residential designer, with Robert Twitchell, of a series of innovative Case Study-like Floridian houses.
By 1960 Paul Rudolph had achieved the sort of notoriety, influence, access, and most importantly, audience capture that had eluded many of his peers. We must keep in mind that in 1960 I.M. Pei was still far from a household name and the now-canceled Phillip Johnson was better known publicly for his collaboration with Mies van Rohe rather than his embryonic and quixotic practice.
Rudolph had achieved a rare feat in architecture, maximum audience share.
He was the Kennedy era’s equivalent of a Starchitect.
And then the other shoe dropped.
The Great Man Theory Unformulated
Ruminations on the premature death of Paul Rudolph’s practice and fall from grace have been well rehearsed elsewhere.5
Fifteen years after his Chairmanship at Yale ended, Rudolph’s career in North America had declined so violently that by 1986 Michael Sorkin would label him architecture’s Invisible Man.
“Today,” Sorkin wrote in The Village Voice, “Rudolph’s office has shrunk drastically and his major commissions are mainly in the Far East, out of local sight,” Sorkin wrote. “He’s no longer prominent on the academic scene, the architectural magazines have forgotten him, and his name seldom figures in the discourse of architectural precedent. Rudolph not only suffers from public invisibility but many of his works of architectural have been violently erased. Even those students he trained seem no longer to regard him as a vital presence, relegating him to some anachronistic margin."6
While the point of this paper is not to dwell on his failures, it is worth revisiting the facts just to establish how high he rose and how low he fell, numerically.
The speed at which he went from the national stage to somewhere just short of total insignificance is hard to overstate, but the numbers show it clearly, both in terms of projects completed and features published.
As hard as it is to imagine, only five years after the construction of the three-hundred-thousand-square-foot Burroughs Wellcome Company Corporate Building in Research Triangle Park, North Carolina in 1972 (destroyed in 2021,) the largest project in Rudolph’s office was a thousand-square-foot addition to a residence in Greenwich, Connecticut. Remarkably, in his second decade out of Yale, Rudolph built a little more than a dozen projects and most, except one, were in the United States.
Consider, for comparison, the fact that Argentine-American architect Cesar Pelli completed 16 projects in 4 countries in the first decade after completing his Chairmanship at Yale and then another 27 projects in 8 countries in the following decade, two of which, the Petronas Twin Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia (1998) were the world’s tallest buildings until 2004.
By contrast, in the 1970s well over half of Rudolph’s commissions were, in fact, private residences, and of those projects, five were apartment renovations or apartment lobby renovations in New York City.
The catastrophic third act of Rudolph’s career still seems shocking, even by the mercurial standards of micro-fame and social media celebrity that today’s young architect mistakes for cultural status and a real reputation to stand on.
From an Audience of Some to an Audience of None.
TRAVIS You talkin’ to me? TRAVIS You talkin’ to me? TRAVIS You talkin’ to me?
TRAVIS Then who the hell else are you talkin’ to?
TRAVIS You talkin’ to me?
TRAVIS Well I’m the only one here.
TRAVIS Who the fuck do you think
you’re talking to?”
Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver
“I realize that infatuation is the most dangerous thing in the world. That some- times you fixate on something and you can’t get it out of your system until you realize how bad it really is. It’s true with me anyway. I think it’s true with most architects, as a matter of fact.”
In the bicentennial year of 1976, Paul Rudolph was starting to seem like another fixated New Yorker with a severe haircut, Robert De Niro’s pitch-perfect Vietnam vet, Travis Bickle. Bickle, as Roger Ebert described him, had “…a desperate need to make some kind of contact somehow - to share or mimic the effortless social interaction he sees all around him, but does not participate in.”8
With only one live project to his name and a small office aimlessly operating amid Phillip Johnson’s Chippendale era (the AT&T Tower not the male striptease revue!), you get the feeling Rudolph was probably facing a similar crisis. His thinking, postures, and even inimitable drawing style had been superseded within the architectural culture by doubt, criticality, and irony.
Infatuated as Rudolph was with confident structural logics, brutal material expressionism, light, and spatial play- the whole bag of tricks that went along with heroic-era architecture- he was in no way prepared when the architectural ground he built his practice on gave way and Jencksian radical eclecticism became de rigueur.
