Frederick Gibson + Associates Architecture
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STOREY WITH AN UNHAPPY ENDING
(Paul Rudolph's Graphic Arts Center, New York, New York)

13 December, 1968 - Reprinted from The Daily Telegraph Magazine, London

"Who wants to live 52 weeks a year in a caravan 600 feet in the air?"

Architect Paul Rudolph designed this unique block, made up of assembly-built prefabricated units, for an American trade union. But other unions, when they saw the plans, yelled, "Foul!" and vetoed the idea. Rudolph, dismayed, talks to IAN BALL about the future of this and other ideas - such as replacing an expressway with a building two miles long.

THE first hanging gardens to set everybody back on their heels were built in pre-labor union days, a bit over 2,500 years ago, on the left, or Babylon, bank of the Euphrates River. The second hanging gardens would have risen this decade on the left, or Manhattan, bank of the Hudson River if a blue-eyed, crew-cut 50-year-old architect named Paul Rudolph had had his way and if American building trades unions were not so worried about a revolutionary method of building skyscrapers and flats.

As a result, one of the most beautiful and imaginative structures ever designed exists only in the form of two models - an intricate working model in cardboard which spills over the clinical white desk of Rudolph's office in New York - and an expensively-built model in plastic which got knocked about a bit at the Venice Biennale by the inquisitive fingers of European architectural students.

One day it will be built. Possibly in the next ten or 20 years in America or Russia or Brazil, or perhaps in Britain or Europe.

"As sure as I'm sitting here, it will be built somewhere," Rudolph told me one day recently as he explained the working model laid out between us. "It makes sense. It's one way of humanizing our apartment buildings - of giving flat-dwellers something they must have, not just a balcony but a full back yard, even if it is a back yard in the sky.

"It represents a way of meeting America's and the world's great need for handsome, well-engineered, low-cost dwelling units."

Rudolph's design is not just a building. It truly qualifies as a "megastructure", a city-within-a-city, a concept of building which the architect feels is crying out for acceptance today and will be regarded in tomorrow's world as the obvious solution of urban problems.

FAMILY PLAN living in Rudolph's dream. It would have included: union headquarters,
4,050 homes, a car park, school, swimming pool, restaurants and shops

"Look at what we are doing 'in our cities today," Rudolph says in mock dismay. "We build an office building here and an apartment building over there. A restaurant somewhere else. Schools and nurseries and recreational facilities scattered about. And to link them all together we build thruways and expressways. I say it's for the birds. For years we have been arguing about an expressway to slice across Lower Manhattan. I am doing a study on it for the Ford Foundation. I don't think we need an expressway at all. I say it should be a building two miles long."

It was just that sort of unconventional thinking that brought the amalgamated Lithographers of America, a super-rich union, to Rudolph's office in March, 1967, when it had a spectacular architectural assignment to award: a megastructure to be built near the southern tip of Manhattan that would comprise:

  • Two skyscraper office buildings.
  • Four thousand and fifty flats spilling down habitat fashion from a height of 65 floors and all with waterfront views.
  • An elementary school, nurseries, restaurants, a swimming pool and a marina.
  • Thirteen floors of industrial space for the colour lithographers and printers who have lucrative contracts with companies headquartered in adjoining Wall Street.
  • Plazas and traffic-free streets.
  • Parking space for 2,100 cars and a 520,000 square-foot service area for lorries.

Rudolph saw it as a megastructure but also as a place where several thousand families could live, work, play and be educated in a modern village atmosphere in the burly burly of Manhattan. The lithographers' union felt it would achieve much the same goal as the Barbican scheme planners had in building flats in the City of London - to bring residential life back to areas that had become exclusively commercial, that hummed with life during the day but became urban cemeteries after six P.M.

The union was undismayed when the estimates put the likely total cost at $280 million (úl16 million).

RUDOLPH set about designing a building which incorporated many of the ideas that had been taking shape in his mind in the past ten years. It would take him 18 months to complete. If it had elements of Habitat, Moshe Safdie's building that was one of the sensations of Montreal's Expo 67, it was not the result of plagiarism. Rudolph had been doing Habitatish things since the 1950's at least on paper and in the architectural journals.

