Mark Byrnes is a former senior associate editor at CityLab who writes about design and architecture.
A new exhibit highlights the Modernist architect’s little-known designs made while working in Asia.
As America cooled on Paul Rudolph’s designs at the end of the 1970s, Asia gave the polarizing architect—responsible for such concrete masterworks as Yale’s Art & Architecture Building and the Orange County Government Center—new life. In the U.S., funding for large-scale, publicly funded projects had dried up, and patience had worn thin with Rudolph’s perceived arrogance in the face of construction problems, cost overruns, and related litigation. Meanwhile, architectural tastes were shifting away from his aggressive brand of Modernism. So Rudolph spent much of the ‘80s traveling across the Pacific for new work, collaborating with local firms and mentoring some of its younger architects. Now, one of those local architects has put together a new show dedicated to Rudolph’s work in Hong Kong.
“Paul Rudolph: The Hong Kong Journey,” on exhibit through March 9 at New York’s Center for Architecture, is curated by Nora Leung, who worked with Rudolph while she was employed by a large Hong Kong firm up until his death in 1997. The show features previously unseen drawings, sketches, and renderings by Rudolph for three projects: Bond (now Lippo) Centre, Harbor Road Tower, and residences for Plantation Road.
After years of high profile commissions in the U.S., Rudolph took on clients in Asian cities who could let him build big but were also more vulnerable to the whims of less predictable markets. The only one of the three Hong Kong projects built, Bond Centre emerged during an uneasy time in the city as the conditions of its transfer from British to Chinese rule were being negotiated. After a 1983 financial panic forced the original developers to sell off a foundation-poured site for a $1 billion HKD loss, new developers took over and brought in Rudolph. The building was sold again halfway through construction to its namesake financier, Alan Bond, who surrendered ownership after going bankrupt just after the towers were completed.
Completed in 1988, Bond Centre soon gained distinctive modern neighbors in I.M. Pei’s Bank Of China tower and Norman Foster’s HSBC headquarters. In fact, as Leung previously told Tim Rohan for his 2014 book on the architect, Rudolph admired his colleagues’ work so much that he would give a playful military salute to both of their towers whenever he visited.
Trying to keep up with the times, an original rendering for Bond Centre even shows a “high-tech” design treatment with external bracing that resembles Foster’s iconic facade for HSBC. It was scrapped, with the final design resembling a more complex version of Rudolph’s City Center project in Fort Worth. Nevertheless, he envisioned his own project teaming up with Pei’s and Foster’s to establish a new foreground for the city that established order along a skyline dominated by mostly forgettable towers. According to Leung, the building is aging well and has avoided any significant changes so far.
Less than a mile away, the Sino Land Company picked Rudolph’s design in 1989 for Harbor Road Tower, a mixed-use complex that would have been the tallest building in Southeast Asia. Similar to other unrealized towers Rudolph proposed in the U.S., Harbor Road’s design emphasized individual units and floors and was divided into clusters. Its silhouette, comparable to a Chinese pavilion, was Rudolph’s attempt to let local context determine his distinctive design.
In the final years of his life, Rudolph worked on a series of family dwellings on the hilly Victoria Peak. Originally proposed as three freestanding homes, the project had evolved into a single apartment block with dramatic cantilevers depicted in drawings that compare to distinctive “space diagrams” he made of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Fallingwater, which are also on exhibit. But the developer gave up on the site and sold it off after Rudolph’s death. A new owner moved on from his proposal and gave Leung’s office the commission.
While the volume of work he did in Asia was much lower than in his American heyday, Rudolph completed new towers in Singapore and Jakarta as well as Hong Kong, which helped him realize unfulfilled ideas. Quite often, he’d serve as a consultant for local, developer-picked firms, quickly presenting and revising concepts before flying back to a New York office that shrank in size through the ‘80s. His ego was likely diminished, but he still found projects like Plantation Road to be reinvigorating.
Two decades after his death, Leung looks back fondly on her time working with the famously stern and complicated man. “The experience of working with Rudolph had immense influence on me,” she told CityLab. “Architectural design is always site-specific. Every spatial solution is different; I always try to find a solution that creates the special sense of place in the project.”