Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Besuch mit Paul Rudolph



There are a few days left to visit the very worthwhile exhibit of the Lower Manhattan Expressway at the Cooper Union, put on in cooperation with the Drawing Center.

Rudolph's popularity seems to be on the rise again with the opening of this exhibit, which is the first that his legacy has returned to the news since the Yale addition opened and many of his buildings began to be lost. Its nice to see his awesome and extraordinary drafting skills being appreciated in public again, juxtaposed to the profession's current wrangling with CAD rendering.

Its interesting that Rudolph's renewed notoriety is within the context of such a universally-derided project, which everyone seems only happy never got built.

The project, and the exhibition's drawings and model, evince what is both inspirational and horrifying in Rudolph's megaprojects-- and even what is appealing and oppressive with Brutalist works in general. Its fascinating to have one design incur a reaction that is both vitriolic and fantastic, and its also curious to be able to enjoy a full range of responses to the work as an unrealized fiction, and therefore be seduced by the incredible draftsmanship for its masterful artistry.

The exhibition is very well done (including the exhibition catalogue, which has some really excellent critical commentary on the project and its origins). The display is in a single gallery space, walls fully of original drawings for the project, and featuring a massive model, which is actually a reconstruction of the original presentation model.

Photography is unrestricted, which is always nice. Its especially fun to approach the model from all angles, flying over it, inserting your face and camera lens into the canyons of modular towers. A visitor can become really intimate with the architecture by getting so close to the drawings and the model, and being able to snap away, to save a particular detail or angle for later reflection and inspiration.

II. Maybe they should call it Burroughs Unwelcome

This was not so much the case on a recent visit to one of Rudolph's realized masterpieces.

Last month, I took a road trip from New England to Florida. On my second day south, I went specifically out of my way by several hours to the Raleigh, North Carolina, area as the route to Florida was the closest that I had been in years to being able to visit Rudolph's Burroughs Wellcome headquarters in the Triangle Research Park.

I am sure that many readers will be familiar with the drill of planning a pilgrimage to have favorite building. Some research on directions, accessibility…do they give tours? Can I only get inside if I take a guided tour? etc.

My searches yielded nothing, so I just showed up on a sunny early fall day in the Piedmont. The building was easy to find off the expressway, and it was easy to enter the grounds-- I just followed the signs to Visitors Parking, got out of my car, and followed the signs for the Visitors Entrance, crossing a wide, immaculate lawn, with the parking area separated by a geometrically ordered row of pines. It was beautiful.

I entered the building, greeted the security person behind the large desk:

ME: Hello

HER: May I Help You?

ME: I wanted to take some photographs of the building. I studied architecture and I am a big admirer of the architect of this building, Paul Rudolph.

HER: No, you can't take pictures, they don't allow that. They just don't like it when people do that. Sometimes, they see someone taking pictures and they call the police.

ME: No pictures, then. OK, that's really too bad. Good-bye.

Minutes later, I was back in my car, being tailed to the main road by a security guard in a pick-up truck. It seems that the building's current owners, the Big Pharma giant Glaxo Smith Kline, aren't really in the Architectural Tours business.

Despite having no front gate or security guard, despite having clearly-marked visitor parking and visitor entrance areas, they were ready to chase me off the grounds as if I was doing re-con for a future career in generic-drug marketing or something.

Before concluding that its ironic that an American architectural icon is more aggressively guarded against interested visitors than the White House, consider this: the building is the location of a full-length movie featuring Christopher Walken. And also consider that huge perspectives and sections of the building are publicly available.

So that was all unnecessarily unpleasant. But here's my question: when a company's headquarters is an architectural masterpiece, should they act like its a security threat when an architectural enthusiast shows up to take photos?

III. The Umbrella

I ended up feeling not particularly up for more exploring when I arrived at my final destination the next day; Sarasota, Florida. Yes, the same Sarasota that Rudolph practiced so proficiently in. There were dozens of examples of his work all around the area.

I did muster the enthusiasm to drive down to the Sarasota High School, but when I pulled in drive, alongside the parents waiting to pick up their children, I felt out place, like I didn't belong. So anticipant of being made to feel unwelcome, I quickly, half-heartedly snapped a single photo, not even bothering stop the engine or roll down the window.

On the way back from the school, I took the causeway out to Lido Key, and drove north along the Gulf of Mexico drive. At the last minute, I decided to turn into the famous Lido Shores neighborhood where Rudolph's renown Umbrella House is located. I thought I could just drive through slowly and enjoy seeing it in person.

But what's this? Something I have not seen before in all my architectural pilgramage: a large, carefully designed sign, placed on the ground at the edge of the property, welcoming admirers, providing sources of additional information, politely laying out the ground rules for viewing and touring.

all images ©2010 Bauzeitgeist

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