criticismArchitecture and Design
Sunday, December 12th, 2010

Brutalist Bridge Builder: Paul Rudolph’s plans for a Lower Manhattan Expressway


Paul Rudolph: Lower Manhattan Expressway at the Arthur A. Houghton Jr. Gallery

October 1 – November 20, 2010
The Cooper Union
7 East 7th Street, 2nd Floor

aul Rudolph, Final rendering of the interior of the HUB including people mover, c. 1967-1972. Color slide. Courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

aul Rudolph, Final rendering of the interior of the HUB including people mover, c. 1967-1972. Color slide. Courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The legacy of Paul Rudolph (1918-1997) is a mixed one.  Universally considered one of the most important and original American architects, his signature “brutalist” buildings, which were controversial from the start, are in large part neglected and under threat of demolition.  In truth his built works, while dynamic in broad outline, often fatally lack the sensibility of detail that would allow them to rise to the level of his magnificent drawings.  In a small, focused show at Cooper Union under auspices of The Drawing Center, we can revisit Rudolph’s talent in his greatest set of rendered dreams, a 1967-72 study funded by the Ford Foundation for a Y-shaped Lower Manhattan infrastructural expressway.  It would have trenched between two bridges and a tunnel while knitting housing, parking, and other civic functions above in richly organic clusters of hanging gardens of concrete.

One gasps at the proposal’s sacrificial swath through Soho, Chinatown and the Lower East Side (at the time, the word would have been “renewal”), but the brilliant intensity of Rudolph’s vision, at least as drawings, may be sufficiently redeeming.  No originals are on view in this orphaned exhibition, alas, and the full-size reproductions are far from the best attainable.  Works in color are misguidedly displayed in freestanding glass sandwiches, apparently to provide translucent backlighting.  The Drawing Center has much to answer for; it presumably would not provide its own premises, and the Library of Congress, which holds Rudolph’s archives, would not lend to Cooper’s non-standard gallery.  However, the curators, Ed Rawlings and Jim Walrod, have produced a smart, thoughtful booklet and supervised a comprehensive model (inferred from stills from a lost promotional film as well as the drawings) that rewards a visit.

From the standpoint of big thinking versus small, there is much to talk about here.  Isn’t Rudolph’s top-down planning, however open-ended and humane, inescapably Moloch?  With its priority to traffic flow and parking, isn’t it anti-urban?  Still, compared to Robert Moses’ earlier proposals for a LoMEx, Rudolph’s is the rare, nuanced vision; what if New York had embraced it to secure a more ambitious architectural future?  Consider today’s Delancey St. corridor, which the plan would have utterly transformed.  Rudolph would design away automobile snarl and the blight of cheap flimflam, but what happens to the fertile democracy of the grid, what Rem Koolhaas has called “Manhattanism?”  Would the plan have thrown the baby out with the bathwater?

These are vital questions now as then, but it is worth putting them aside to appreciate the power of Rudolph’s graphic approach.  In a text for a book of his drawings, he admitted that his famous corduroyed concrete was an attempt to reproduce materially the rhythmic parallel textures of his renderings; that he didn’t use brick because he disliked drawing it; and that he could fool himself with his own dramatic manipulations of scale.  He was well aware that building must take precedence over drawing, so his frankness is admirable: his renderings might be too good.  In the purely theoretical LoMEx studies, no such compunctions restrain Rudolph’s graphic electricity.  Closer in spirit to the pop fantasias of Archigram or the gorgeous mega-Babels of Paolo Soleri than to conventional architectural renderings, Rudolph’s elaborate diagonal rhythms and emphatic textures project a mind-blowing alternate cityscape.

