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Paul Rudolph Part 1: The Ghost of Larkin

Yale University in New Haven Connecticut is about to embark on a massive $125M renovation of its Iconic yet much maligned Art and Architecture Building. The building was designed by groundbreaking architect Paul Rudolph in the early 1960’s, and completed in 1963.
The building is typical of Rudolph’s work. It is composed of a complex interlocking weave of bold volumes and voids. It is essentially a seven story building but contains 37 level changes and a large atrium. It opened to worldwide praise making appearances on the covers of virtually every architectural journal. Current Yale Dean of Architecture, Robert A. M. Stern describes the building as the Bilbao of its era.
Despite the critical kudos the building was quickly reviled. Inside, students froze in winter and sweltered in summer, and its complex form made for many dark, hidden corners which were considered confusing and dangerous. In the late sixties the building suffered a fire of suspicious origin. Many conjectured that students had set the fire in an effort to rid themselves of the place. By the 1980’s this building had been chopped up and rearranged to such an extent that few remembered or understood the original intent of the design. The building sank to a very low point becoming a poster child for everything wrong with modern architecture, and its future was very much in doubt.
Rudolph was a huge fan of Frank Lloyd Wright and knew quite well the work of that master architect in Buffalo. It is common knowledge and very clear that Buffalo’s long lost Larkin building was a major influence on the Yale building design. Squint and you can almost see the Larkin Building sitting there in New Haven.
The Yale building is now approaching the age of the Larkin Building at the time of its destruction. 40 plus years is a danger point for buildings. The original luster has faded, new technology has taken hold and the whims of society have moved on. It seems to be a common scenario for society to loose appreciation for major artifacts of our cultural past only to regain that appreciation when a building such as this reaches its lowest point. Or, in the case of the Larkin Building we lose the building before its time comes again.
It is almost a certainty that the Larkin Building would be a treasured piece of Buffalo today if it had survived its low point. We need to keep this in mind anytime we contemplate removing a part of our irreplaceable urban heritage.
More on Rudolph and Buffalo in the near future.

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