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Loved, hated, loved again, A&A turns 50

You're probably seeing a lot of remembrance and rumination this week about the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John F. Kennedy (the actual anniversary is on Friday), but there was another golden anniversary this month: Yale's Art & Architecture Building—now called Paul Rudolph Hall—was dedicated on November 9, 1963, in an enormous gala celebration less than two weeks before the president's murder in Dallas.

As I've written before, the A&A Building has had a tumultuous history worthy of an opera, with a tragic-hero architect in Paul Rudolph, a calamitous fire, and—more recently—a rebirth and restoration. There's even a "curse": architectural historian Nicholas Pevsner's speech (PDF) at the dedication, which struck listeners as subtly critical of Rudolph's extravagant essay in form for form's sake.

And somehow, the coincidence of the building's opening being followed so closely by the assassination has always seemed to me to hold some meaning, as if the building's fate were wrapped up with Kennedy's—and with that of the nation's postwar consensus. The crewcut-wearing Rudolph was a kind of symbol of faith in an able Establishment, a best-and-the brightest architect. (In 1961, Progressive Architecture said he was "the popular press’s ideal choice for the role of American formgiver of the Space Age.”) As such, he was essentially given carte blanche as architect and client for the building where he would reign as chairman of the architecture department. Unsurprisingly, he produced an aggressive, even arrogant building.

But it was also a dazzling, dizzying exploration of form and space, and critics were at first excited about its potential to lead architecture out of its postwar functionalist doldrums. The day after its dedication, New York Times critic Ada Louise Huxtable wrote that “in a field torn by polemics, architects at opposite esthetic poles are united in praise” and predicted that the building “will set trends nationally and internationally. It will surely be one of the most influential buildings of this decade.”

But just as popular history dates our national "loss of innocence" to JFK's death, Yale's—and the architecture community's—loss of faith in the A&A happened very quickly after those events of 1963. Functional problems with the building became apparent almost immediately, but it was more than that. Charles Moore, Rudolph's successor at Yale, championed a humble, populist, historically informed spirit in architecture, a set of ideas that gained currency as post-modernism over the next few years, and Rudolph's buildings fell quickly from grace amid the architectural elite. (Rudolph himself lived till 1998, when he was felled by mesothelioma, a cancer associated with asbestos—which was used widely in A&A. He had continued to build, especially in Asia.) The 1969 fire that damaged the building's interior was probably either an accident or a violent response to the closing of the school's city planning department, but it has always been linked in the public imagination to student rage at the building as a symbol of an oppressive establishment.

Both JFK and A&A have been reappraised for the better and for the worse over the last five decades, but the A&A's reputation has gradually been restored—along with its grand spaces, big plate glass windows, and orange carpets—by an architectural community that has come to appreciate its complexities and contradictions. (It helped that the School of Art, which had never been well served by the building, was able to escape in 2000.) Thanks to a 2008 restoration, it's now one of the best-preserved 50-year-olds on campus. But as Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin ’84MEnvD put it in our magazine in 2008, maybe it's best to hope that the building "will inspire new generations of students—and serve as a cautionary tale against the brilliant but arrogant form-making that got the A&A into such hot water in the first place."

Filed under Paul Rudolph, Art & Architecture Building, Paul Rudolph Hall, architecture
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