During this period he had become intrigued with the possibility of adapting for flat construction the assembly-line techniques developed by the "mobile home" industry in America. (Americans apply the term "mobile home" to what we would call a caravan. The difference is more than a semantic one. in the United States, a mobile home can have two bedrooms, each with its own bathroom, a den as well as a living-room, a lavishly fitted kitchen and all mod. cons. Some cost almost as much as a stay-put house of comparable size. It is one of America's most booming industries. 'In 1968, according to the Mobile Homes Manufacturers Association, homes-on-wheels accounted for one-quarter of all single-family homes built - a staggering statistic even for a society as mobile as the United States.)

Rudolph's love affair with mobile homes persisted despite the blight they have brought to the American scene. Huddled together in unplanned "mobile home parks", they are among the ugliest sights American suburbia offers.

Their interest to the architect lies not in their mobility but in their basic construction. Produced without a chassis, wheels and brakes, an American-type mobile home, suitably modified, could become the basic building block in providing people with decent urban housing quickly and cheaply or so Rudolph believes.

PREFABRICATED housing blocks, with plumbing, wiring and
appliances installed, are delivered to the site by lorries

"The mobile home is the 20th century brick," he predicts.

For his Lower Manhattan project for the lithographers' union, he developed a way of using prefabricated flats, built by a mobile home manufacturer, as "plug-in capsules" to form a skyscraper. The capsules would be clustered around 26 "service cores" containing lifts, stairs, plumbing, wiring, heating, air-conditioning coolants, refuse chutes and so on.

Because of their comparative lightness, the capsule-flats would be hung rather than stacked. The service cores would provide the necessary "sky hooks".

Every ten storeys, cantilevered trusses project from the vertical cores. From these trusses the capsules would be hoisted into place, plugged into the service tower and permanently suspended with three-inch diameter steel cables encased in concrete.

By arranging the capsules in "log cabin" fashion, the roof of one becomes the terrace for the one- above. Not just the flat-dwellers' customary balcony, but a super-terrace to rival the outdoor space enjoyed by suburbanites with their gardens.

Each flat, in fact, would have almost as much outdoor terrace space as indoor living area, a key element in the architect's design. ("The apartment house today," says Rudolph, "is almost unlivable because the accommodations do not include enough private outdoor space for families. The balcony is really insufficient for children's play or even for minimum social activities.")

"I want to put homes
in the sky. Psychologically,
it makes a difference"

But who would want to live 52 weeks a year in a caravan, even if it is suspended 600 feet above the world's most breathtaking skyline?

The point of Rudolph's design is that he adapts the mobile home building technique to produce actual flats, and spacious ones at that. His basic unit ceases to be a mobile home, with the constrictions inherent in caravan design, once it is delivered to the site and hoisted into place.

The trick is simply to build a unit with one set of walls that fold down to form floors and another set that swings up to enlarge the roof area. Rudolph's standard unit weights 11 tons and, with everything folded up, is 12 feet wide, 60 feet long and eight feet high. Moving it is quite within the capacity of a semi-trailer.

Plugged into a service core and folded out, this standard unit produces a flat measuring in total floor area 24 feet by 60 feet. It is complete except for the addition of prefabricated walls, largely floor-to-ceiling windows, and minor finishing to cover the narrow fissures along the folding lines. The standard unit provides a two-bedroom, two-bathroom flat. The living-dining area measures 24 feet by 18 feet.

But the beauty of Rudolph's 11-ton "20th century bricks" is that they give the architect an endless variety of combinations. By marrying units, he can create three, four, five and even six-bedroom flats. By folding the walls in different ways, he can incorporate a two-storey-high living room.

"When we first started seriously to think about the prefabricated home, everybody jumped to the conclusion that it would lead to monotony," Rudolph observed, "I say it offers us a way of building truly imaginative and exciting homes.

When Habitat was built, everybody acknowledged Moshe Safdie's genius. He turned out to be a terrible economist. Rudolph explains that one of the reasons Habitat was so expensive was not because it was experimental but because it was too heavy. "It was made of the wrong material - poured concrete."

For his Manhattan hanging gardens, on which the union was determined to bestow the prosaic name Graphic Arts Centre, Rudolph chose steel. Steel is the basic material of mobile homes. Rudolph uses it in such a way that no one would guess he was living inside a steel cocoon.

The floors, walls and roofs of his capsules are made of twin-hulled sheet steel, just under three inches thick and corrugated in the right places to impart strength. The exterior finish is sprayed-on fibrous asbestos, implanted in which can be a variety of decorative materials - gravel, marble chips, limestone chips and so on. Plaster or wood paneling would be used on the interiors. The samples In Rudolph's office offered proof that he could effectively conceal the fact that he had built a skyscraper from "caravans".

