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The multifaceted personality of architect Paul Rudolph (1977-1995) is reflected in the four levels of the roof structure on a New York terraced house that features experimental materials and artificial light effects. Photo © Peter Aaron/OTTO
The multifaceted personality of architect Paul Rudolph (1977-1995) is reflected in the four levels of the roof structure on a New York terraced house that features experimental materials and artificial light effects. Photo © Peter Aaron/OTTO
Paul Rudolph (1918 to 1997) was often described as reserved and aloof, austere and controlled. Photo © Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
Paul Rudolph (1918 to 1997) was often described as reserved and aloof, austere and controlled. Photo © Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
The central atrium as spacious reception area: the living area of the penthouse extends across three floors. Photo © Peter Aaron/OTTO
The central atrium as spacious reception area: the living area of the penthouse extends across three floors. Photo © Peter Aaron/OTTO
A palace with strong appeal to the senses: using glass walls, different floor surfaces, reflected surfaces and translucent elements Rudolph creates a luxurious, erotic ambience. Photo © Peter Aaron/OTTO
A palace with strong appeal to the senses: using glass walls, different floor surfaces, reflected surfaces and translucent elements Rudolph creates a luxurious, erotic ambience. Photo © Peter Aaron/OTTO
Above it is the private bathroom complete with a whirlpool and glass floor: next to the sleeping area of Paul Rudolph and his partner Ernst Wagner. Photo © Peter Aaron/OTTO
Above it is the private bathroom complete with a whirlpool and glass floor: next to the sleeping area of Paul Rudolph and his partner Ernst Wagner. Photo © Peter Aaron/OTTO
The art of spatial interlocking: across 17 levels of different heights a fascinating framework is created of gleaming metal, white maple and glass.
Photo © Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
The art of spatial interlocking: across 17 levels of different heights a fascinating framework is created of gleaming metal, white maple and glass.
Photo © Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division
The Glass Bottom Secret
by Uwe Bresan
6/16/2016

Interpreting an art work by way of looking at its creator’s biography has long since been established practice. It goes without saying that the artist’s sexual identity may hereby also be taken into account – indeed, it occasionally even needs to be included in the interpretation process. What would we understand about David Hockney’s art, Peter Tchaikovsky’s music, and Jean Cocteau’s literature without knowing of their homosexuality? What is hardly controversial any longer in comparable disciplines and Anglo-Saxon countries still proves to be taboo in European architectural history. This attitude is often justified by the simple and all too transparent contention that the gender or sexual identity of an architect is of no significance for his work, as he is in any case bound to the client’s brief, agenda, and wishes. However, anyone putting forth this argument ultimately denies architecture any genuine claim to be art, and degrades the architect to a mere service provider. At the same time this line of argument reduces the appropriation and evaluation of architecture to an analysis of built structures – without embracing the diverse background elements.

Architecture’s Coming Out

Nowadays, the fact that homosexual architects occupy a unique and thoroughly identifiable place in architecture is hardly contested in US architectural history any more. With generous support from the American Institute of Architects (AIA), influential schools of architecture such as Harvard and Columbia have been conducting corresponding research since the 1990s. The fact that an institution such as the AIA began to address the topic early on is closely connected to the outbreak of AIDS in the late 1980s, when the “gays’ disease” claimed several famous US architects as its victims. The deaths from AIDS of Alan Buchsbaum (1935 to 1987), a celebrated New York loft designer and favorite architect of the East Coast intelligentsia, and of Roger Ferri (1949 to 1991), whose studies from more than 30 years ago of greened skyscrapers are like blueprints for overgrown high-rises, the likes of which are today primarily being built in the big southeast Asian metropolises, were a lasting shock for the US architectural scene. The zenith of its coming out was reached in 1996, when Philip Johnson (1906 to 2005), the doyen of post-War US architecture, had his portrait done for the cover of the well-known gay magazine “Out”.

Queer Studies

Of course queer studies in architecture do not set out to establish a specifically “gay” design style. It would be naïve to think that a building could reveal the sex and gender identity of its designer. Of far more interest are the particular circumstances under which homosexual architects worked in history, which for a long time involved discrimination and persecution, and how nowadays their sexual orientation can impact their work as architects. So on the one hand it is about reconstructing precarious existences, and as such the conditions under which, in earlier and more recent times, renowned homosexual architects in particular were able to pursue their profession. And on the other hand, the influence, for instance, of “gay” networks among colleagues and clients is of interest. Not least of all, individual structures and designs will be reevaluated and reinterpreted from a comprehensive biographical perspective.

