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A Modern man

Paul Rudolph: The Late Work By Roberto de Alba. Princeton Architectural Press, 2003. 224pp. £30

Paul Rudolph (1918-97) is remembered by those who studied under him at Yale University - Norman Foster and Richard Rogers included - as a remarkable teacher.

Foster has recalled his 'sense of absolute commitment, a moral imperative in which no effort was spared to improve the quality of architecture'.

When Foster and Rogers were at Yale, Rudolph's most famous built project, the university's own Art and Architecture building, was on site. Five years after its completion, however, it suffered a serious fire, the cause of which was never established - though it was widely claimed that it had been torched by disgruntled students. The fire seemed to mark a watershed in Rudolph's career.During the 1970s he 'apparently disappeared', writes Robert Bruegmann in an introduction to this book, in which Roberto de Alba sets out to prove that 'the last three decades of Paul Rudolph's career (1969-97) were a period of abundant commissions, exploration and immense creativity'.

Rudolph was a surprise appointment for Yale (which he rapidly turned into America's leading school). He was relatively young, had been trained at an obscure southern university (though he had done his master's at Harvard under Gropius), and had little teaching experience. What he had was an exceptional talent as a designer. His early houses in the South, designed with Ralph Twitchell, were certainly a source for the British High-Tech school (AJ 15.8.02). Perhaps it is not too far-fetched to see the influence of Rudolph's highly expressive manner (a retort to the buttoned-up universality of the dominant International Style), and of the Yale building in particular, in the HongKong and Shangai Bank and Lloyd's of London.

Like Denys Lasdun (a few years his senior) in Britain, Rudoph was an architect schooled in the classic traditions of the Modern movement, but intent on establishing a new language for Modernism in the face of growing public and professional disillusionment. Though as vehemently opposed to Post-Modern Classicism as was Lasdun, he shared the latter's concern for history and the historic city. The scholarship year he spent in Europe was a revelation - from Venice he learned the lesson that 'scale and space, not style', were what mattered.

The 27 projects, built and unbuilt, in this book include some remarkable houses, such as the strikingly opulent Bass House in Fort Worth, in which Rudolph's spatial inventiveness is to the fore. Rudolph's own penthouse apartment in Manhattan's Beekman Place, on which he worked up to the time of his death, is a Modern masterpiece to rank alongside the Farnsworth House and the Maison de Verre, and is justly compared here to Sir John Soane's equally obsessional residence in London.

Rudoph was hurt by the way that Venturi and Scott Brown pilloried his work in Learning from Las Vegas - but mounted no counter-attack. However unjustly, he acquired the image of a defender of old and discredited ways as the Post-Modernist bandwagon gained momentum in the US.

The most talked-about American building of the 1970s was Philip Johnson's AT&T. The '70s recession, of course, helped nobody, but by the time he was 50 Rudolph's career seemed to have peaked, at least in his own country. The most substantial built projects of his later years were in the Far East and these received little critical attention.

Sadly, even an eloquent exponent of Rudolph's work such as de Alba is hardpressed when seeking to present the overbearing City Center complex in Fort Worth (1979) or the Bond Centre in Hong Kong (1984), with its anonymous blue-tinted glazing, as truly major works, for all their scale. The chapel at Emory University (1975) has Kahnian undertones and (dare I say it) references to the traditional imagery of cloister and tower that are almost Post-Modern.

Rudolph was a fine architect whose proper place in the history of 20th-century architecture is yet to be established. His later work, however, underlines the crisis of late Modernism and, ironically, the rationale behind the Post-Modernist revolt - which was fundamentally about the relationship between buildings and urban space rather than fripperies of styling.

Kenneth Powell is an architectural journalist

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