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
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.
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.