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Camping Out in Rudolph Hall

Updated: Oct 22, 2019


CITY Yale co-president Robert Scaramuccia wrote the following essay on Rudolph Hall in ENGL 473, The Journalism of Ideas. It attempts to define Rudolph's rough masterwork, and synthesizes much of what has been said about the controversial building since its construction in 1963.

Yale University’s Rudolph Hall is a terrible building about which to write. It defies description, in the same way that the psychedelic-wormhole-hellscape at the end of 2001: A Space Odyssey defies description. I’ve wandered among its concrete pillars, pored over the floor plans framed like Rembrandts on its walls, and peered into the intricate wooden models that grace its hallways. But I still can’t reliably tell you how to reach the tomblike auditorium in the basement, with its black iron pikes topped with plaster Ionic capitals. I’ve stared at the headshot of Paul Rudolph hanging outside the third-floor dean’s office, looking for any sense of mischief or sadism in the eyes of the man who thought up this monstrosity. But I still can’t see past the overgrown crew cut leftover from his Navy days. Crammed into just seven stories, Rudolph Hall’s thirty-nine different levels come to my mind as disparate fragments, united only by omnipresent concrete walls, arbitrary plaster casts of ancient sculptures, and paprika, the searing orange hue splashed on carpets and benches in almost every room.

Paul Rudolph designed the Art and Architecture Building to house Yale’s painters, sculptors, and architects in 1963, after he’d ridden the wave of midcentury modernism to the top of the university’s architecture department. The building is modern insofar as it is ahistorical, and utterly uninterested in making you comfortable; the pillars’ edges are jagged. Some thought the A&A daring, others brutal. It secured Rudolph’s legacy, but crashed his career: two years after its completion, he abdicated his chairmanship, leaving behind a mess of graffiti and “favelas” constructed by students hiding from the concrete. A 1969 fire burned away the graffiti and paprikaand cleansed the A&A down to its guts. Yet the prohibitive cost of demolishing the byzantine behemoth kept it standing in ugly, tortured reanimation until 2008, when Robert A. M. Stern, then dean of the School of Architecture, threw all the paprika and plaster back in as part of a comprehensive restoration. Renaming the building Rudolph Hall, he commissioned an exhibition celebrating the architect’s career, where people said things like, “He was unbelievably energetic and full of passion—and he scared the hell out of us as well.”

The result, fifty-five years after Rudolph’s concrete monster first embraced students in its serrated arms, is an assemblage of copies, and copies of copies. I can’t so much envision the structure as I can grope toward its outline in fits, starts, and about-faces. “Everywhere, everywhere, everywhere, there [is] something to see,” as Rudolph promised in 1964.But nowhere does the building coalesce into a coherent whole, which makes it exhilarating and exasperating at the same time.

I can think of no better method of portraying Rudolph Hall than by imitating Susan Sontag’s “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Published just a year after the A&A’s completion, Sontag’s essay offers a tentative definition of the “camp sensibility,” a way of seeing the world that revels in artifice and exaggeration. My bastardization of her style—a series of numbered claims outlining camp’s boundaries—is not wholly arbitrary: to quote Rudolph, “I’ve never had an original idea in my life,” and, to quote Sontag, camp is as “unmistakably modern” as Rudolph himself. Only an affluent, anti-historical culture could produce Paul Rudolph, a man who, at the height of his authority, splurged on paprika benches and fractured Parthenon friezes that tumble down the A&A’s staircase. Architectural historian Charles Jencks has described the entire A&A as camp, eschewing its function in order to more fully articulate its form.

But it is Sontag’s attitude toward her subject which resonates with me most. “To name a sensibility, to draw its contours,” she writes, “requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion.” My feelings toward the A&A exactly. Some of the following vignettes will be long, others just a sentence or two. Some surfaced during traditional reporting, others during explorations into Rudolph’s archives, and still others from just sitting in the A&A and staring at a wall. If this collection of stories doesn’t make sense as a whole, that’s because Rudolph Hall doesn’t make sense as a whole. If it’s insultingly incomprehensible, consider it, like the A&A, another example of modernism’s disregard for its users.

“Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp,’” Sontag claims. Rudolph Hall is not so much a building as it is a “building,” at least according to our traditional assumption that buildings should accommodate the people within them. If my attempt to capture its oddities ends up more “journalism” than journalism, so be it.

1.

“…the structure proliferates with its infinity of levels, as complicated as any human soul, as dark and tortuous in some places, as surprisingly generous in many others, lighted from unexpected sources, a never ending wonder to explore.” – Vincent Scully, Architectural Record (1964)

2.

Graduate architecture student Daniel Whitcombe and I are rushing up the fire stairwell in the back corner of the A&A. He clearly has something to show me at the top. Ascending this glorified fire escape would feel mundane in another building; here, I’m on a rollercoaster chugging toward a summit.

To reach these stairs, we exited the building onto an L-shaped platform, with only a chest-high wall topped with anti-pigeon spikes separating us from the open sky. Then we ran through another door toward the stairs. That’s when Whitcombe started stamping his feet on the concrete and thumping the brown metal railing. “Even this stairwell, it has a sound to it. A unique sound,” he said. “Anybody would know, ‘Oh, that’s the sound of this railing echoing.’” It sounded like the boiler room in a battleship.

We stop at the seventh and final floor, both out of breath. In front of us, a black-framed, wall-sized window offers a spectacular view of New Haven south of Chapel Street. “Remember, this is a fire stair,” Whitcombe says. An architectural afterthought in the hands of anyone but Rudolph. “We just climbed to the top of it, and he gives us a window. This serves no purpose.”

I think on that while he says something grad student-y about the building “recognizing itself.” He brings me back by saying, “And, I mean, is there anything greater than that shaft?”

Normal stairwells are just wide enough to fit, well, stairs. Walls usually drop from the ceiling and end at the top of each step. But between this wall and this window is something I don’t want to see while seven stories up: depth. Several feet of horizontal space separate the window from the railing.

Whitcombe eagerly looks over the railing and down the “shaft,” otherwise known as an unnecessary thousand-foot drop toward the ground floor. “It’s scary,” he says, excited. A Sontag phrase comes to mind: the “private zany experience of the thing.”I look toward the drop, and see that Rudolph installed lightbulbs on every level. Lightbulbs. Presumably so that observers could see just how far they’d fall if they slipped on the concrete. I step back.

3.

“I’m not sure there has ever been an architect whose work was as seductive, as beautiful, as exhilarating, and as downright frightening as Paul Rudolph’s.” – Paul Goldberger, The New Yorker (2010)

4.

Soon after the A&A opened its doors, photographer Ezra Stoller, his new 4x6 camera in hand, documented the “bizarre archeological artifacts, cargo-netting window shades, and orange pile rugs” inside Rudolph’s monument to modernism. Aiming to showcase the building’s “great fluidity of space,” Stoller chose shooting positions that would highlight two or three floors at once—an easy feat with thirty-nine levels hanging around.

One black-and-white picture stands out in Stoller’s collection, which was republished in 1999. In it, Rudolph stands on one of the fifth-floor walkways that overlook the fourth-floor senior drafting studio, a design choice meant to allow younger architects to learn from the example of their more experienced peers. A statue of the Roman goddess Minerva rises up toward Rudolph from the fourth floor; he’d swiped it from the Yale Art Gallery across the street and stuck it against a concrete pillar. Minerva stares at another concrete pillar a few yards away.

Standing in his now-realized creation, the architect has an impossible-to-parse look. He’s either about to smile or frown. His mouth is in motion, but it’s unclear in which direction—as if he’s looking past Minerva at a freshman architecture student on the other side of the fifth-floor hole who’s about to either slide the final wedge of wood into his architectural model or knock the whole thing over the edge. Rudolph seems like he’s teetering between elation and misery.

