agenda by Zosia Swidlicka

reading time 3 minutes

In 1967, Paul Rudolph was asked to work on a project that promised to change the fabric of New York City forever. He was to look into the implications of constructing a Y-shaped highway to link New Jersey to Brooklyn, Queens and Long Island via the Holland Tunnel and the Manhattan and Williamsburg bridges. It was a controversial project that would have destroyed much of the areas now known as SoHo and Tribeca. Ever the dreamer, Rudolph took it upon himself to figure out a way for the project to not only limit the amount of urban destruction but ultimately result in some form of urban renewal.

Essentially, his idea was to build so much around the highway that the architecture dwarfed the intervention. The result was a modular megastructure that was to snake its way across the whole width of Manhattan from river to river. Comprising pedestrianised zones, car parks, prefabricated apartments and a monorail, the project was a brutalist utopia for the future. Alas, after four years of heated debate, the project was officially cancelled.

Rudolph’s surviving sketches show an ambitious vision that today would be the stuff of Instagram dreams. A perfect frame for the Williamsburg Bridge. The ultimate skyline silhouette at sunset, no filter needed.

His plan drawing even makes the structure appear seamlessly integrated into the existing urban grid, while section renderings add a human touch, hinting at domestic life through tiny furniture dotted around the communal areas. Who knows what would have been the effects on the city if the project had gone through. Rudolph certainly felt its fate was unfortunate.

The Lower Manhattan Expressway was Rudolph’s “one that got away”. He never really stopped thinking about it, even while he continued to garner success through notable residential, civic, and institutional commissions such as the Burroughs Wellcome Headquarters and the New Haven Government Center. In a 1986 interview with Robert Bruegmann for the Chicago Architects Oral History Project, Rudolph describes the Colonnade, a 28-storey residential tower in Singapore he completed in 1980, as a “study of the use of modules”, which he “had been thinking about for thirty years.” He refers to it as just “a sketch” for what he really wanted to build (modular structures such as the Lithographer’s Union Graphic Arts Center, and the Lower Manhattan Expressway).

At this point in his career, Rudolph had fallen out of favour with the architecture establishment in America. His unwavering belief in prefabricated architecture’s potential to transform global cities was not shared by his Postmodern peers, who saw him now as something of a maverick. An outcast. A far cry from his heyday as chairman of the Department of Architecture at Yale. (He even designed the building to house it, which now enjoys iconic status as one of the earliest examples of Brutalism in the United States.)

In Singapore and other cities around South East Asia, Rudolph was able to test his lifelong dreams in a totally different climate. This resulted in a work of architecture designed to showcase its natural surroundings and belong to a “continuum of space”. The Colonnade is split across multiple levels, in the style of Le Corbusier, which results in a staggered plan and section that gives stunning views of the lush landscape outside. The bedroom modules are cantilevered over the communal areas to provide shade from direct sunlight.

Ultimately, Rudolph knew that this type of building could not have been built in the United States. In this excerpt from the interview, he reveals the intricacy of his thinking and the pursuit of perfection that stayed with him until the end:

“The forming of the concrete is, let’s face it, very elaborate. There’s a great deal going on in this building, for better or for worse. There are many different apartment types, and structurally and mechanically, it becomes tremendously involved. I was just saying that this was not at all off the top of my head. It’s a marvellous example of a building that I’d really been thinking about in principle for a long, long time.”

But despite Rudolph’s feelings towards it, the Colonnade is much more than just a sketch. It is a striking show of Rudolph’s unwavering commitment to his vision, for better or worse.

Inspiration and Process in Architecture is a Moleskine Books series published by Princeton Architectural Press since 2019

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