Paul Rudolph was born to a Methodist minister in the American South of the isolationist, pre-war years. He studied architecture at the parochial Alabama Polytechnic Institute and served in the Navy during the Second World War. Then, like many of his compatriots, he was aroused by the European expatriate masters who colonised the cultural life of his country - in his case, by Walter Gropius at Harvard University. In 1958, at the age of 39, he was head of architecture at prestigious Yale University and one of his generation's leading lights. But what looked like the American dream became instead a tragedy.
By 1972 his architecture could be publicly denounced by Venturi, Scott Brown and Izenour in Learning from Las Vegas as that of 'The Committed Late Modernist'. In a still shockingly indecorous attack, those Philadelphia upstarts favourably compare their ugly and ordinary Guild House to the high-art architecture of Rudolph's Crawford Manor, thereby delivering the final blow against late Modernism and its pretensions. Few architects who rose so high would fall so far and disappear so fully from public view.
A new publication on Rudolph is tantalising for many reasons. Late Modernism of this kind has been out of fashion for so long that it must surely be time to reconsider its place. Maybe one has never quite surrendered the belief in the architect as masterly manipulator of masses brought together in light. And then the charges levelled against Rudolph - namely his commitment to an architecture of expression, purity, sculpture, and advanced technology (as well as to the megastructure) - have lately resurfaced as legitimate lines of enquiry. One thus waits eagerly for theses, insights and photographs that evaluate him anew.
Realising such an ambition, however, would require a vigorously argued defence of his work rather than this memorial tribute. Sadly for a book in which the pieces by former students show the great affection and respect Rudolph engendered, it is unlovingly designed and badly produced; it is also clumsily written and sloppily edited. It does, though, provide a resource for further study with its short biography, 23 projects, curriculum vitae and bibliography. Unfortunately Rudolph's own townhouse in New York, with its obsessive, progressive and voyeuristic use of glass, is not included.
The exhibition merely reproduces material from the book and unfortunately does not include Rudolph's (very large) original drawings. Much is made in the book of Rudolph's graphic technique and style, an enthusiasm which I do not share. His pen and ink single-point perspective sections are indeed instantly recognisable but are unengaging and look no better than the buildings.
The book and exhibition fail to challenge our understanding of Rudolph's architecture and its value by not first recognising how contentious his work is. It was the apotheosis of an important movement which we can marvel at for its self-confidence and uncompromising commitment, while being bemused by its results. (The interlocking spaces of the Art and Architecture Building at Yale, for instance, require 36 changes of level.)
Rejected at mid-career as irrelevant if not mistaken, Rudolph carried on determinedly, realising large apartment blocks in the Far East. Meanwhile his contemporary Louis Kahn, with whom he shared many architectural concerns, was unarguably elevated to the pantheon. Rehabilitating Rudolph's reputation would be an ambitious, provocative project for which we might just be ready - but are left waiting.
Steven Spier teaches at South Bank University