Paul Rudolph’s Campus Architecture of the 1960’s

by Kristina Nugent

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When Paul Rudolph left Twitchell’s Florida partnership to start his own practice in 1951, the period that followed marked Rudolph’s swift departure from the International Style in favor of developing a rough, dynamic, and challenging aesthetic – of his own invention – that has come to define his oeuvre.[1] As Rudolph is remembered today for his signature stylistic impact on concrete modernism, his contributions to urbanism and master planning are equally deserving of recognition.[2] One commission in particular, his design and master plan for a new university campus in Southeastern Massachusetts, signifies a pioneering contribution in the area of campus planning and architectural history.[3]

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By the late 1950s, Rudolph’s preferred construction medium was undeniably concrete.[4] Rudolph preferred “buildings that respond to light and shade, to buildings that are all reflection.”[5] To achieve this solidity and expressiveness, he used several methods to enliven the surface of his buildings: from ribbed concrete block, to arranging cantilevered elements at contrasting angles, and inserting window openings that would directly achieve desired interior light effects, rather than basing openings on a prescribed, formal arrangement. One of his most often-employed techniques was to striate the surface of the concrete block to effectively, “break down the scale of walls and catch the light in many different ways because of its heavy texture.”[6] These, as well as other practices developed by Rudolph, were intended to add visual interest to the concrete composition, as well as avoid the tendency that large buildings had of becoming “overpoweringly dull and lifeless.”[7]

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(Photo above: Seth Tisue, Creative Commons Licensed)

As Rudolph continued to develop new design mythologies and rendering techniques, it was his commission in 1962 to design the Government Services Center in Boston for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts with the Boston architectural firm of Desmond & Lord that further established Rudolph as not only an innovative and sought-after architect, but as a skillful master planner as well.[8] The partners of Desmond & Lord approached Rudolph to lead the project design for a campus master plan for an entirely new college campus in Southeastern Massachusetts, and Rudolph readily accepted.[9] This commission presented a substantial departure from the problems that Rudolph had encountered working on the Government Services Center as he was able to “execute one of the most comprehensive explorations of his signature architectural style on an unprecedented scale.”[10]

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The initial commission awarded to Desmond & Lord in 1962 entailed the design of a master plan, as well as a site and buildings group plan for the new Massachusetts University campus.[11] An article that appeared in Architectural Record in 1966 noted, “Only since the latter part of the 1960s have colleges and universities begun again to build powerful over-all campus forms. The article referenced Rudolph’s master plan for SMTI as, “ Something that is very rare among today’s colleges and university buildings – a single architectural concept strong enough to control the design of a whole campus.”[12] Since the SMTI campus began at the start of the national university building boom, Rudolph’s master plan had a far-reaching architectural and campus planning impact on the decades that followed.

Rudolph was able to effectively establish the groundwork for the campus by laying out the Campus Master Plan of 1964 and the design of the first “Group I” Arts and Humanities building. However, criticism over the “high construction costs” continued to mount as Rudolph began his design for the “Group 2” Science and Engineering building. Throughout the design process, Rudolph had been instructed to take cost into account, but not at the expense of what he determined to be the essential aspects of the design itself. Calculations revealed that the Rudolph’s final costs were not considerably higher per square foot than the lowest bids, despite the presence of built-in furniture, a “substantial amount of site work and the special corrugated concrete block, which turned out to be almost identical in cost to ordinary block in the quantities used.”[13]  The Group I building was critiqued primarily for it’s expensive appearance: the elaborate interior spaces, the large expanses of glass, and their monumental design. “The new campus was a controversial project with a modernist designer who came up with a scheme that was hardly traditional. The design and completion of Group 1 was shocking to most people. No one in this area had ever seen anything like it. It was easy to criticize as a result.”[14]

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The Commonwealth government and University officials were further dissatisfied when Rudolph’s Group 2 came at a higher cost than even the Group I building, which they had already deemed to be over budget. Under orders from the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, Desmond and Lord were instructed to remove Rudolph from the project in June of 1966.[15] Following Rudolph’s departure, Desmond & Lord became the architects of record on most of the other campus buildings in the 1960s and 1970s, and adhered to the master plan that Rudolph had prescribed. Barnes noted, “The team that worked on the project at Desmond & Lord was very loyal to him and still is to this day.”[16] The firm managed to lower the cost of construction (by estimating the building without the higher cost of air conditioning), which allowed the integrity of Rudolph’s original vision to be preserved.[17] Later building additions that were consistent with his original plan were faithfully carried out by successive architectural firms, in some cases with Rudolph acting as the consulting architect when he returned a decade later to design several buildings including the Student Center, the Textile building, and the Dion Science and Engineering building.

While Rudolph was not ultimately responsible for designing every building in the central core of the Dartmouth campus, judging from the architectural unity of the composition once the Dion building was completed in 1988, Rudolph’s master plan was diligently adhered to in later designs. As critics has proclaimed in 1966 that Rudolph’s plan was designed around a “single architectural concept, strong enough to control the design of a whole campus,” what resulted, at least comparing the original site plan with what was actually built, was remarkably close to the original intention.[18] Although three of the buildings were entirely or partially designed by Rudolph, they were not necessarily more significant than the others since without the strength of the ensemble, Rudolph’s greater vision – the master plan itself – would be lost. Beyond the nine of the “original” main campus buildings built between 1964 and 1988, the campus open space, as well as the original site plan and design of the campus landscape is as significant as the individual buildings.

