Paul Rudolph was one of the dominant architects in the sixties and seventies, who understood how to build with the climate instead of fighting it. Yet so many of his buildings are now gone or threatened. Why are the works of this master of modern architecture being sent to the scrapyard in such staggering numbers?
John W. Chorley Elementary School, New York
Right now, they are fighting over the John W. Chorley Elementary School in Middletown, New York. It is the only Rudolph building scaled specifically for children. The Rudolph Foundation describes it:
“It is an enclosed, internal landscape of open classrooms (referred to as the “continuous progress plan”) naturally lit by saw-tooth clerestory windows reminiscent of the many factory buildings dotting the nearby Hudson River. The rooms at Chorley sweep into one another, each separated by operable walls, all overseen by teachers’ planning centers perched above each of four wings.”
But Rudolph buildings can be challenging. A parent complains on the Foundation’s blog:
“As someone whose husband and children all attended elementary school in this building, I can provide a first hand report that the roof has leaked consistently throughout it’s history, in spite of a continual process of patching and a series of “permanent” fixes. The open classrooms are not the best environment for learning. They can be noisy and with too many distractions from the classroom across the hall for our youngest students to focus. The descriptions here are bit romanticized.”
So instead of fixing it so that it doesn’t leak, they are going to tear it down for a parking lot.
Last year, it was Riverview High in Sarasota, where he did his best work. It was designed to work without air conditioning, to be open and bright, but with shading and sun controls. Susan Szanasy described it in Metropolis: as a “melding of Modern modularity and technology with sensitive siting, daylighting, natural ventilation, and aggressive shading against the relentless sunshine.”
Who cares that it was a masterpiece of what is known as the Sarasota Style: “Sandy soil, aquatint waters, flashes of purples and reds and yellows, intense heat under the sun, and a surprising coolness in the shade make Sarasota, Florida, a subtropical paradise. These unique local conditions were once celebrated by the mid-twentieth-century architects who built there before the profession was seduced by air-conditioning.” It’s gone.
Rudolph’s houses are being demolished as well — by the dumtster load. Photographer Chris Mottalini has documented the destruction of a series of them, on show now at Auburn University, but that can also be seen on his website.
One commenter explained why:
“Rudolph had the misfortune to work for affluent clients in popular locations, that have continued to see substantial rates of land value increases. Much of his work was smaller scale and modest, built of light-weight materials. It seems rather simple to bulldoze that in order to put up an impressive monument to your ego that fills the zoning envelope and maximizes potential real estate value of the property.
Rudolph’s use of harder, colder modern materials such as glass, steel and raw concrete also does not appeal to the desire to be coddled, which most affluent buyers expect. A true shame, because he was a spatial innovator and quite skilled in his handling of materials.”
I consider myself very fortunate to have been able to visit at least one Rudolph project, among his first, that is being preserved. It is the Walker Guest House on Sanibel Island, Florida. Check out the tour here.