 Paul Rudolph, Perspective rendering of vertical housing elements at the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge, 1970. Courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

Paul Rudolph, Perspective rendering of vertical housing elements at the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge, 1970. Courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

The exhibition contains many fascinating sketches that demonstrate the fecundity of Rudolph’s ideas about interlocking, stepped spaces, but it’s his finished perspective renderings (delegated to some extent and intended for reproduction, but smaller and crisper than here) that command attention.  The style was an early invention from which he barely wavered.  It borrows from the suavity of engraving in its highly deliberate accumulations of straight black lines to convey light and shade  – the quality of line never getting vague to evoke atmosphere, just more exacting in its proportion.  Receding surfaces in shadow are scored with sure crosshatches that moiré against converging perspective rays, while black sectioned solids project plushly forward.  The complexity of Rudolph’s interiors has sometimes been called Piranesian (praise to some ears, though not necessarily meant as such), but the great printmaker’s indefatigably assertive linear rhythm seems to have impressed itself on Rudolph as much as hanging catwalks and monumental staircases to nowhere.

Two drawings in particular from the LoMEx project transcend their intended purpose, and can be said to have entered the collective reservoir of unforgettable images.  One is a perspective of the approach to the Williamsburg Bridge banked by zigzagging housing towers.  Done in red graphite substantially freehand, it is meticulously worked up but lighter in touch than usual.  The other is a rock-solid section through A-frame structures over the expressway trench.  Zones of color pop the drafted black linework forward, and Rudolph exploits the forcing, multiple horizons common to baroque theater and Yellow Submarine to bury the eye in the receding streetscape  –  naked manipulations that betray the architect’s visionary temperament.

The most inventive contemporary architects seem all in agreement that the organic principle, lost in modernism, can be restored to buildings by the abhorrence of repetition, by continuous shift and surprise.  Rudolph’s Bauhaus training came direct from Gropius, however, and held whimsicality to a stricter standard.  His work at its best, built and unbuilt, reminds us that deep architectural thrill depends on theme and variation.  In talented hands, modular composition and sculptural logic need not be static.  They can be musical.

If there are lessons for today’s urban planners and architects in Rudolph’s work, artists should pay heed as well.  The history of painting and drawing is full of envy for the illusionism of architectural drafting, which is ever magnetic.  On top of that, a certain architectural fetishism is by now overly familiar in contemporary art, for example in the work of Guillermo Kuitca or Julie Mehretu.  So, what happens if we take architects’ renderings on equal terms?  A properly done show of Rudolph’s drawings would be a good place to start.  The issue in play, I would suggest, is that architecture is about solving problems, while art is about asking questions.  The practices are oppositely charged.  But in certain microcosmic, visionary, solipsistic moments, architectural drawings may arrogate the prerogative of art.  When that happens, their clear, purposeful execution is a force to be reckoned with.

View of the HUB with mixed-use towers beyond. Photo by Barb Choit / The Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture of The Cooper Union

click to enlarge

Paul Rudolph, Final rendering of the interior of the HUB including people mover, c. 1967-1972. Color slide. Courtesy of the Paul Rudolph Archive, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.

click to enlarge


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9 Responses to Brutalist Bridge Builder: Paul Rudolph’s plans for a Lower Manhattan Expressway

  1. lisa hein says:

    missed the rudolph drawing show, it must have been great. but on the basis of 4 years spent in a rudolph bldg, i would offer alternate views of his architecture. in creating problems rather than solving them for his buildings’ users, rudolph may be more of an artist as you define one. while his large spaces are flaccid like much brutalism to follow, rudolph’s satisfactions are in the compressed detours around the blind ends he throws up everywhere.

    in my narrow experience, the strength of rudolph’s architecture lies in the same intimate detail as the drawings. and while he’ll never match kahn for sense of scale or materials, when rudolph hammers ribbed concrete, that’s pretty nice line in itself.

  2. Great drawings. So glad he did not build them.

    David – Fascinating take on the role of visionary architect’s drawings.

    • Alexi Worth says:

      Ditto to all of the above, esp Daniel’s opening. I spent years sorting through my mixed feelings about the A&A, then visited a beautiful private house in Mamaroneck and was won over. As for art and architecture being “oppositely charged,” I think you’ve just explained almost too much about my marriage, David!

  3. David Brody says:

    Thanks to all for the comments!