That sense of teetering marked his architectural career. The kind of architect who put a seven-story hole next to the fire stairs was one insecure about his ability. He was on top, but may have had a nagging feeling that perhaps he didn’t deserve to be, and so tried anything—everything—to distract from the core of his structure or what it really meant. The stakes were especially high for a man who usually worked alone, and who thought, as architect Robert Stern told me about Rudolph, that “creativity came the moment you lifted up…the pencil and you put it to paper.” If nothing of value came from that pencil, the failure was his and his alone.

5.

“He once said to a student, ‘That is the single ugliest architectural drawing I have ever seen.’” – Robert A. M. Stern, Rudolph and Renewal (2008)

6.

Rudolph’s insecurity is all over his New York apartment, featured in the New York Times in 1967. His interior design decisions are less than subtle: as the Times reporter notes of the mostly white apartment, “where color does appear, in billboard segments, it hits like a fist.” A wall between his living room and bedroom is covered in art books, mounted so that their covers, emblazoned with important and foreign architectural names like Le Corbusier and Adolf Loos, shine for all to see. In the bedroom, meanwhile, Rudolph installed a wall-sized mirror that reflects his sheepskin-covered bed back at him. Above the bed hangs a wall-sized deodorant advertisement: a suave, hairy-chested man staring not at the four women fawning over him, but at himself, reflected in Rudolph’s giant mirror. To stand in the middle of the room is to break the unending stare between the man and his image.[1]

7.

“Whoever uses the building is caught up in that human complexity—in the curiously intimate scale of personal drama—in that insatiable will and unappeasable anxiety. This is, one imagines, the larger reason why the painters and sculptors hate it so, who wish to be caught up only in their own.” – Vincent Scully, Architectural Record (1964)

8.

Rudolph’s early career was normal enough. Born in Kentucky, he graduated from an Alabama technical school and built ships in the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II before graduating from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design. His early buildings were mostly modern Florida homes, “small gems” with “slim columns and airy canopies [that created] oases of light and shade,” as Herbert Muschamp wrote in the architect’s New York Times obituary.

But by the time those homes earned him the chairmanship of Yale’s architecture department, he was obsessed with Brutalism, an architectural style that championed monumental entrances, intense interiors, and an abundance of the most modern material around: concrete.

Rudolph’s concrete constructions earned him a spot in the modernist canon alongside men like Le Corbusier, Louis Kahn, and Mies van der Rohe. In structures like New Haven’s Temple Street Garage and Long Island’s Endo Laboratories Building, Rudolph experimented with “sequences of space which arouse one’s curiosity and give a sense of anticipation, beckoning and rushing forward to give a release,” as he wrote in 1958.

The A&A was his “thesis on Brutalism,” as Whitcombe put it. Answering his own call to “investigate anew the relationship between owner, contractor, and architect,” Rudolph was his own client: when Yale refused to hire Le Corbusier or Louis Kahn to draft plans for a new architecture building, he agreed to design his department’s new home.

Rudolph spent months discarding design after design. He later said the Yale Corporation thought his first pass at the building, which closely resembled a fortress-like monastery by Corbusier, was “the most awful thing they’d ever seen.” Nevertheless, that rocky start eventually led to the most important building the architect would ever design.

“When it was finished, it was on the cover of each of the three then-dominating architectural periodicals in the United States. That was unheard of,” Stern, the former dean, said. “It was the most famous building of its moment…Everybody was talking about it.”

Progressive Architecture’s February 1964 cover shows one of the A&A’s massive exterior columns rising monumentally toward the sky. It dwarfs a nearby tree. Emerging out of the side of the building is (what else?) Rudolph’s oversized face, staring smugly toward the ground, his crew cut running parallel with the pillar’s razor edge. Rudolph is the building; the building is Rudolph. Like its designer, the kid from Kentucky at the top of the architectural world, the A&A was tough and clever, but also unsure of itself, unsure what to do with that terrace hidden within one of its pillars, that seashell embedded in the basement wall, and all that embarrassingly flashy paprikathat flowed from Rudolph’s pencil onto the concrete floor.