The architect thinks it is anachronistic that, with all the new materials, we are still building houses and flats with walls about a foot thick. "These old-fashioned methods of building are inefficient because they are too heavy," he says. "In this design the wall thickness is down to about three-and-a-half inches. I long for the day when we'll have walls a quarter-of-an-inch thick."

IN Rudolph's megastructure, the building blocks brought to the site for hanging would be far more than empty shells. Each would be an almost complete flat. All the wiring and plumbing would be in place. The doors would be up. The bathrooms and lavatories would be ready for use once the plumbing outlets were linked to the master lines. All the kitchen equipment would be in place.

It was when the building trades unions examined this aspect of the design that they cried "Foul!" Even though the building was the dream of brother trade unionists, they decided that it represented an outright assault on union livelihoods in New York.

To understand their objection - and its guaranteed effectiveness - one must know how intensely unionised New York City has become. It has made it, depending on one's viewpoint, either a stiflingly difficult place to get something done, or a working man's highwage paradise.

The mobile home industry, which would have been responsible for roughly three-quarters of the total cost of Rudolph's megastructure, is located, for understandable reasons, in low-wage areas, chiefly in the South and the Midwest. The work-force is largely non-union. Where unions have been organised, the driving force has been Walter Reuther's United Auto Workers union, which frequently does not see eye-to-eye with the more conservative building trades unions. The New York plumbers, electricians, carpenters, plasterers and bricklayers were not going to permit a small city, that had been built largely in factories in Indiana or Virginia, to rise in their own bailiwick.

Until recently, New Yorkers have been under the impression that the plan was going ahead and that the hanging gardens were coming to Gotham. Full-colour, double-page advertisements for the dreamy, spaceage building have been appearing in national magazines. But when I talked with Rudolph about his megastructure, he said matter-of-factly: "It's been nixed."

"It offers us a way
of building truly imaginative
and exciting homes"

With the possible exception of literary types, architects, more so than any other profession, probably run the greatest risk of seeing their brainchildren delivered stillborn.

I asked Rudolph about his reaction when he got the final word that the megastructure would not be built. "Architects," he said, "have to be eternally hopeful people. I never believe anything is going to be built until it is actually in place.

"But in this profession you learn to work on two levels - on one level are the things you know will be built; on the other are the things you know are inevitable, that will be built in 20 or 25 years' time, but which you start with the knowledge that disappointment is built-in. Sometimes the two transfuse each other. There are elements of one in the other. I could have designed this particular building in a completely different way so that it would unquestionably have been built."

That he decided not to has meant that the hanging gardens are relegated to the architectural record books. But he is attempting to apply the same ideas to more modest projects, ones he knows will win acceptance. They provide an object lesson in how ideas from the "inevitable" level percolate down to the "practical " level, provided, of course, that the architect has the guts and the resilience to persevere.

He has designed low-cost residential communities for New Haven, Connecticut, the Fort Lincoln area of Washington, and for a site in Mississippi. Each uses "building blocks" provided by the mobile home industry. None is a high-rise project. The chances are that Rudolph's crew-cut will be thoroughly grey before he gets a chance to demonstrate how effectively his capsule flats could be hung in the sky.

"I want to put homes in the sky," he says. "Psychologically, it makes a great deal of difference for people living closely together in cities."

LOW LEVEL Babylonia shows in the model of the Fort Lincoln housing development
Rudolph helped to design. Each apartment has a roof-top terrace or courtyard

But while his ideas are materialising as earth-hugging structures of two and three stories, his imagination is darting off in new directions. "We can make it simple for people to tack on an extra bedroom-and-bath if mother-in-law comes to live with the family. And if a home or flat is built with these '20th century bricks', it would be relatively simple to make one complete unit detachable. At holiday time, the family would hook it up to the car and set off with part of their house as a mobile home."

© The Daily Telegraph 1968. Published by The Daily Telegraph Limited, 135 Fleet Street, London, EC4 (Fleet Street 4242) and printed by Eric Bemrose Ltd., Long Lane, Liverpool 9. One penny a week, if delivered.

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1995-2010 by Frederick Gibson + Associates Architecture, San Francisco, California
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