    It must have been interesting to spend 4 years in Rudolph’s art and architecture building, which has been restored in a way that makes its circulation even more mysterious by an addition (Gwathmy Siegel?). The complexity of the interior is pretty fascinating, and I have only seen photos and drawings of his houses, so it may well be true that I underestimate his passion for detail. Still, no matter how much one wants to believe in Rudolph, you can’t help coming away from Yale thinking about Kahn’s command of materials, surfaces and spatial relation — and for that matter how much more gorgeous Rudolph’s parking strusture is compared to the forced dynamics of his campus building. (I can’t be the first to make that observation.)

    As for “opposititely charged” — a quck compression of what should be a long discussion, but for the record, I am the hopelessly confused product of just such a union.

  4. Brett Littman says:

    David.

    Thank you for the thoughtful review of our Paul Rudolph exhibition. I wanted to say that I was interested in these drawings for the same reason that you are – the point at which architecture intersects art and also the role drawing plays in representing large scale spatial thinking. You suggest that The Drawing Center has to answer for not showing the original drawings and for our choice of works.

    When I went to the Library of Congress two and half years ago to research the LOMEX drawings this material had been not be cataloged or for that matter conserved. Once that process began it became apparent that the drawings could not be shown in our Drawing Room space (where we had originally conceived of hosting show – since it was not up to the standards of the Library of Congress for loans). The decision to do the show at Cooper Union was initiated through a conversation with Dean Vidler and Steven Hillyer and I for one was excited about placing this show in an educational context. Since Rudolph has been such a maligned figure in the architecture world I thought it might be useful to have this show in one of the premiere architecture schools in the country to allow students to have a chance to evaluate the LOMEX proposal as one of the largest inter modal urban planning project ever dreamed of (which admittedly is fraught with many problems and contradictions) As well, this collaboration allowed the Cooper students to rebuild the LOMEX model, which became a very important part of the show. I hope at least that gives some rationale for why the show ended up a Cooper Union. In regards to our choices of drawings and the way we displayed them – I can only defend our decisions based on what we wanted to try and get across to the specialized audience at Cooper and introduce the project to the general public.

    That said, I am most proud of the dialog around this exhibition. For many this is the first time they have seen the project and there were many intelligent pieces written about this show that really dig into the relationship of architecture to urban planning, discuss new ways to frame city planning beyond the dialectic of the Moses and Jacobs positions and also some re-evaluation of Rudolph’s legacy.

    Best.

    Brett Littman
    Executive Director
    The Drawing Center

  5. David Brody says:

     I absolutely love The Drawing Center (and once had the privelege of showing there).  It’s the extraordinarily high standards set by that amazing institution that make the display of the Rudolph reproductions difficult to swallow.  I wonder if the Library of Congress would loan to the main space, which exhibits museum level shows regularly, as opposed to the Drawing Room space?  Assuming the answer is yes, I do hope the wide interest in the Rudolph show will lead to a show of his drawings there in the future.

  6.  I absolutely love The Drawing Center (and once had the privelege of showing there).  It’s the extraordinarily high standards set by that amazing institution that make the display of the Rudolph reproductions difficult to swallow.  I wonder if the Library of Congress would loan to the main space, which exhibits museum level shows regularly, as opposed to the Drawing Room space?  Assuming the answer is yes, I do hope the wide interest in the Rudolph show will lead to a show of his drawings there in the future.

  7. Great drawings. So glad he did not build them. David – Fascinating take on the role of visionary architect’s drawings.

  8. Efrain Cessor says:

    In relation to buildings, architecture has to do with the planning, designing and constructing form, space and ambience that reflect functional, technical, social, environmental, and aesthetic considerations. It requires the creative manipulation and coordination of material, technology, light and shadow. Architecture also encompasses the pragmatic aspects of realizing buildings and structures, including scheduling, cost estimating and construction administration. As documentation produced by architects, typically drawings, plans and technical specifications, architecture defines the structure and/or behavior of a building or any other kind of system that is to be or has been constructed.

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