Paul Rudolph’s New York Penthouse

The complex basic structure, for example, of the legendary penthouse which the New York architect Paul Rudolph (1918 to 1997) built in the late 1970s in Beekman Place close to the East River, in the direct vicinity of the United Nations headquarters, would be insufficiently revealed were one to ignore the hardly known fact that Rudolph lived there with his partner Ernst Wagner. It even seems as if the architect’s whole personality is expressed most forcefully in the four-storey roof structure. Rudolph, who without doubt was one of the leading American architects of his generation, was regarded by many of his contemporaries as withdrawn and unapproachable. His military-style short haircut alone signaled male self-control and strictness.

Hyper-masculine Architecture

This side of his personality, which Rudolph openly displayed, is reflected in many of his buildings. In 1964 the editors of architecture magazine “Progressive Architecture” even went as far as to cross-fade a portrait of Rudolph with a photo of his Art and Architecture Building in New Haven (1958-1964) for a cover. Without doubt this is the architect’s best-known edifice and also one of the most famous 20th century art school buildings. Located at the heart of the traditional Yale University campus, on the outside the faculty building hermetically seals itself off from its surroundings, and viewed up close seems downright threatening. Rudolph covered the entire structure with slender, tapering concrete pilasters which, once stripped, were bush hammered, and hereby created an almost martial looking sharp-edged surface. Timothy Rohan, one of the most distinguished experts on Rudolph’s work, interprets his treatment of concrete, which later became a trademark of his buildings, as a “hyper-masculine” gesture, with which the architect attempted to mask the totally different nature of his interiors – and ultimately the “secret” about himself.

Spaces that evade definition

On the inside Rudolph’s brutalist big buildings are in fact surprising for their sensitive treatment of space, material, and color. Particularly to European visitors, who often are only familiar with Rudolph’s structures from contemporary black and white photographs, the soft, bright red and orange carpets the architect used for many of his public construction projects make a totally unexpected impression, which is initially difficult to reconcile with the buildings’ outward appearance. At the same time the interiors are characterized by an opulent, almost Baroque play with space that often extends across several levels, creating diverse visual axes and connections and, through a labyrinth-like structure, occasionally evading complete definition.

Spatial Art

With the design of his New York apartment Rudolph without doubt reached the pinnacle – in the sense of a structural context that for outsiders could scarcely be defined – and the extreme limits of his spatial art. Viewed from the road, the roof structure looks withdrawn; held in place by a steel girder frame at sixth floor-level its solid concrete slabs project far beyond the historical facade of the brownstone building, a typical mid-19th century terraced house. On the inside, on the other hand, the visitors’ senses are confused by glass walls and floors, mirrored surfaces and semi-transparent ceilings. Even tables and chairs are made of transparent Plexiglas. On top of which there is a confusing spatial interplay between no less than 17 horizontal levels, across which the apartment extends and whose relation to one another is difficult to understand – even after intensive study of the published footprints. Ultimately, it would seem, only the architect himself had full control of his creation, which enabled Rudolph to build a more or less secret second apartment inside it.

Cross-section Architecture

The double face of Rudolph’s penthouse apartment only becomes clear in the cross-section. On the one hand this reveals the “official” living area, familiar from numerous publications, whose large panorama windows open out to the East River, and which extends across three storeys connected with one another by a central atrium. On the other hand there comes to light another, totally self-sufficient, likewise three-storey living quarter facing Manhattan, about whose existence most visitors to Rudolph’s penthouse must have been kept in the dark. In publications on the penthouse produced around the time of its construction, there are hardly any informative pictures of the area in which Rudolph and his partner Ernst Wagner lived until Rudolph’s death in 1997. In the published footprints the two lower living spaces, which are likewise linked by an atrium, are always referred to as the library, and the bedroom above as the guest wing. These rooms differ from those on the “official” side of the apartment not only in their more intimate size, but also through their particular character. While in the main rooms white tones dominate, emphasizing openness and size, in the “secret” rooms dark finishes and “hard” materials prevail. Black leather sofas and polished steel fittings quickly evoke associations with the sort of “gay milieus” a broader audience became familiar with in 1980 in the scandalous film “Cruising” featuring Al Pacino.

A Different Architectural History

In two cases Rudolph visually linked the parallel worlds of his penthouse in a quite spectacular way. For one he installed a glass washbasin in a bathroom in the “official” living area which projected into the atrium of the supposed “library” – and as such into his partner’s living space. In the other he gave the large whirlpool in his private bathroom a glass bottom, which was directly above Wagner’s bedroom and his bed. The architect justified this configuration, which is clearly visible in the cross-section, with the need for natural light in the “guest room”, which benefited from a skylight directly above the whirlpool.
It goes without saying that much can be explained with such supposedly functionalist stringency – and architectural history does like to quote such plausible explanations. It remains questionable, however, whether that helps us get to the real root of a matter and whether the implementation of such a complex structure really can be explained by way of the lighting in a “guest room” only. A different history of architecture that involves biographies to a greater extent could well provide quite different insights.