NPR: The Renovation of Yale’s Brutalist Paul Rudolph Art & Architecture Building

Yale's Art and Architecture Building, designed by master brutalist Paul Rudolph

Two versions of this broadcast originally aired: one, for the local news, and one for the national. It’s a challenge to describe architecture — especially complicated, unusual architecture — on the radio. What follows is both scripts.

Original air dates: August 8 and September 5, 2008.

Yale University is in the last stages of renovating one of its most important pieces of architectural history: the Rudolph Building, formerly called the Art and Architecture Building, on the corner of Chapel and York Streets. The protective sheeting has come off the exterior, to reveal, once again, its large, tall slabs of concrete, its blocky structure, its giant windows. The building is the work of Paul Rudolph, who headed up the university’s architecture department in the late 50s and early 60s, and it is considered just about the first example in America of the style of architecture known as “brutalism”. WSHU’s Erik Campano looked at the building, inside and out.

[street atmo]
The corner of Yale and Chapel streets in New Haven. Passers-by look up and gape, at the whole, uncovered Rudolph building, in admiration. Or as an abomination. Depends on whom you ask.

WOS1: “I like it, I’m quite fond of it”
MOS2: “It’s ugly. There’s no imagination to that at all. It’s cold, it’s just a big piece of stone just sitting there.”
MOS3: “It definitely doesn’t fit in with the rest of the architecture”
WOS2: “It goes with the rest of the structures, I think. [Me: it goes *with* the rest of the structures?]  I think so.”
WOS3: “It’s different… shocking at first. But I like it. It’s unique.”

Unique – well, at least the first of its kind. Paul Rudolph’s Yale Art and Architecture Building helped introduce this country to “brutalism” – from the French “beton brut”, meaning raw concrete. The outside walls are straight shafts of grey concrete, textured with vertical ribs a few inches in width; from a distance, it looks like pock-marked corduroy.

STERN: “Poured concrete…”

That’s the Dean of the Yale Architecture School, Robert Stern.

STERN: “a series of workers hanging in boatswain’s chairs, from the roof, hammered away at the concrete.”
[cross-fade to working atmo]
Stern was Rudolph’s student, once, and there when the building opened in 1963.

STERN: “Tall people watch your head!”

Stern is touring dozens of people around the Rudolph building renovation – some of the nation’s most prominent architects and architectural journalists, wearing red hard-hats and yellow construction vests. They’re here to see how Yale is renovating of one of the most controversial structures in the history of their field.

STERN: “We did not try to do a face lift, like certain people get, where you can’t recognize the people when they’ve come out of the surgery. We just wanted to have a little nip and tuck approach to the restoration of the building.”

That means, actually, bringing it back to the way it was, before it was devastated by a fire and partially rebuilt in 1969. This includes restoring Rudolph’s original plain ceilings – but installing environmentally-friendly air ducts and lighting. And, it means recarpeting the floor, too, in the quirky color Rudolph originally picked out.

STERN: “Bright orange. Think of tangeriiiiine…”

That fire by the way – well, the building is so controversial, that the urban myth is, it was started by disgruntled architecture students.

They had to work in an intense academic environment.

STERN: “This is the grand, central space of the building…”

The tour moves to a bridge, inside a tall central hall. At its bottom floor, a workspace for the students – and from multiple levels above, onlookers could easily gaze down and watch them.

STERN: “As I and my classmates did our final projects, theses, we sat in the center, and if you don’t think that wasn’t an intimidating experience… every line you drew was watched by every student in the school, practically.”

The practice of architecture was, for Rudolph, an act of courage. And it required courage, sometimes, to occupy his archetcture – for example, to stand on that narrow bridge, suspended over the workspace.

STERN: “The bridge parapets are higher than in Rudolph’s day. In Rudolph’s day, they were about 20 inches off the floor. It doesn’t meet code and is death-defying; he loved DANGER in architecture….”

Among Yale students, whether or not they praise the building, they’ll all admit that it has a looming quality to it – although it’s cozy in places, some features are definitely intimidating, or scary, or both. Now some of the rest of the campus is like this, as well – for example the tall gothic towers of the residential colleges. But, Stern says, the more traditional architecture wins the popularity contest.

STERN: “Yale undergraduates in particular, but Yale students in general, hold the Gothic campus in deep reverence. And they are still not happy with modernist architecture. They think it’s OK for an away game, but not for a home game.”

Erik Campano, WSHU news.

