Rudolph’s reputation in danger. First Westport, then sarasota, now Orange County.

24Jul12

 

Can Paul Rudolph’s Architecturally Vital Orange County Government Center Be Saved?

by Paul Goldberger

Let’s start with an obvious truth: Paul Rudolph is not an easy architect. He never was. His assertive modernist buildings of concrete and glass are not what anyone would call user-friendly. They can be harsh, and tough, and it is not surprising that to many people they are cold.

But oh, can they be beautiful, and there is a reward to feeling and appreciating the magic and dignity and even, let me say it, the grace that Rudolph’s architecture can bring. Rudolph, who died in 1997, was probably the finest maker of compositions in three dimensions of modern times; he could put planes and solids and lines and textures and surfaces together in a way that at its best was sublime. Rudolph buildings are like Mondrian paintings turned into space, and when you walk into them, if you can get beyond the fact that they are not warm and cuddly, they can thrill you and, at their best, ennoble you.

Rudolph’s Orange County Government Center in Goshen, New York, completed in 1971, has all of his strengths, and all of his issues. It’s an energetic composition of concrete boxes, piled one atop the other, elevated on columns. The whole thing seems full of movement and energy, and yet at the same time it exudes the seriousness of purpose we expect of a public building. It is in every way an attempt to express in modern form the ambitions of a traditional civic building. At the same time it communicates an utterly important message that few traditional buildings are ever able to do, which is the notion that government is capable of creative imagination.

That’s no small thing. I don’t dismiss the price the citizens of Orange County pay for this Brutalist architecture, which is a lot of hard concrete and many spaces that are less than flexible, challenging to people with disabilities, and difficult to maintain. (Re-read the first sentence of this post.) That said, it’s not as if the Beaux-Arts courthouses of limestone and marble that we all cherish were exactly gems of flexibility, either. And keeping domes and Corinthian columns and ornate staircases and grand rotundas in good condition has never been easy. But the plethora of boxes that make up the Rudolph building, popping up and down in playful profile, posed particular challenges, since they required roof seams all over the place, which, in turn, offered plenty of opportunities for leaks. (There are some 87 different roof sections.) After storms last year caused severe water damage, the county executive, Edward A. Diana, closed the building, and now he wants to tear it down altogether. The county legislature will vote on a plan to demolish the building this Thursday.

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It’s all a financial decision, county executive Diana has said, and he has claimed that repairing the Rudolph building would be more expensive than building a new one. Advocates of keeping the building and fixing it up offer other figures—no surprise—to show that renovation would be the less expensive option. I’m not in a position to evaluate these conflicting claims, and it’s common practice for both sides in this kind of dispute to come up with numbers that purport to show the economic benefits of their architectural choice. But maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise that the county executive says that his proposal for a brand-new building is the cheaper way to go, since what he has in mind is a bland, pseudo-Georgian building, a sort of blown-up version of a Friendly’s ice-cream store.

Read the full article here.

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