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The ‘appreciation’ of this Paul Rudolph campus has shifted in a dramatic way in the last ten years, mainly due to an increased awareness of the significance of the architecture in a historic sense. While some still regard the campus aesthetic as, hard, cold and uninviting, there is a realization of its importance.[19] Rudolph’s master plan and the resulting UMass Dartmouth campus demonstrated Rudolph’s skill as both a practical architect and a visionary. Although the Commonwealth had been unsupportive of a campus plan in the years following Rudolph’s master plan, rendering its concrete forms extravagant for the overextended and ad-hoc postwar decades, the campus stood as a testament to the endurance of Rudolph’s architectural vision.

© Kristina Nugent and Ephemeral Urbanity, [2013 – present]. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kristina Nugent and EphemeralUrbanity with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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[1] Davern, Jeanne M. “A Conversation with Paul Rudolph.” Architectural Record, Vol. 170 (March 1982), p. 90-97. Rudolph’s earliest design influences include Gropius and other Graduate School of Design instructors he encountered during his time at Harvard as a master’s student.

[2] Rudolph’s first major commissions included developing master plans for several academic and government-sponsored projects, such as the design for the Blue Cross-Blue Shield building in Boston (1954-7), the Jewett Arts Center at Wellesley College (1955-58), the Tuskegee Institute (1958), Sarasota High School (1958-60), and especially the Art and Architecture Building at Yale University (1958-64).

[3] Rudolph was designing the UMass campus while serving as the Dean of the Architecture School at Yale, in Biemiller, Lawrence, “At Yale, an Unlikely Champion for ‘the Building That Won’t Go Away,’” The Chronicle of Higher Education (6 June 2008), online: http://chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i39/39a01901.htm. Also of note is the change in the perception of Modern architecture on the Yale campus: “While other institutions struggle with decisions about buildings from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, Mr. Stern says members of the Yale Corporation, the university’s governing board, think of its Modernist structures as valuable artifacts in the university’s collection.”They talk about these buildings,” he says, “as if they were Rembrandts or Mondrians.”

[4] Mehrtens, Cristina. “Brutal identity: Paul Rudolph, the city and the renewal of the modern,” University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. Paul Rudolph Symposium, UMass Dartmouth April 13, 2005. Like Peter and Allison Smithson, Rudolph’s body of work did not represent a strict chronological progression, nor did he attempt to replicate Florida Modernism in the Northeast, even as other major architects of the time, Edward Durell Stone and Phillip Johnson, were designing glass houses in non-temperate climates.

[5] Rudolph was remarking on his design of the Boston Blue Cross Blue Shield Building of 1957, and how it influenced his design for the Yale A+A, from Rohan, Timothy. “Rendering the Surface: Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building at Yale”.  Grey Room 1, 2000, p. 85.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ibid, the author also noted that the buildings at the SMTI campus were not built using the same bush hammered concrete Rudolph had selected for the A&A building at Yale, but rather concrete block that he had first used in the construction of the Crawford Manor (housing for the elderly) in New Haven, Connecticut.

[8] Barnes, Bruce. Interview with William Grindereng: Longtime Architectural Associate of Architect Paul Rudolph. Recorded in Boston Massachusetts, June 28, 2006.

[9] Conversation with Bruce Barnes on March 3, 2008, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth Librarian and creator of the website “Paul Rudolph and his Architecture,” http://prudolph.lib.umassd.edu/about. Barnes also organized the April, 2005 symposium for the Chancellor’s “Breaking New Ground” Initiative.

[10] Ibid.

[11] The design for the new “Southeastern Massachusetts Technical Institute” campus (SMTI), was controversial well before it was designed. The Commonwealth had little interest in funding such an ambitious project for this economically depressed region, from Barnes, Bruce. Interview with William Grindereng: Longtime Architectural Associate of Architect Paul Rudolph. Recorded in Boston Massachusetts, June 28, 2006.

[12] “Architecture that Gives a Campus the Unity of a Single building.” Architectural Record, 1966 Oct., v. 140, n. 4, p. [145]-160

[13] That was the price per square foot in 1966. Today this would have amounted to around $45 per sq. foot, from: “Will Rudolph’s Vision of the SMTI Campus be Fully Realized?” Architectural Record, 1966 Oct., v. 140,  n. 4, p. 156.

[14] Conversation with Bruce Barnes on March 3, 2008, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth Librarian and creator of the website “Paul Rudolph and his Architecture,” http://prudolph.lib.umassd.edu/about.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Conversation with Bruce Barnes on March 3, 2008, University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth Librarian and creator of the website “Paul Rudolph and his Architecture,” http://prudolph.lib.umassd.edu/about. Barnes also organized the April, 2005 symposium for the Chancellor’s “Breaking New Ground” Initiative.

[17] As one critic remarked, “In the design of Group I, Paul Rudolph had cast the dye for the execution of his vision by subsequent designers who were faithful to his unique vision for the SMTI / SMU campus,” in, “Will Rudolph’s Vision of the SMTI Campus be Fully Realized?” Architectural Record, 1966 Oct., v. 140,  n. 4, p. 156.

[18] “Architecture that Gives a Campus the Unity of a Single building.” Architectural Record, 1966 Oct., v.

140, n. 4, p. 146.

[19] Conversation with Peter Gagnon, the Associate Director of Facilities Planning, Design and Construction of UMass Dartmouth during a campus visit on both Feb. 13, 2009 and an email follow-up March 19, 2009.

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