* * * * *

Around the country, college students have been returning to their campuses; and those returning to Yale, in New Haven, Connecticut, are going to find that one of the most controversial buildings on campus is almost done being restored. The old “Art and Architecture” building is set to re-open in November. It is the first example in America of an imposing, concrete architectural style called “brutalism” — a style that many critics embraced in the 50s and 60s, but now is as reviled as it was revered. So, as Erik Campano (kuhm-PAH-noh) reports from member station WSHU in Fairfield, Connecticut, Yale has had to figure out how to stay true to the original vision of this brutalist building – while making it palatable to students and faculty of the 21st century.

[construction atmo in]

Earlier this summer: dozens of the nation’s most prominent architects, and architectural critics, are touring the interior of Yale’s old “art and architecture” building during its restoration. They’re decked out in red hard-hats and yellow construction vests, and they’re eager to see what the university is doing with this piece of architectural history. Robert Stern, Dean of the Architecture School, is leading the tour.

Stern: “We did not try to do a face lift, like certain people get, where you can’t recognize the people when they’ve come out of the surgery. We just wanted to have a little nip and tuck approach to the restoration of the building.”

Looking up in a central hall, you get a sense of the building’s scale. It’s either seven or nine stories high; it’s sort of hard to count the number of floors, really – contained within them are about 37 sub-levels – terraces, landings, bridges – all built of the same unmistakable material: heavy, gray concrete, textured with vertical ribs a few inches in width. It looks like pock-marked cordoroy.

During this tour, the entire interior of the building appeared to be torn up – ceilings were exposed; floors were bared; windows were even removed and pigeons were flying in.

Stern: “[laughs] What can I say? Those pigeons are really vicious… [laughs]”

But now Yale’s almost finished with the renovation, and when students and faculty re-enter the building in November, they’re going to experience something of a time warp back to the way it stood in 1963, when it first opened. The renovation team has uncovered skylights, hidden for decades; removed partitions, added over the years; and even recarpeted the floor, to its original, quirky color.

Stern: “Orange… think of tangeriiiiiine…”

[atmo out]

Yale also plans to rechristen it the “Rudolph building”, after Paul Rudolph, who designed it in 1958 to house the architecture department of which he was the head at the time. With his design, Rudolph introduced, to this country, the style of architecture called “brutalism” – after the French “beton brut”, which means, “raw concrete”. It’s an unmistakable style; sharp right angles; long, often windowless shafts multiple stories high; the main material usually rough, unornamented concrete. Brutalist structures sprung up all over the country in the following decade-and-a-half; most of them at colleges or public institutions: Boston City Hall; the FBI headquarters in Washington; the Regenstein Library at the University of Chicago. Andbrutalism has always had brutal critics.

Kunstler: “People’s response to it tends to be one of being brutalized.”

James Howard Kunstler is author of “The Geography of Nowhere”, a critique of American urbanism and architecture.

Kunstler: “I’ve been in the building. The things that I noticed that were horrible and oppressive were, like, the dungeon-like stairways, with these horrible, raw, sharp abrasive concrete surfaces that you could literally tear a Brooks Brothers suit on as you were walking down the stairs…”

But part of Rudolph’s original vision for the building was, according to Dean Stern, to create a space that challenged his students. For Ruldoph himself was a challenging professor.

Stern: “Rudolph was a brilliant architectural teacher and critic, but he took NO PRISONERS. He left many architecture students CRYING…”

As such, Stern explains, that tall central hall was meant to create some pressure on students – they would do their work on the ground floor, and people could look down and judge it from various levels.

Stern: “…every line you drew was watched by every student in the school, practically.”

Kunstler: “The truth is, that regular, ordinary life is challenging enough for everybody. And one of the reasons that we need reassuring and comforting surroundings are to ease us through these vicissitudes of life. I think it’s simply, sadism.”

A lot of Rudolph’s original features were destroyed in the late 60s, when a fire devastated the building; urban myth was, it was started by some disgruntled architecture students. And in recent years, some on campus have said that Yale should simply finish the job, and replace the building with something more in line with popular contemporary taste. That’s what other communities with brutalist buildings have been trying to do; right now there’s a preservation fight over a brutalist high school in Sarasota, Florida. But Kunstler thinks Yale is a different story.

Kunstler: “The reputation and collective ego of a small high school in Florida is not the same as the reputation and collective ego that’s invested in Yale University. So for them to admit that the whole thing is a fiasco is probably asking too much.”

So now Yale students — whether they love or hate the Rudolph Building — will still be sweating there under the gaze of tough professors; only, they’ll be doing so in brand-new air-conditioning. And even though there will still be circuitious stairwells to navigate, there will also be new elevators to bring the building in line with the American Disabilities Act. And just in case visitors feel too challenged by Rudolph’s design, there’ll be a new cafe downstairs, where they can relax – and where, certainly, the discussion over brutalism’s virtues will continue. For NPR News, I’m Erik Campano, in New Haven, Connecticut.

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