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ALEX BEAM

The architect to whom one cannot remain indifferent

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Paul Rudolph stood before the Yale University arts complex, circa 1963.

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SARASOTA, Fla.

Last week I was admiring the late Paul Rudolph’s Umbrella House here, described by Architectural Digest as “one of the five most remarkable houses of the mid-twentieth century.” It is a piece of steel and glass magic, a vertical celebration of shade and sunshine on a sheltered plot not far from the Gulf of Mexico.

The day after I ogled Rudolph’s airy masterpiece, the house was sold to a neighbor who wants to make the landmark home available for events sponsored by the Sarasota Architectural Foundation.

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Rudolph, who has several signature buildings in the Boston area, seems to be breaking out all over. “Rudolph’s legacy . . . has come roaring back in the last several years,” Mike Singer argues in the American Institute of Architects’s journal AIArchitect, adding: “A new generation of architects and design enthusiasts are paying homage to Rudolph in both word and deed.”

University of Massachusetts professor Timothy Rohan has just published a book about Rudolph, celebrating some of the architect’s most controversial work. Writing in the Globe last fall, Rohan did his best to praise Rudolph’s forbidding concrete fortress, Government Center, which squats atop the north side of Beacon Hill, between Cambridge and Merrimac streets.

“Though troubled, Government Center has the quality of being genuinely public,” Rohan wrote, “and its buildings, maligned as they are, are also deeply considered achievements that hold their own keys to enhancing Boston’s public life.”

In Goshen, N.Y., preservationists are struggling to save a similar Rudolph “masterpiece” from its enemies. The Orange County Government Center is on the World Monuments Fund’s Global Watch List, but, like so much of Rudolph’s institutional, formed-concrete brutalist work, its detractors are legion.

You be the judge. Although Rudolph became a globe-trotting starchitect, many of his most famous buildings are here for the viewing. There is the aforementioned Government Center, and his famous Blue Cross-Blue Shield building, temporarily saved from the wrecking ball on Federal Street. Rudolph rebuilt and modernized the oldest church in Boston, the Unitarian-Universalist First Church on the corner of Berkeley and Marlborough streets in the Back Bay.

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Wellesley College’s Jewett Arts Center retains a bit of the levity of Rudolph’s Sarasota years, although his real Massachusetts centerpiece is the sprawling UMass Dartmouth campus, started in 1963. I attended the graduation ceremony there in 2005, and it was an unforgettable experience. I recall an eerie, Stonehenge-y feeling, with Rudolph’s concrete forms massed around me in the cool, early morning light.

Like so many of Rudolph’s grandiose projects, the Dartmouth campus has a complicated legacy. Former University of Massachusetts President Jack Wilson says he “actually liked the beauty of the campus when I first saw it, but after trying to live with it (as an administrator, not a resident), I began to see the dark side.”

In an e-mail, Wilson told me, “We found that he built buildings like tombstones — they are not to be changed. His architecture is not alive and growing, it is static and inhuman. I also admit that the aesthetic detractors have a point. It feels pretty brutal after a while.”

Rudolph is very, very hard to like. I don’t know what he was smoking during his early years in Sarasota, but two of his residences here, the Umbrella House and the Harkavy House, are gorgeous, gossamer structures that soar off their plots in a way that his concrete, brutalist monstrosities cannot.

I love the sunlit, Florida Rudolph, and I can’t stomach the elephantine monumentalism of his famous buildings in downtown Boston, and in Dartmouth. Rudolph is the artist to whom one cannot remain indifferent. Perhaps that is the highest possible praise.

Related:

Ideas: The dream behind Boston’s forbidding Government Service Center

Dante Ramos: Walsh goes up against boring architecture

Paul McMorrow: Neighborhood feel in Seaport is coming soon

Renée Loth: Paolo Soleri’s humane, radical urban vision

Seline Kok

The Umbrella House in Sarasota, Fla., designed by Paul Rudolph.


Alex Beam’s column appears regularly in the Globe He can be reached at alexbeam@hotmail.com.