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Paul Rudolph and the Challenge of Preserving Modern Architecture

A photographer sets out to capture as many of the architect's remaining buildings as he can, before they're gone.

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Chris Mottalini

It’s not easy being a neglected modernist building.

Design that felt cutting edge at mid-century may indeed still feel too avant-garde to people viewing it today (even when the replacement structure is tacky '80s contemporary). These buildings are old, but often not old enough to be considered “historic” (and therefore worth saving). The lucky structures have devoted residents (like most of the mid-century modernist icons) or generous endowments to keep them in mint condition (say Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water) and/or are concentrated in modern-friendly locales like Los Angeles, a city particularly welcoming of a diversity of architectural styles (just last week, the Getty announced its Conserving Modern Architecture Initiative, dedicated to “conserving 20th century heritage, with a focus on modern architecture.”) But many neglected works sit awaiting saviors, often unable to be saved from the wrecking ball.

Detail of the interior of Rudolph-designed Cerrito House, also demolished in 2007.

One of the harder hit modernists has been the architect Paul Rudolph (1918-1997). The former dean of the Yale School of Architecture left a powerful legacy: his modern, multi-leveled Beekman Place townhouse in Manhattan; his Brutalist Art and Architecture building at Yale (which recently underwent an extensive, acclaimed renovation), and his gorgeous Florida beach houses, which were deemed worthy of their own period moniker (Sarasota Modern). Far too many of his buildings have met with the wrecking ball. As Treehugger's Lloyd Alter wrote on the occasion of a Rudolph demolition in 2007, “Preservation Societies will go nuts to save a rotting turn of the century Victorian but a building from the 50's through 70's? Get rid of it.”

Rudolph's Riverview High School was demolished in 2009. (Photo: Sarasota County History Center).

More than perhaps any of his peers, Rudolph's buildings are either under threat or have already been destroyed. Preservation magazine called the demolition of Rudolph’s Riverview High School in Florida as one of "the most crushing losses of historic buildings throughout the country" in 2009. And right now, his Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York (below), is on the World Monuments Fund’s 2012 Watch List, and the outlook for the “leaky landmark” is poor.

Rudolph's Orange County Government Center is on the World Monuments Fund’s 2012 Watch List. (Photo: U.Mass Dartmouth).

The question of what to preserve and what to destroy is nearly always fraught but photographer Chris Mottalini feels that people let their personal tastes get in the way of their decision-making process. “There’s no accounting for personal taste…which is kind of the problem. I don’t think that personal taste should be allowed to enter into the discussion, when we’re basically talking about preserving an important part of this country’s architectural heritage and landscape.”

The Micheels House in Westport, Connecticut, was demolished in 2009. 

Mottalini hopes his project, After You Left, They Took It Apart (Demolished Paul Rudolph Homes), stands as a testament to the power of architecture. And, as he explains, photographing these homes seemed like the only way to actually save them.

Rudolph was considered a spatial innovator as well as a sustainable one. Here, a roof detail of Rudolph's Cerrito House. 

The Paul Rudolph Foundation approached Mottalino to shoot the Micheels House (built in 1972) before its demolition in 2007 in Westport, Connecticut, and his reaction upon seeing the building was “immediate and powerful.” "It really only took a short time walking around that fantastic, tragic house for me to be hooked on all-things-Paul Rudolph,” he says.

 

So many of Rudolph's projects have been demolished, says Mottalini, that "he has become representative of a tragic disregard for mid-century architecture."
 
Once his interest was piqued, Mottalini wanted to shoot one Rudolph after another. To date, he has, in his estimation, probably photographed around 30 Rudolphs, including the two demolished along with Micheels in 2007, the Cerrito house in Watch Hill, Rhode Island, and the Twitchell house in Siesta Key, Florida. “I’ve seen his projects in varying states… some in excellent, lovingly preserved condition and some that are not doing so well or, in the case of [the homes in] After You Left… that have been wiped clean off the map, as though they never existed.”
 

The photographs are haunting and while most reveal the loss of some truly elegant architecture, there are, it must be said, some views that seem to support the position of the demo crew (all that stucco!). Mottalini understands where both sides are coming from: "[Rudolph’s] is a very striking, dominant, powerful style which seems to be at odds with the type of modern architecture that is popular today. I think many people think it feels dated. His style is recognizably his, modernist and, oftentimes, Brutalist. It’s not for the faint of heart."

The Twitchell House in Siesta Key, Florida, was the third house to be demolished in 2007.

Shooting this project gave Mottalini great insight into just how difficult preservation is. Homeowners today seem more interested in square footage and screening rooms than living in a work of art. “I, of course, understand that every person has a different idea of what is beautiful and what they want in a home…maybe this is just how it goes.”

“It’s probably a good thing,” he adds, that “Rudolph isn’t alive to see this happen to his work.”  

All photos courtesy Chris Mottalini unless otherwise noted.

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