He was mocked and trolled by his Post Modern offspring. As Michael Graves quipped about some of his late work, The Concourse in Singapore, “Everything is an episode. I can’t tell faceted corner from faceted corner from faceted corner. It just keeps going. All this is a matter of taste, of course, and I think this building is very good Rudolph."
Sure, in another context his retro haircut, crisp-cut suits, and polished oxfords, the very things that marked him as a man out of step with the times, would have passed for a sardonic take on the decade’s Mod-revivalism.9
But, in the late seventies East Coast architectural circles nothing modernist was especially retro-fashionable and therefore Rudolph was talking to and dressing for himself. Rudolph was truly working on being an audience of some.
By 1980 it was maybe an audience of none. That year, the great architect’s work was published in just one professional journal in North America, the Texas Architect- which dedicated less than one page to this headline: ‘Multi-Use Complex Underway in Downtown Fort Worth.”
The only other significant reference to Rudolph in the North American context in 1980 was, amazingly, even less fortunate. In the spring issue of the Harvard Architectural Review (“Beyond the Modern Movement”), Alexander Tzonis and Liane Lefaivre included Rudolph in their inane and spiteful essay “The Narcissist Phase in Architecture.”
Cast as the antagonist, Paul Rudolph’s name was misspelled in the text but not in all of the captions.
By the 80s they couldn’t even get his name right.
The Lazarus Phenomenon
As the commissions dried up and the invitations to lecture evaporated, it seemed as if Rudolph was buried alive or at least imprisoned in a cage of his own making. That is, in any case, the official story.
In the final decades of his practice, Rudolph would arguably construct more work at a larger scale than any other period in his life and he would do this all in some sort of self-imposed exile staged within the leviathan of American architectural culture.
If Paul Rudolph achieved a rare honor bestowed on few significant architects-- he had managed to be both everywhere and nowhere within a matter of a few years-- it took considerably longer for Frank Lloyd Wright to disappear and reappear-- his final act of self revivification was truly a show of considerable skill and prestidigitation.
After splitting his national audience base and then possibly halving it again, Rudolph would disappear altogether from the American architecture scene only to miraculously reappear in South East Asia, becoming the most influential architect practicing in that context in the last two decades of the 20th century.
That, in any case, may be the retconned version of the final chapter in Rudolph’s as yet unwritten Oeuvre Complète.
Or it might be the truth.
The Rudolph Effect
There is some mounting evidence that his major commercial projects in South East Asia-- The Colonnade in Singapore (1980); the Dharmala Office Building in Jakarta, Indonesia (1981); the Bond Centre in Hong Kong (1984); the Concourse Singapore (1994); and one lesser-known mid-rise, the Wisma Dharmala Sakti 2 Building in Surabaya, Indonesia (1990)-- have been restaged as a series of so-called bio-climatic, tropical towers in Malaysia and Singapore.
In other words, Rudolph’s legacy extended well beyond the suffocating confines of east coast academia and his practice left behind a series of meaningful models for addressing both social and ecological pressures in developing cities.
Indeed, there is new scholarship, in particular the recent work of Robert Bruegmann, that draws attention to the importance of Rudolph’s late work. And, there would now appear to be an audience or at least an echo of Rudolph’s late design interests within contemporary practices working at the regional and the global scale.
For instance, the Malaysian architect Ken Yeang has built a career designing and promoting eco-green vertical urbanism in South East Asia, something Rudolph pioneered in Singapore. More recently OMA / Ole Scheeren constructed The Interlace a very Rudolph-like “…large-scale complex of 31 interconnected apartment buildings stacked in an innovative hexagonal arrangement... a vertical village with cascading sky gardens and roof terraces.”10 It could also be argued that there are more than a few traces of the late Rudolph (and less so Mies van der Rohe) in OMA's CCTV Beijing Headquarters.
The fact is that Rudolph’s rehearsal across those key final projects of a series of tactics and strategies for making geometrically interlocked, cascading towers set on open plinths and interlaced with green zones have reappeared forcefully in recent years in Asia.
This suggests that Rudolph was an architect waiting for an audience to appear, not an architect watching his audience disappear.
