See the Swan Song Designs of Paul Rudolph
This Center for Architecture exhibition provides fresh insight into the architect's last designs in East Asia.
If Paul Rudolph might have deserved a sweeping survey on his centennial, it’s no surprise he didn’t get one. His critical reevaluation, though well-advanced in architectural circles, has yet to meaningfully intrude on the consciousness of the broader public. Two small exhibitions in New York, Paul Rudolph: The Personal Laboratory, now finished at the Modulightor Building, and Paul Rudolph: The Hong Kong Journey, at the Center for Architecture until March 9, offered some compensation. Whereas the former was heavily reliant on the recollections of Rudolph’s collaborator Ernst Wagner (the two founded the lighting company whose name the steel infill building carries), the latter hinges on the experiences and personal collection of architect Nora Leung, who served as an assistant on all of Rudolph’s projects in Hong Kong. Only one of these designs was built.
There’s an element of the melodramatic about every standard last-chapter treatment on Rudolph’s work, in which our hero, forgotten and marginalized at home, seeks and finds vindication in faraway lands. Hong Kong, Singapore, and Jakarta furnished the architect with opportunities to finally realizes a career-long dream to build tall. This thumbnail sketch of the “late Rudolph” is basically accurate, and yet the Center for Architecture exhibition adds new dimensions to the story.
Much of the show focuses on Rudolph’s Lippo Centre (known as the Bond Centre upon its completion in 1987) in Hong Kong’s Admiralty District. It was a large commission with challenging programmatic constraints: Rudolph was compelled to incorporate a two-story, 45,000-square-foot telephone exchange and a ticketing site for the Hong Kong metro in his design, which would also have to seamlessly connect to a busy multilevel streetscape. His bold solution called for a twin set of skyscrapers balanced atop a podium abutting the major Queensway express road. Counterintuitively, the main entrance was fixed at the site’s narrow north end a story above grade, continuous with pedestrian walkways. And in a flourish glimpsed in drawings here, Rudolph even devised a system of skybridges that would connect, at points, the two building’s 58 different floor plans (the idea was never seriously considered).
Rudolph found much of Hong Kong’s architecture anonymous, “background buildings” in his reckoning, and he set out to design a focal building in contrast. There aren’t all that many octagonal towers of distinction anywhere, and the Lippo Center features two, one 48 floors tall and the other, 44. Protruding from both are numerous single-story “sky floors,” which Rudolph hoped would break down the scale of the building and produce a compelling profile. These cantilevered bulks have drawn many visual comparisons, the most vivid being the image of koalas climbing tall tree trunks.
At the Center for Architecture, the black-and-white graphite drawings of the Lippo Centre are a revelation, as the contours of this unusual project are recast as a continuation of Rudolph’s mid-career style. The Lippo Centre’s glazed volumes can be read as solid, and so akin to the concrete buildings that earned Rudolph a reputation that lingers to this day. This missing link helps make better sense of the architect’s latter-day turn to the curtain wall, a medium that he had largely avoided. He took to the medium with care, however; he specified reflective glass, for example, because it would better pick up the city’s variable local light.
The towers never actually touch the inclined ground but are instead borne aloft by monumental structural columns, hemming in a multitiered podium containing a common lobby for both buildings. Bands of granite balconies and stairs bisect the massive supports. This sort of piloti play characterized all of Rudolph’s skyscrapers; these, in particular, are frequently compared to pistons, and they do impart a real dynamism to the podium base. The parti is technically ingenious, an impressive feat of interconnectivity, even as it invites problems of managing multiple levels and modes of entrance. It is a self-assured solution but perhaps not entirely satisfying from a pedestrian’s point of view.
Self-assuredness has always characterized Rudolph’s architecture, but personally, he could be dithering. The exhibition’s collection of line drawings, preserved for decades by Leung and largely unseen until now, reveal a punctilious yet roughly-hewn attention to detail and provide an unusually personal entrée into a large-scaled corporate project. Rudolph attended to the smallest of considerations, down to cladding panel divisions and elevator door jambs. His numerous annotations—for instruction (“PUT BACK BEAM”) but also questions (“ADD STEPS?”)—reflect his ceaseless tinkering.
Some of these drawings are a little dry, but many sparkle with interest, in part due to the aging Rudolph’s Faulknerian habit of sketching different elements using differently colored pencils. Red for most structural elements (and humans), blue for windows, green for plants. Rudolph engages in a far subtler and impressive game with color inside the Lippo Centre, using seven slightly different tones of grey in interior locations to enhance the natural workings of natural and artificial light.
A subsequent project, his Harbor Road building (1989), intended for a site about a mile from the Lippo Centre, was a much more ambitious undertaking, and would have been the tallest building in Southeast Asia at the time. Influenced by Chinese pavilion design, the skyscraper was another experiment in glass—far from the sheet curtain wall—consisting of eight clusters, which diminished in size as they moved upwards. Impressively, the base volume would have hovered 150 feet above the street level. See it at the Center for Architecture in rendering and model form now, because you won’t be able to anywhere else.
The final Hong Kong project, the Plantation Road building (1994–97) was a residential complex on top of Victoria Peak. Rudolph had been commissioned to design three homes without obstructing each other’s view. As the drawings here indicate, he consolidated the domiciles into a single apartment structure, with terraces that rotate out from a center core in every direction. Pilotis, rising from the steepest hillside, support terraces and cantilevered swimming pools. It is a kinetic and imaginative design as good as Rudolph’s best work. Unfortunately, the project didn’t receive final approval until 1996, by which time Paul Rudolph’s health was in decline. He died the following year.
This exhibit offers ample proof that, even some time into the critical reevaluation of Rudolph’s excellent body of work, there remain many details still to be widely circulated. Given the steady pace at which Rudolph’s buildings have been claimed by the bulldozer or miserable facelifts, it’s encouraging that the Lippo Centre, if not landmarked, is protected by circumstance. Leung, who continues to practice in Hong Kong, has said that because the complex “was sold parcel by parcel” it can’t be bought as a whole and subsequently developed. All of these projects, built or otherwise, offer evidence of skills that did not remotely dim with time, with his late work displaying a febrile energy at twilight that demands and will reward attention.
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