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MANHATTAN MASTERPIECE

BUILDING STUDY - One of Paul Rudolph's last buildings was a New York townhouse, full of spatial surprises, which is now the headquarters of the Paul Rudolph Foundation

Paul Rudolph was enormously influential in the United States as a residential architect from the 1950s, when his canalside houses in Sarasota, Florida, were widely published, through to his 1977 Beekman Place penthouse in New York - one of his best-known schemes. But in the last years of his life (he died in 1997) Rudolph also designed a stunning, but barely known, shop and duplex flat at 246 East 58th Street, New York - completed posthumously and now the home of the Paul Rudolph Foundation.

Rudolph studied architecture at Harvard's Graduate School of Design under Walter Gropius in the 1940s, and was a pioneer in adapting Modernism to the American landscape. In America, Brutalism was a controversial and short-lived movement, and Rudolph's architecture quickly evolved into a Modern megastructure style that was more decorative but still spatially inventive and tough. His Wellesley College Arts Center, and spectacular (unbuilt) projects for a Graphic Arts Center in New York City and Lower Manhattan Expressway, were important images, but his practice gradually fell out of fashion.

In 1972, Robert Venturi and Denise Scott Brown devoted 10 pages of Learning from Las Vegas to comparing Rudolph's bÚton brut Crawford Manor Housing in New Haven to their own Guild House in Philadelphia. They admit it is a 'skilful building by a skilful architect', but condemn it nevertheless because its 'interwoven balconies and abstract modernist facade do not express its conventional system of construction'. By contrast, their own Guild House in Philadelphia looks just as it is - ordinary. Rudolph throughout his career remained a dedicated Modernist and paid a price for this decision.

In any event, Rudolph's practice went from designing important civic buildings and glamorous homes to one with few commissions by the 1980s. He himself blamed his fall from fashion on the negative publicity surrounding the infamous 1969 fire at his Yale Art and Architecture building. It was apparently started by unhappy students, and the local fire chief claimed that the design acted as a chimney for the flames.

In 1989, with little work in his office, Rudolph decided to design, finance and build the structure at 246 East 58th Street in Manhattan. But Rudolph's financial situation had deteriorated so badly he was unable to get a bank loan until several architect friends stepped in to secure one. For an architect who served as dean of Yale Architecture School from 1957 to 1965, this was a great shock. In fact, to make the project succeed Rudolph even served as the contractor/builder and, according to an associate, 'pulled workers in off the street to complete it'.

The scheme was always under a severe budget constraint, so its original seven floors height was held to four, with exterior walls able to support three future floors. It was built to provide a streetfront store for Modulightor - a company started by Rudolph and his partner Ernst Wagner to sell architecturally designed light fixtures - with a rentable 3000 sq ft duplex residence above.

At first glance the building seems overwhelmed by the commercial jumble of 58th Street - a block of antique shops, restaurants and contract furnishing stores. But it is a superb Modernist streetfront, unrivalled even by its well-known Modernist neighbours: William Lescaze's 1934 residence; Philip Johnson's Museum of Modern Art Guest House; and Rudolph's own 23 Beekman Place penthouse, built atop an existing apartment block.

The facade is a spatially complex composition of elevations, setbacks, concrete infill, planes of glass - all framed with delicate white steel I-beams. The interior of the duplex, like Rudolph's better known Beekman Place residence, has more than a bit of the playboy bachelor-pad feeling to it, with Berber rugs, hanging ferns and voyeuristic vantage points throughout. The Beekman Place perspex kitchen ceiling, that also served as the underside of a bathtub (famously occupied during Rudolph's raucous parties), is a back-garden Jacuzzi bathtub at 246 East 58th Street, surrounded by scores of apartment windows of nearby high-rises.

But, despite this slightly dated interior, 246 East 58th Street is a fantastically creative architectural vision - a sort of New York version of Sir John Soane's Museum.

It is obviously the home of an architect:

idiosyncratic and quirky, a constantly evolving showcase of the designer's art and craft, and home to collections of African sculpture, Turkish industrial machine parts and Rudolph's Japanese transformer figures.

And just as at the Soane Museum, there are numerous vistas through windows and openings to the building's other floors.

The site is a typical 20 x 100ft New York property - long and narrow - which presents architects with a major problem:

how to bring light and air into the centre of a structure with no side windows or openings?

Rudolph has created a transparent, lightinfused residence, from which it is possible to see entirely through the space and out to the garden and street beyond. Interior walls, like the rest of the house, are painted flat white, and do not reach the ceiling but act as partitions. One elegant suspended stairway abuts and morphs into the kitchen's exposed shelves, which in turn have specially selected glasses that cast a colourful light.

In his early career Rudolph was inspired by Frank Lloyd Wright, and in this 58th Street project his interest is still evident. There is a dazzling array of architectural details everywhere one looks, such as the thin, elegant light fixtures which front the bookshelves and emphasize the room's horizontality. But, more importantly, in much the same way that Wright broke down traditional room divisions, Rudolph's interior spaces break through floors and spiral and pinwheel up through the structure. In all of Rudolph's houses there are no simple, flat, single-plane floors but constant elevation changes. At 246 East 58th Street, even the shop is arrayed on three levels, and is discreetly connected to the upstairs through stairways and open spaces at the back of the structure.

Rudolph was a truly original designer and space-maker, despite his demonisation by Post-Modernists and several high-rises of dubious merit late in his career. His 58th Street project is a brave and compelling vision of how to inhabit the city, even if most New Yorkers seem to prefer a cave-like dwelling.

Ernst Wagner still lives in the residence, from where he heads the Paul Rudolph Foundation and runs the Modulightor shop (which sells splendid architectural light fixtures). Given the changes made to Rudolph's Beekman Place penthouse by its subsequent owners, 246 East 58th Street now has a special significance. It is, as Wagner puts it, 'the only true Rudolph interior in New York'.

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