Walking through “Model City: Buildings and Projects by Paul Rudolph for Yale and New Haven” in the newly renovated Art & Architecture gallery is like strolling through the streets of New Haven’s past.
Posters hang from the ceiling and films are projected on sleek television screens in this interactive exhibit, which marks the rededication of the Art & Architecture building and is the first scholarly exhibition of work by architect Paul Rudolph. Wooden models and never-before-seen blueprints that adorn the walls showcase Rudolph’s legacy at Yale, which includes the Art & Architecture building, Greeley Memorial Laboratory and Married Student Housing.
Though the end of Rudolph’s career in New Haven was tainted by dissatisfaction over some of his buildings, the exhibit stands as a testament to Rudolph’s position in the canon of great 20th-century architects.
“Rudolph’s buildings have flaws, but they show that people can work together to improve their environment,” said the show’s curator, Timothy Rohan ’91, an associate art history professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. “He demonstrates how with great ambition we don’t have to settle for less and that there is still a future for great architecture in the city.”
Though Rudolph is classified as a modernist architect, his rebellion against the status quo of architecture at the time makes him a sort of architectural cowboy. The exhibit reveals his concern for existing structures within New Haven and Yale, and his respect for both the past and future.
The design of the exhibit puts the viewer in Rudolph’s state of mind in order to better understand his architectural intentions. Blueprints and rough sketches abound, and with each step it is possible to envision a different sort of city than the one inhabit today. Photographs of the shopping mall that Rudolph designed on Church Street during its renovation seems like a distant dream in modern New Haven, which the exhibit reveals as a very different American city.
Given that the face of New Haven has changed so dramatically since Rudolph’s reign, the exhibit’s most relevant aspect for modern times is its emphasis on the social circumstances under which his projects for New Haven were built.
The Oriental Masonic Gardens, trailer homes conceived of in the late ’60s, were Rudolph’s attempt to solve the low income housing crisis in New Haven. Despite his noble intentions, he failed. Rudolph attempted to create a sense of individuality within each trailer by appointing separate outdoor space for each family, but the project only served to displace more residences. Inevitably, the cheaply built trailers fell into shambles by the late ’70s.
For one visitor to the exhibit, Callie Gleason ’11, the focus on Rudolph’s awareness of the socioeconomic state of New Haven 40 years ago remains relevant today.
“The juxtaposition of Rudolph’s well-intended plans with the actual reality of the housing situation is interesting,” Gleason said. “We’re still confronted by these issues in New Haven, and though he might have been unsuccessful, at least Rudolph attempted to do something about it.”
Behind the large-scale models and drafts, the exhibit features newspaper clippings — reactions and criticism — from the 1960s, enclosed in a glass case. Narrating the Art & Architecture building’s storied past through journalism encompasses the controversy on the Yale campus.
While The New York Times’s review praised the building as an architectural achievement, the News’ headlines — “The building you love to hate” — expressed student reaction. To put it simply, they hated it. Letters were written and pleas were made, but perhaps it is Rudolph who suffered the most from the building’s failure.
Given the antagonistic sentiments about the building, the possibility of arson did not seem so far fetched when a fire broke out in 1969. Others thought it was eternally cursed.
Though the A&A building was Rudolph’s last in his Yale career, the exhibit successfully demonstrates that his influence will not be forgotten. The renovated building, now renamed after its original architect, is a current reminder of how it is possible to move forward while retaining the character of older foundations.
The first floor of the new arts complex houses another exhibit called “Treasures from the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library,” smaller in scope and relevance but still related to the historic moment of restoration. While the materials once existed in three separate locations — the former Art & Architecture Library, the Drama Library and the Arts of the Book Collection — they are now under the same roof in what is proclaimed as the new home for all of Yale’s arts scholarship.
The University’s treasures are showcased in the middle of the library, as if to remind students of the building’s heritage.
A limited-edition copy of James Joyce’s “Ulysses” bears reproductions of Henri Matisse drawings, and Andy Warhol’s “Index” includes a record album between the pages. One display case ranges from academic-minded textbooks on color by Faber Birren to kitschy glass cups of different colors, each revealing what color says about personality.
Next to the glossy tables and shiny chairs that inhabit the Haas Arts Library, this small but curious exhibit complements the monumental Rudolph show upstairs that tells the history of one of America’s most influential architects.