The Sarasota Architectural Foundation recently celebrated Paul Rudolph’s 100th birthday at the annual Sarasota MOD Weekend, a celebration of mid-century modern architectural heritage. Island resident Edward “Tim” Seibert was last year’s recipient.
Tim Seibert and Paul Rudolph were both drawn to mid-century Sarasota because something new was happening there, new ideas about the direction of architecture and its possibilities after WWII, the availability of new technologies and new materials would make it possible to realize new concepts. National publications began to draw attention to the nascent movement.
Shortly after arriving in Sarasota, Seibert got a job as a draftsman in Rudolph’s studio. Luminaries from the world of architecture came to lunch. The conversation was sparkling and sarcastic. “Philip Johnson was a bad guy,” Seibert recalls. He once called Frank Lloyd Wright “the greatest architect of the 19th century” and later nicknamed Rudolph’s Art & Architecture building at Yale “Rex Building”. It was intoxicating for a sidekick. “I didn’t feel too bad about mistaking Johnson for a vacuum cleaner salesman when I opened the door”
impassive Seibert. Seibert tripled his salary when he joined the firm of developer Philip Hiss, one of the driving forces behind Sarasota’s mid-century cultural renaissance. He designed The Hiss Studio when he was just 28, which is still considered by some to be the most stylish house in town.
Educational by nature, Rudolph often stopped by the Hiss Studio to offer Seibert a review of his work in progress. Although scathing at times, Seibert always viewed him as constructive and well-meaning. They were friends and colleagues throughout the Sarasota years and beyond.
“When Paul arrived in Sarasota he was unsure of where his work would go and lacked important connections. He teamed up successfully with Ralph Twitchell, already established as a talented architect-builder, but decided after four years to found his own practice.
Shy and reluctant, Rudolph was a one man show. Siebert recalls that “Paul was always at the drawing board, working in his signature rendering style.” As a gay man, he lacked family distractions, channeling his energy into his job. When asked if his gay orientation was responsible for his lonely life, Seibert replied, “I don’t think he knew that at the time, I don’t think he understood it.”
A prominent figure in what has become the Sarasota School of Architecture, Rudolph has designed some of the most innovative and imaginative homes built anywhere, often using inexpensive materials. The Sarasota Architectural Foundation offers tours of some of the most notable (The Cocoon House, The Walker Guest House, and The Umbrella House) on a regular basis.
Although Florida homes were small projects designed for a tropical climate, they had a huge impact on thinking about what architecture might be. “These little architectural gems had a clarity of concept and romantic, sometimes heroic spaces. He was a shape giver, ”says Seibert. “It’s the concept that counts.
Building on his work in the Sarasota area and the media frenzy it sparked, Rudolph was named Dean of the Yale School of Architecture. His mentor while a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Design was Walter Gropius where he was trained in international style formalism. As the Florida Houses report, Rudolph would think outside the box to work in many genres.
The association with Yale allowed Rudolph to build good relationships and work with government, academic and business clients whose projects demanded a style that called attention to himself. Rudolph began to work in the aptly named Brutalist tradition. But the heavy concrete structures with rough surfaces like the school of art and architecture that he designed
at Yale (1963) brought notoriety as much as acclaim. To some, its monumental presence seemed out of step with the anti-authoritarian spirit that characterized opposition to the Vietnam War and mistrust of so-called immutable institutions. It was set on fire, some say, by students. The New Haven Fire Chief suggested the fire may have been deliberately started or the building fire was bombarded due to the rapid spread of the fire, although the New Haven Fire Marshal rejected arson suggesting that flammable substances in open containers were the likely cause. The building was then redesigned and resuscitated under the direction of Charles Gwathmey in 2009.
After the fire, Rudolph suffered the psychological equivalent of “turns”. The dramatic rise that brought him to the world’s attention was followed by an equally sudden descent. It must have been a blow that some thought his masterpiece was set on fire by students, if they were responsible for it, especially since teaching was at the heart of his work as an architect. Berkeley architect Charles Moore, who succeeded Rudolph at Yale, imbued the school with a whole new spirit. “He (Rudolph) did it on his own and seemed to endear people,” Moore said. “I wholeheartedly disapprove of the Art & Architecture building because it is such a personal event for non-personal use. However, I really enjoy being in it. Moore echoed a common complaint. Rudolph’s town planning did not promote interpersonal interaction or community.
New York Times architecture critic Ada Louise Huxtable called her work, as well as that of Philip Johnson and Kevin Roche, “establishment architecture.”
Perhaps the coup de grace was delivered by Robert Venturi in Learning from Las Vegas who suggested that the hyper expressionistic monumentality of Rudolph’s buildings was the decoration itself. The buildings were concrete sculptures. In a review which seemed to be addressed especially to Rudolph, Venturi wrote: “It is good to decorate a building, but never to build a decoration. The book had a devastating impact on Rudolph’s career although he never defended his work against criticism from Venturi. Venturi then apologized to Rudolph for the severity of his remarks.
The A&A building fire precipitated Rudolph’s withdrawal from public life. Out of the media glare, he quietly worked to fill civic and academic commissions. Life in New York brought him in touch with wealthy clients whose residential commissions supported his late career. According to his biographer Timothy Rohan, “These projects were distinctly more sensual and at times dangerous in character, different in tone from the cheerful explorations of 1950s Florida homes.” The publication of the homoerotic interiors of his home at 23 Beekman Place was too revealing. for some, suggesting that his work was too indulgent and expressive, too outrageous for him to be considered a spokesperson for the profession.
The white villa he designed for Sid and Anne Bass in Fort Worth, reminiscent of Wright’s Falling Water, as well as the office complexes in Bass, telegraphed a new direction for Rudolph which found full expression in his later work at abroad.
Eventually, he ventured far beyond the borders of the United States to Hong Kong, Singapore and Jakarta where he fulfilled a long-held dream, designing breathtaking skyscrapers including winding curtain walls. of reflective glass and idiosyncratic protrusions would adorn the horizons of Southeast Asia. “The photographs make me want to reserve the passage just to see Paul’s buildings,” says Seibert. Rudolph enjoyed working with his Asian clients, even though the vagaries of the economies of that part of the world could cause problems in starting or completing projects.
Much like his father, a traveling preacher who traveled across the South, Rudolph was a traveling teacher. His traveling career, moving across the intellectual and geographic landscapes of the world, ended in 1997 when he died at age 78 from mesothelioma, the result of early exposure to asbestos used to put in nightlight on ships while serving in the US Navy, the same material later used as a protective coating for the pitched roof of the aptly named “Cocoon House”. He left his estate, including his records, at the Library of Congress.
Life in Sarasota was good when Rudolph and Seibert were Young Turks. Memories of pleasurable lunches at the Plaza and after-work binges at the Main Street watering holes bring back fond memories. Was life simpler then? At least the process of making architecture was. “Not a single permit has been issued by the City of Sarasota for anything built at Lido Shores,” Seibert said.
The rediscovery of Rudolph’s Florida homes in the early 1990s sparked renewed interest in his work. “Rudolph’s buildings were increasingly appreciated at the turn of the twentieth century for their dramatic aesthetic and spatial qualities, for which they were once vilified,” observed Rohan.
Thinking of Sarasota today, Seibert talks about what Sarasota could have been and the nightmare it has become: “I don’t even want to go there anymore,” he says sadly.