9.

“…Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.” – Susan Sontag, “Notes on ‘Camp’” (1964)

10.

The A&A’s concrete walls are its most striking, most dangerous, and most self-conscious feature. Settling on the gray-brown building material early in the design process, Rudolph had his builders pour the concrete in wooden frames removed once the substance dried. But he couldn’t just leave flat slabs, like any other architect may have—he had a reputation as “a brilliant compositionalist” to maintain, as architecture critic Paul Goldberger would later write. So he and his master builder went through dozens of textures until Rudolph found one he liked: concrete poured into vertically ribbed forms, then hammered to expose the rocky aggregate underneath the surface. Most of the interior and exterior walls, “bashed” entirely by hand, thus look like corduroy from afar, matching, as Scully notes, the “compulsively neat, parallel linear shadings” found in Rudolph’s structural sketches.

“It is an embodiment of those drawings and sketches,” Deborah Berke, current dean of the architecture school, said. “The massiveness of the concrete, and the way the corrugation on the concrete engages shadows and sunshine—you almost wish, as a purist fan of architecture, that there were no windows in the building, that it was just this massive concrete sculpture.”

Many see the building as a work of concrete art, despite the enormous windows that stretch across the façade, exposing its middle floors. But up close, its vertical mountain ranges of muck and rock feel as jagged as chipped concrete should feel. Scully called it “one of the most inhospitable, indeed physically dangerous, ever devised by man,” a fact confirmed when you, say, brush up against it while running up the fire stairs. The A&A’s concrete quirks established it as a landmark of modern architecture, but also cuts you if you get too close. Rudolph’s standoffish structure can’t be touched.

11.

Listening back to my conversation with Whitcombe in the thrill seekers’ stairwell, I caught what I had initially glazed over as floaty architect-speak. “The building recognizes itself,” he said. “It might exist more than to just be inhabited by humans.”

12.

As it burst forth from Rudolph’s mind, the A&A didn’t seem interested in hosting humans at all. Besides the saw-toothed concrete, and the chasms next to the emergency stairs, and the blinding paprikacarpet, there was the asbestos in the ceilings, which flaked off the acoustic panels and onto artists’ canvasses or architects’ eyes. Rudolph himself died of mesothelioma in 1997. His ashes were spread throughout the building.

13.

There are no artists left in the Art and Architecture Building because Rudolph didn’t design it for them. Speaking of great architecture in an internationally broadcast Voice of America lecture, Rudolph once announced that “it is axiomatic that certain problems must be ignored if a great work of art is to be created.” But it isn’t clear what functional problems he actually addressed in the A&A. Students in the sculpture department suffered in the low-ceilinged subbasement, which originally lacked an elevator—meaning they had to design their works in interconnected segments that could be broken apart, carried up the stairs to the second-floor exhibition space, and pieced back together, all while plaster casts of ancient bas reliefs laughed in their faces. Meanwhile, the sixth- and seventh-floor painters, yearning for Rothko’s gargantuan scale, glumly settled for canvasses that could fit in the small elevators that reached their floors, Rudolph’s ever-present concrete “elbow[ing] in the corners of their vision” all the while, according to Scully.

One might think Rudolph saved the best spaces and cleverest architectural tricks for his architecture students; after all, he didn’t think their efforts as “trivial” in the modern world as he did those of the painters and sculptors. Yet even the budding architects were stuck with a lions-den jury space on the second-floor, which displayed the withering critiques of their work by senior critics, including Rudolph himself, for anyone who walked through the front door. In a 1988 interview, Rudolph said he thought students would flourish when surrounded by onlookers. The concrete floor that had replaced the sunken jury area had proven him wrong. “That’s much more private an affair than I ever thought it was,” he said.

