rudolph threatened in goshen, NY

April 7, 2012 § 3 Comments

The drumbeat of late modernist works under threat of the wrecking ball continues.  As reported in the New York Times this morning, there’s a move afoot to raze Paul Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center in Goshen, NY.  The Center has been derelict since being damaged by storms last year, but this final blow was only the latest in a long history of leaks and waterproofing failures.

The article repeats the points made by a number of recent preservation cases, primarily that buildings of the 1960s and 1970s, long-since out of fashion, have few fans among the general public, and many admirers among architects and academics.  In particular, the Times notes that brutalist buildings have a terrible reputation as being cold, thoughtless, and less than functional.  This comes in large part from the perceived hubris in their diagrammatic conception and relentless execution–there’s nothing the general public loves more than seeing a gigantic ego trounced by trivial but nagging failures.  While one can argue until blue in the face about the number of quite sensitive and carefully executed brutalist structures–Salk, anyone?–the fact is that like so many other ‘movements,’ brutalism came to be judged not on its finest monuments and practitioners, but on the ability of lesser designers to conveniently slap the label on to slipshod work as an intellectual justification.  And the name itself is not exactly good marketing–originally inspired by Corbusier’s use of beton brut and thus related to the art brut movement, who could argue with the easy association “brutalism” can make with the “brutal” lack of nuance its less talented champions exhibited.

There are serious preservation campaigns to be waged for many of these buildings.  Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery, which might well stand as the first American instance of the movement, recently enjoyed  a brilliant (and expensive) restoration at the hands of Ennead.  The National Theatre in London is under constant threat and remains wildly unpopular with the public despite having monumental importance in the history of postwar British architecture.  These sorts of projects are, I think, worth going to the barricades for.

But we also risk crying wolf when alarms get raised for every building under threat, and I have to confess this episode leaves me a bit nonplussed.  Rudolph’s buildings seem to be disappearing at a remarkable rate, and this is a subject close to my modernist and preservationist heart.  My hometown demolished a Rudolph church while I was in college, replacing it with the worst possible student apartment building.  That was a huge loss, and there’s no question that Goshen is a pertinent example of brutalist civic design.  My issue with the campaign to save it comes from quotes like this, from Sean Khorsandi, a director of the Paul Rudolph Foundation:

“I would easily identify this as one of his [Rudolph’s] top 10”

Really?  Ahead of which one of these?

  1. Cocoon House (Healy Guest House), Siesta Key, 1950
  2. Sanderling Beach Club, Siesta Key, 1953
  3. Jewett Arts Center, Wellesley College, Wellesley, MA, 1955-1958
  4. Blue Cross Building, Boston, MA, 1957-1960
  5. Riverview High School, Sarasota, FL, 1957-1958
  6. Art and Architecture Building, Yale University, New Haven, CT, 1958-1964
  7. Chapel, Tuskegee Institute, Tuskegee AL, 1958-1969
  8. Temple Street Parking Garage, New Haven, CT, 1959-1963
  9. Government Service Center, Boston, MA, 1962-1971
  10. IBM Buildings, East Fishkill, NY, 1962-1966

In other words, it’s all too easy to inflate every battle into a life or death struggle.  There is late modernism worth saving, and there is late modernism that suggests cultural survival of the fittest might best take its course.  There’s bad classicism, too, that we should have an honest and searching debate over.  Goshen was an important Rudolph work, but if we call it one of his best, then what happens when Tuskegee comes under threat?  Or the Cocoon House?  In this case, with the cost of renovating the Center at something between $35 and $65 million, I think we preservation-minded folk ought to contextualize a bit.  Sure, it would be a sad day to lose another Rudolph building, but it would also be a sad day if Goshen renovated this instead of building a school, or instead of patronizing an innovative young firm to design a new Civic Center on the Rudolph site.  That may get my brutalist merit badge taken away from me, but part of the rhetoric then was that we ought to be slightly fearless in eliminating things that didn’t work or that had aged poorly, and in looking forward.  Fossilizing every single Rudolph building seems counter-intuitive.

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§ 3 Responses to rudolph threatened in goshen, NY

  • Sean Khorsandi says:

    The Christian Science Student Center (which was never a church) was a great loss, and holds many secrets to Rudolph’s work that followed, but can also be a metaphor for what is happening on building sites around the country still today, and is indicative of a community too complacent to respond to the will of a developer. Robin should have grounded the quotation more fully, as it was explained during the phone interview.

    OCGC was identified as being one of Rudolph’s top ten in terms of EXISTING realized work from his middle years- the crest of his career if you will, post-Sarasota, pre-Asia, when Paul Rudolph was building the monumental structures he is most identified with today. In reading his writings, listening to his interviews and discussing the 270+ built works of his 400+ designs with his family and former staff, OCGC consistently is identified as a seminal turning point. It embodies many of the organizational principles, material sensibilities and plan and sectional striation which are key to his legacy.

    As for a new school, neighboring Middletown, within Orange County is planning to demolish a Rudolph school for a faux-castle mega-structure they don’t need and can’t afford.

    I wish the residents would follow the lead of their fathers and hire young, innovative firms like you suggest, and as they once did with taking on Rudolph at mid-century, but I know too well they will also follow their fathers lead in ignoring basic maintenance to once again justify new construction in 40 years hence. Only when that day comes, no one will bother with an effort to save 2012’s faux-historicism, because it was never original to begin with. Sean Khorsandi

    • twleslie says:

      Good points, and I appreciate your taking the time to reply. No question that the quality of civic and institutional design has plummeted since Rudolph’s time, and that it would be an uphill battle to do justice to his legacy. As a fan of his best work (and as an ex-employee of a Rudolph-taught and influenced architect), I’ll take gentle issue with your description of the Christian Science Center, though–growing up in Champaign with a burgeoning interest in architecture, it’s spaces were as profoundly spiritual as any I’ve seen–even if it was a ‘center,’ I think its interior must have been intended to recall sanctuaries. Church as metaphor, if not specifically program?

      • Sean Khorsandi says:

        I can believe you that they must have been. Unfortunately, with the building torn down I can only go by the remaining plans, sections and photographs which help but can never convey the full complexity of the 3D Rudolph space. When Nancy Houston (who also commissioned Rudolph for her own house) came to Rudolph with the Student Center project after Frank Lloyd Wright’s passing, she was clear that it was not to be a church. Although flexible enough to seat up to 350 during larger “ceremonies” it was not consecrated, a factor that Rudolph, a minister’s son took issue with at length in his interviews with John P. Cook for Conversations with Architects.

        My hope is that future generations can evaluate OCGC themselves as well, because clearly extant print materials do not do it justice.

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