Sleight of Hand / Sudden Death Misdirection / Adaptation
“The easiest way to attract a crowd is to let it be known that at a given time and a given place, someone is going to attempt something that in the event of failure will mean sudden death.”
Let’s suppose for a moment that Rudolph’s transformation from a very well-known architect to a known, unknown architect to an unknown, unknown architect was a performance, indeed a carefully assembled concert of stagecraft and deception.
Let’s imagine, too, that the Invisible Man was an act in itself: a ruse cleverly crafted to keep the audience looking at the left hand while the right hand was getting ready to pull something out of nothing.
How else do we explain the fact of the nearly thirty projects undertaken between 1980 and 1997, a little less than half were hopelessly small-scale residential and remodeling affairs in the northeastern United States (right hand) while the other half of the practice was designing massive commercial developments South East Asia (left hand)??
While everyone in the audience was watching Rudolph’s tedious decline at home he was effectively staging his great escape overseas.
Rudolph is consistently described as modernist and antagonistic to any kind of postmodernist pastiche. This commonly accepted dichotomy between modernist style and postmodernist style is unfortunate...it has consigned him to the margins of the debate in contemporary architecture on building in the city.
Is it safe to say that since Rudolph no other architect has pulled off such a sleight of hand or demonstrated such mastery of smoke and mirrors or applied the arcane techniques of audience control and hypnotization to such effect?
Rudolph’s tightly choreographed misdirection, like all great acts of illusionism, led his audience to believe that he was still performing his old act when in fact he had long left the stage for other another venue with a whole new set of tricks up his sleeve.
Rudolph’s conjuring was remarkable not only because he was successful in projecting the illusion of failure to disguise his motivations, but more importantly because the performance suggests the total re-assimilation of his modernist impulses into a parallel post-modern practice.
His adaptation to necessary failures, irresolvable dualisms, hybrid practices, and impure motivations was truly post-modern but not of the Jencksian PoMo sort, one of “…expressive uses of ornament and decoration, formal reference and quotation, stylistic eclecticism, symbolism in form, material, and ornament.”13
No, Rudolph’s post-modern arrival, avant la lettre, was an embrace of what Frederic Jameson termed the “new [postmodern] forms of practice and social and mental habits,”14 this is to say Rudolph’s post-modernism was one in which personal, fragile interpretation, and not some larger bombastic zeitgeist, is paramount.
This view of Rudolph positions him firmly in the canon as the first parallel post-modern architect, not the last modern architect. Furthermore, his final works-- liberated of any need to communicate with to willing audience or convey any ethical grandeur-- play freely with a highly mannered modernism, one rich with both real and artificial effects and imbued with the so-called ‘elegant affect of the evolved object.’15
The illusionist’s act of staging an escape usually involves the performer being placed in a restraining machine like a steel box, a fish tank, or a coffin. Immobilized by additional devices (shackles, chains, and locks) the magician then escapes safely, much to the audience’s astonishment.
Some escapes are acts of illusionism (the box was never there) and others are legitimate exhibitions of superhuman elasticity, muscle, skill, and courage (the box and locks had to be pried, forced, or picked opened with oxygen running out).
Houdini’s most infamous test of his skills involved being placed in a glass and polished steel box of his design, the Water Torture Cell, a combination of a fish tank and coffin. According to the highly fictionalized and romantic Hollywood version of his life, Houdini would die in the box during his final act.16
Rudolph’s Magic Box
In 1977 Paul Rudolph completed his plans for his glass and steel box- a levitating penthouse addition at 23 Beekman Place. Inlaid with multiple reflective surfaces (mirrors, mylar, and polished stainless steel), Rudolph’s box was developed through his archetypically intricate sectional studies.
Designed in 1967, completed in 1978, and constantly reworked until he died in 1997, his penthouse was a personal laboratory, an experimental architecture engine in which space and possibly time and identity were extended, bent, and warped back on themselves.
At a time when the North American architectural audience was interested in reproducing historic and symbolic motifs, Paul Rudolph’s final act of architecture was a highly abstract space-light modulating machine, a space in which he would escape the treacherous undertow of his predicament, disguising visibility for in-visibility and invisibility for unlimited viability in another context.
