Published in The New York Times
October 10, 2007
A Paul Rudolph apartment, untouched for nearly 40 years
Paul has been treated so badly,” says a woman whose Manhattan apartment was designed by Paul Rudolph, the Kentucky-born architect. She is referring to the indifference, and worse, that has greeted much of Rudolph’s architecture in the last three decades. Even before he died, of mesothelioma, in 1997, Rudolph was forced to travel to Asia to find clients. Since his death, several of his works in the United States have been demolished, and others are being threatened with the same fate. But inside this apartment, Rudolph is receiving the kind of treatment most architects can only dream of. The owners have kept the main rooms — completed almost four decades ago — exactly as the architect intended.
For Rudolph, who was known for molding concrete into shapes so intricate that they sometimes resembled M. C. Escher drawings, this apartment on a single floor of a prewar building might have felt confining. Rudolph’s free-standing buildings can have as many steps as doors or windows; his Art and Architecture Building at Yale University, though only seven stories high, has 37 levels. But in the apartment, Rudolph found ways to work in three dimensions, installing built-in furniture that sweeps around the rooms, creating peninsulas and islands that seem truly topographic. In the husband’s office, a wavy, multilevel platform turns a rectangular space into a kind of cove while functioning as a wraparound library ladder.
Unlike many of his contemporaries — Modernist architects who preferred their walls white and unadorned — Rudolph threw himself into creating novel surface treatments, many involving tricks of scale and the subversion of expectations. In the living room, Rudolph had mirrors cut into half-inch-wide vertical strips, then applied them like tiles to the curving walls. And instead of hiding the owners’ collection of silver miniatures in a cupboard, he arranged the pieces in front of the mirrors and lit them with hundreds of concealed incandescent bulbs. (He did not have access to the L.E.D. strips that make such jobs a cinch today.) The result is a tableau in which the tiny collectibles dazzle like diamonds in a Tiffany & Company window.
Throughout the apartment, ceilings are treated as important surfaces. In the husband’s office, a sculpture by the German-French artist Jean Arp hangs in the center of the ceiling, where it is surrounded by mirrors arranged in a sunburst pattern. And where there aren’t mirrors, there are often lights: instead of unobtrusive, recessed lighting, Rudolph favored ceiling tracks from which he hung long rows of tiny fixtures. (Modulightor, a lighting company partly founded by Rudolph, still operates out of a building he designed on East 58th Street and still sells many of the same designs.) According to the owners, there are more than 1,000 light bulbs in the apartment. Rudolph used those bulbs to create borders — almost like dotted lines of light — around the living areas.
Rudolph saved his most dramatic effects for the dining room, which has a mirrored ceiling of its own. On one side is a curving plaster wall perforated by white acrylic cylinders — each displaying a piece of silver or china (generally Delft). This approach turned items that might have seemed ordinary if hung directly on a wall into components of a surrealist composition.
Even the kitchen cabinets were deemed worthy of special treatment. Rudolph used tiny round mirrors, glued to the cabinets, to form the numbers 1 to 52. The numerals are both an organizing device (the owners use them as a guide to what’s kept where) as well as a way of turning the most utilitarian room in the house into something akin to a disco.
Rudolph haunted Lower Manhattan looking for art supplies, electrical parts and even medical devices that he could transform into building components. (The mirrors on the kitchen cabinets were made for dentists.) In one room, where the wife did not want to use curtains, Rudolph used colored tape to create a stained-glass effect. The tape hasn’t fallen off, or even faded, in nearly 40 years, which seems almost supernatural — it’s as if the owners, determined to preserve Rudolph’s handiwork, have willed it not to change.
Rudolph lived to 78; the owners refer to him as having died in his prime. Perhaps that’s because they still picture him during the year and a half it took to complete their apartment. Back then, Rudolph had more energy, and more ideas, than the world (with the possible exception of this couple) could absorb. Says the wife: “Paul worked because he needed to. He needed to create.”