Rudolph’s belief that architecture was best done brazenly, in front of anyone and everyone, manifested itself in the many, many viewing angles throughout the building. From the corner of Chapel and York, one can look through a strip of glass wedged in the concrete into the heart of the architecture library. From the library, one can look up into the second-floor exhibition hall. A fifth-floor first-year could look down at his peers on the fourth, or, stepping out onto his floor’s balcony, might find a professor watching him from the terrace on the roof. Whitcombe called the building “intentionally voyeuristic.”

Rudolph thought “the essential element in architecture was “the manipulation of space.” This building, Whitcombe says, was all about the “three-dimensional sculpting of space.” The “problem” this work of art solves is not functional, but visual. It has nothing to do with ventilating the subbasement or making it easy to get from room to room. It has everything to do with the creation of a three-dimensional stage. The overconfident senior displaying his models, the cautious novice peering down from above, even the building itself—all are meant to perform in a play, each observing the other. All the ancient statues and plaster casts aren’t there to “introduce the issue of history,” as Stern notes. They’re simply “beautiful decorations” adorning a set.

14.

“The Camp architect…knows (in his candid moments) that his works are not the profound jewels he sells them as.” – Charles Jencks, Modern Movements in Architecture (1985)

15.

“…it doesn’t matter whether people like something or dislike it. The fact that they encounter this thing is important.” – Paul Rudolph (1988)

16.

Students did not react well to a building designed more to show them off than to facilitate their work. Part of the first cohort to study in the structure, Stern, ever the building’s advocate, found it “very exciting, but a little frustrating [and] difficult to navigate.” His peers weren’t as measured in their criticism. Graffiti soon covered the concrete in exclamations like “HELP” and “PEACE – completeness – sex.” Ellen Perry Berkeley captured many of these concrete dialogues in a 1967 article in Architectural Forum, written just four years after the A&A opened. My favorite: “You people who write + draw on these sacred walls ought to be ashamed of yourselves. What would Paul Rudolf [sic] think?” “Can Paul Rudolf think?” is written underneath.

Rudolph himself had left in 1965, facing backlash over the overbearing structure and a growing national revulsion against modernist thinking, which had justified the demolition of city neighborhoods to pave the way for unwieldy concrete behemoths like Boston’s new City Hall or New York’s Government Center. His replacement, the postmodernist Charles Moore, expressed his distaste for the building by letting it fall apart. Minerva acquired lipstick and painted toenails, and was quickly removed by its original donor after Berkeley’s article exposed the building’s condition. Elevators were covered in gaudy yellow and purple paint, while students subdivided the wide-open studio spaces into cubicles. Especially enterprising Rudolph-haters constructed multi-story workspaces out of plaster partitions, turning whole floors into “favelas.”

The modernist had lost all control over the appearance of his image-obsessed building, which became the “beautiful ruin” he wished it to be decades earlier than anticipated. After the 1969 fire that burned away everything but the concrete, the university replaced the paprikawith “dung-colored” carpets, in Stern’s words. “The building no longer exists to me,” Rudolph said in 1993.

17.

Stern saved the A&A in 2008, when he spearheaded its renovation as dean of the Yale School of Architecture. With $126 million at his disposal, he custom-made new paprika carpets, installed new windows, and brought Minerva back to the fourth floor as, of course, a plaster cast. In the intervening years, art historians at the Yale Art Gallery had determined the original statue’s head wasn’t Minerva’s. Stern reproduced it, wrong head and all. Rudolph Hall, as Stern renamed the structure, feels like a museum dedicated to its own eccentricity.

18.

“…self-aware Camp is less satisfying.” – Susan Sontag (1964)

19.

According to the school’s current dean, Deborah Berke, Stern only made enough paprika as he absolutely had to, meaning the school’s administrators are “quite precious” about it. The carpet it Berke’s office, the one with Rudolph’s photograph hanging outside of it, is spotless. “There isn’t any more of it,” she says. “To get more of it, we would have to custom-make it all over again, and that’s a super-expensive undertaking.”

20.