In the end, Paul Rudolph retconned perhaps, was not an architect trapped by his past but one whose history flowed “fundamentally from the future into the past.”
Retroactive Continuity or Retcon is a narrative de- vise used in the comic book genre, serialized science fiction, and television series scriptwriting. Retcon is used to change or undo previously established storylines or character mythologies. It is especially useful if a major plot point doesn’t go over well with audiences and the scriptwriter seeks to reignite audience attention. Retcon also allows the scriptwriter to invent a new storyline that “reveals” previously undiscovered past events in previous storylines. Usually, Retcon leaves most of the salient “facts” and characters the same, thus preserving continuity while completely changing interpretation. For example, revealing that a whole season of “Lost” was a dream would be a Ret- con. The first published use of the phrase “retroactive continuity” is found in Elgin Frank Tupper’s 1974 book The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg.
Elgin Frank Tupper, The Theology of Wolfhart Pannenberg (Philadelphia, Westminster Press, 1973) 100.
Vladimir Paperny’s interview with Denise Scott Brown at www.paperny.com/venturi.html. Posted 2005. Retrieved September 1, 2010. Reprinted from Architectural Digest Russia magazine
The most Koolhaas could say about Rudolph, amid his rebuttal to the “Eurocentric” / Gibsonian knock on Singapore, was this: “Paul Rudolph re-emerges from limbo. Somewhere in the city one of his American prototypes – it started its conceptual life in the sixties as a stack of mobile homes hoisted in steel skeleton- stands realized in concrete. In 1981 he had been part of the Beach Road experiment- presumably unknowingly. For a Developer, and without contact with his Singaporean colleagues, the American designs a metabolic project: a rotated concrete tower next to a deformed bulge of a podium, one of the first manifestations of the independent atrium... the rotation of the tower replaced by indentation, a metallic corncob, its “American atrium” more hollow than its Asian counterparts.”
Rem Koolhaas and Bruce Mau, “Singapore Songlines: Portrait of a Potemkin Metropolis ...or Thirty Years of Tabula Rasa,” in Small, Medium, Large, Extra-Large: Office for Metropolitan Architecture (New York: Monacelli Press, 1995) 1008-89.
Michael Sorkin, “The Invisible Man,” The Village Voice (March 25, 1986.)
Notably, two important critics dedicated some space to considering Rudolph’s late career, both before and after his death. Michael Sorkin lamented his invisibility about ten years before Rudolph passed and Kurt Forster wrote a touching posthumous dedication about a decade later. More recently Robert Bruegmann has begun to consider the late work. See, for instance, Kurt Forster, “Hey Sailor, a Brief Memoir of the Long Life and Short Fame of Paul Rudolph,” ANY issue no. 21, “How the Critic Sees: Seven Critics on Seven Buildings,” (New York: Anyone Corporation, December 1997) 13-15.
Michael Sorkin, Ibid.
Michael Kaplan. “Interview with Paul Rudolph,” University of Tennessee Journal of Architecture no. 16 (1995): 7.
Roger Ebert’s Review of Taxi Driver at Roger Ebert. com. Posted January 2004. Retrieved September 1, 2010.
For instance, the late 70s in the UK saw the second wave of the 2 Tone Ska revival as well as a brief Mod Revival that produced sharp punk-ska hybrid bands like the Specials and the Beat and mod-influenced bands such as The Jam. Paul Rudolph certainly already dressed the part.
The Interlace by OMA quote at www.dezeen.com. Posted September 9, 2009. Accessed February 14, 2023.
Harry Houdini quote at www.houdini.org. Posted January 2000. Retrieved September 1, 2010.
Robert Bruegmann. “The Architect as Urbanist: Part 1 and 2 at www.designobserver.com. Posted February 2010. Retrieved September 1, 2010.
Owen Hopkins and Erin McKellar eds., Multiform: Architecture in an age of transition, special issue of Architectural Design (Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2021)
Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991. Introduction: xiv.
Kivi Sotamaa. “Frozen Void: The Elegant Affect of the Evolved Object,” Architectural Design Special Issue: Elegance. Volume 77, Issue 1, (London, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd. January/February 2007): 24–27
In reality, Houdini died at Detroit's Grace Hospital after being struck repeatedly in his abdomen on a bet.