Scenographic Urbanism: Paul Rudolph and the Public Realm

Scenographic urbanism: paul rudolph and the public realm
Top left: Concept sketch, Boston Government Service Center, 1962. Top right: Plaza, Mental Health Building, Boston. Bottom left: Mental Health Building. Bottom right: Mall, SMTI, 1963.

Paul Rudolph enjoyed fantastic success in the early 1960s. It was impossible to open a newspaper, magazine, or architectural journal in the United States or abroad without seeing one of the architect’s projects or reading his opinions about the state of modernism. In 1963, the year the Yale Art & Architecture Building was completed, Rudolph was working simultaneously on six governmental, five academic, and three corporate projects. He had nearly abandoned private houses, once his mainstay, for larger works.

Of all the various building types, Rudolph most wanted corporate commissions, especially skyscrapers; but he was least successful in this field, probably because businesses found his increasingly personal vocabulary ill-matched to their organizational ethos. … Indeed, Rudolph’s sense of monumentality and urbanism were better suited to the public realm.

Beginning in the 1950s in cities such as New Haven and accelerating in the 1960s under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, government-supported redevelopment transformed America’s cities and provided Rudolph with numerous commissions for civic buildings. The building of new academic campuses and the expansion of existing ones, often publicly funded as well, also provided Rudolph with many jobs. His most significant public projects of this decade, the Boston Government Service Center (1962–71) and the campus for the Southeastern Massachusetts Technological Institute (1963–72), elaborated on the signature monumental style that he had arrived at with the Yale A & A. To critique what he considered the banality and incoherence of contemporary urban renewal and campus design, Rudolph imbued these projects with a scenographic quality that evokes the set for an opera, with swirling staircases and colorful, multistory, balconied interior spaces recalling baroque architecture, and with great plazas resembling amphitheaters inspired by the ideas of 19th-century city planner Camillo Sitte.

Leave a Comment