Whitcombe and I are standing on a paprika carpet covered in coffee stains. We’re on the fourth floor, where the senior drafting studio used to be. Fifth-floor walkways no longer look down onto drawing desks; those have been stuffed into the hallways on either side of the fourth floor, making walking around a constant attempt to avoid knocking over 3D-printed models of homes and offices and parks. (“Utter, delightful mess,” as Berke calls it.) Rudolph’s hope for a spectacle in the central area has been answered with a flimsy tennis net that splits it in half.

Behind Whitcombe rises Stern’s plaster cast of Minerva, herself the Roman copy of Athena, arms lopped off and adorned with the wrong head. Whitcombe tells me his favorite and least favorite sections of the building. Standing on an imitation rug staring at an imitation statue of an imitation god with incorrect head attached, I can’t picture the locations Whitcombe mentions, even though we just walked through all seven floors. Everything is a blur of concrete guts and paprika and “beautiful decorations” that pop out of every corner.

“If I was not told how to appreciate this building, would I appreciate this building?” Whitcombe wonders. “How many people walk by this building and say, ‘That’s ugly,’ versus how many people say, ‘That’s beautiful’? I don’t know how to judge it—oh, they’re going to play over here.”

That’s when I notice the tournament bracket on Minerva II’s base and belatedly realize that the net in the middle of the rug is part of a functioning badminton court. White tape stuck on the paprika marks out its boundaries. Miniature rackets in hand, two graduate students have positioned themselves on either side. As we march off the court, they start volleying, as if playing badminton is the only logical thing to do inside Rudolph Hall at 2:30 in the afternoon.

21.

Later, Whitcombe is gone, having rushed off to finish a final project. I’m watching the badminton game from one of the raised walkways. The students flick the shuttlecock over a large square light fixture installed during a renovation to make the building less dreary. Minerva II stares at the wall.

Everything feels fake. Or not fake, exactly—everything seems unreal, or like it has another layer to it. The concrete wants you to think it’s corduroy; the students play badminton because they want you to think they have the time to playbadminton. Beyond my eyes but still stuck in my head is that seven-story shaft—manufactured danger molded from manufactured concrete to manufacture a thrill. Everything is just a “beautiful decoration.” The statue with false eyes in a false head attached to a false body is only there because it looks pretty. I’m lost in a realm of artifice, surrounded by mesh and plaster and concrete.

22.

Rudolph and his restorers created a building that yearns to be photographed, for its oddities to be catalogued frame by frame. Yet somehow, the structure also resists photographic film, just like its concrete ridges resist touch even as they reach out to passersby. During our tour, Whitcombe mentioned in passing an Instagram account called “The Ghost of Paul Rudolph” run by another graduate students. Many of its photos are the kind only an architecture nerd could love: a black box, the size of a doorway, wedged into the concrete a few feet above the carpet; a flat, non-corduroy wall hidden in the subbasement. Rudolph Hall is not the sort of building you photograph yourself in front of and post online to show you’ve had “life experiences.” It offers only bumpy concrete, or visibly fake ancient artwork, as the backdrop to a self-portrait.

23.

While designing the A&A, Rudolph wrote about what kind of architects the world needed in the postwar era. “We need the men in whom love overflows the channel of personal expression, fires the imagination of hundreds, and provides a world of perceptions and sensations of their own, extraordinarily insultingly different from anyone else’s; in short, ageless new images of beauty.” The images he created within his building were insultingly beautiful, and so deeply reflective of who he was that he couldn’t talk about the building near the end of his life, when students and critics were still focusing on the insulting side of the A&A.

“The worst fate from my viewpoint would be indifference,” he wrote. “I’ve never worked on a building that affected me as much as that one does.”

24.

“You can do almost anything to the building. It’s indestructible,” says one student as he pulls off a handful of the ceiling. – Ellen Perry Berkeley, Architectural Forum (1967)

[1]It’s telling that I only learned that Rudolph was gay a month into researching him. His sexual orientation doesn’t impact this story all that much (other than offering the chance, which I will not take, to explore Sontag’s spurious connection between camp and homosexuality). This seemed as good a place as any to mention it.