Decision Nears Over Fate of a Brutalist Masterpiece

Tom Stoelker reports on the impending vote on whether to demolish a Brutalist "masterwork," Paul Rudolph’s 1971 Orange County Government Center in New York, and the moves preservationists are making to try to save it.

As difficult as many people find it to love the rough blocky appearance of Brutalist-era buildings, Rudolph's center has also been plagued by performance and maintenance issues for decades. The unevenly stacked boxes of the building have leaked since the day it opened. Now county leaders are pushing ahead with plans to replace the faltering building.

"On March 5, [Eddie] Diana, [the county's executive director] proposed a $75 million replacement of the 153,600-square-foot building in a style that would be more in keeping with the village's colonial past...But preservationists argued that closing the older buildings would sap village street life, to say nothing of county coffers," writes Stoelker. Renovation estimates for the Rudolph building presented at the same meeting were said to be inflated.

With a vote scheduled for April 5th to decide the fate of the building, which has been abandoned since last August when Hurricane Irene flooded the mechanical room, regional and international preservation agencies are boosting efforts to raise citizen awareness about its importance.

Full Story: Rudolph in Ruins



Paul Rudolph who?

Who do architect's build for, themselves or the clients and communities the buildings will live in? Paul Rudolph is taught in schools becasue his brutalist work strove to add interest to an otherwise still born Bauhaus aesthetic, but that surely shouldn't be reason to continue the charade of his merit. I agree one should save history, contrary to everything Mr. Rudolph and his fellow modernists stood for, but this building seems to fail on every functional level, ironically the main leg modernists use to stand on. There are other "masterpieces" we can save to remind us of the dark ages of architecture, but this building and the whole edifice of the greatness of these kinds of buildings ought to be collapsed.

The Purpose of Preservationism

We should remember that architectural preservationism began as a reaction against modernists who demolished buildings with human scale and character and who replaced them with faceless boxes.

Now, modernism is old enough that it is considered historical, and there are some who want to preserve the faceless boxes (or brutal boxes, in this case).

Yes, it does make sense to preserve those that are most important historically.

But it doesn't make sense to preserve every modernist building just because they have become old. It would make it impossible to undo the damage that modernism has done.

Charles Siegel

Some legacy!

"Over 80 individual roof planes cover the boxes. They leak. They leaked from day one...During a February 27 hearing, Kemintz said she had asked LeBella reps if they ever went to see other nearby Rudolph buildings, such as IBM or Yale, to better understand Rudolph’s significance and dwindling legacy. The answer was no." - Tom Stoelker

Roofs that leaked from day one?

Some legacy!

Leaky Roof School of Architecture

It is still common among today's "great architects."

Frank Gehry's Stata Center at MIT, has walls that look like they are collapsing. Because its leaning walls met its roof at odd angles, the Stata Center had so many leaks that that a Boston Globe columnist called it a "$300 million fixer-upper."

The leaning walls also disorient users by making it seem like the floors and ceilings slope, though they actually do not. MIT professor Noam Chomsky said that, when he moved into his office in this building, he got vertigo whenever he looked up at the corner where the wall met the ceiling: he almost fainted the first time he used the office, and he finally made it tolerable by filling it with plants to hide the room's shape. Chomsky also said that it was hard for him to do his work in this office because he could not hang a blackboard on a leaning wall.

I suppose that they chose Gehry to design the Eisenhower Monument because of accomplishments like this.

Charles Siegel

Starchitect glass ceiling.

The leaning walls also disorient users by making it seem like the floors and ceilings slope, though they actually do not. MIT professor Noam Chomsky said that, when he moved into his office in this building, he got vertigo whenever he looked up at the corner where the wall met the ceiling:

Our own craptacular new Denver Art Museum wing is so wonderfully crafted by a starchitect that my wife can't visit the new wing because she gets vertigo and can't enjoy the art. They were forced to put 1x2s on the floor so people wouldn't hit their head on the walls. I try hard not to vomit when I'm there so I can go thru the new wing to enjoy the basketry...

But golly it looks juuuuuuuuust sooooooperrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!




Or Titanium Ceiling

Note that Libeskind coated the facade of that museum building with titanium.

Very original, eh?

For a picture, see
It looks like one wing is designed to be used by someone who has a bent back and a pointy head.

Charles Siegel

Whose fault?

It may have been bad design, but you need a little more info before jumping to conclusions?

Who was the contractor? Who superintended the project? Until you answer those questions, you may be blaming the architect for a sound design that was poorly constructed under somebody else's supervision.

But please, don't let me get in the way of a good ideological rant...

Who's ranting?

Who's ranting, urbanresidue? Not me!

I think your own rush to accuse me of doing so, along with your snarky closing comment, proves who's doing the ranting.

As for Rudolph's design, it seems obvious that having 80 different roof planes meant that the building was going to be 80 times more likely to leak.

Plain and simple

Your exclamation point and lack of interest in the actual facts speak for themselves. I'll let others arbitrate as to whether that fairly constituted a "rant" or not...

As for an increased risk, you may have a point. But taken to its logical conclusion, your argument would have us reject any form of innovation in architecture. I simply do not accept such a simplistic and overly cautious view of the world.

Sometimes we must take risks, and people need to be held accountable for their outcomes. But you have to hold the right people accountable.

So I must politely repeat the basic question - was the real problem in the construction or in the actual design?

And why the rush to blame the architect, before you have the facts?

Innovation for What

"But taken to its logical conclusion, your argument would have us reject any form of innovation in architecture."

Not true. We are rejecting the avant-gardists' pursuit of novelty for its own sake. Paul Rudolph and Frank Gehry create designs that are different for the sake of being different - and for the sake of attracting attention to themselves.

That does not mean we reject any form of innovation. If an innovation works better than the old way of doing things, I would gladly accept it. No one is saying that we should do away with the steel skeleton and go back to masonry bearing walls.

Critics of modernism clearly don't make an irrational blanket judgment that would "reject any form of innovation in architecture."

On the contrary, as anyone who has studied the history of architecture knows, it was the modernists who made this sort of irrational blanket judgment when they decided to reject any element of traditional architectural style.

I should add that there is also room for purely stylistic innovation, apart from technological innovation such as the steel skeleton.

Baroque, Georgian, and most Victorian styles were just a matter of stylistic innovation. So why not the stylistic innovations of Libeskind and Gehry?

My answer is that architectural style expresses the ideals of society. Eg, the renaissance style expressed the revival of the classics; the Georgian style expressed that century's restraint; many Victorian styles expressed the cult of domesticity.

But the style of Libeskind and Gehry expresses exactly the wrong ideal for our society - the idea that, if it is technologically possible to do something, we should do it. Our society needs to get beyond this modernist fascination with technology and to choose technologies on human grounds. The last thing we need is architects who ignore human nature to such an extent that they design buildings that give people vertigo.

There are architects doing the sort of humanistic design that does make sense as a social ideal for our time, ranging from Christopher Alexander to Leon Krier, but they are ignored by the architectural establishment, in favor of the high-tech spectaculars of the Libeskinds and Gehrys.

That is my most fundamental objection to the current avant-gardist style, and it is the point that I make in my little book "An Architecture for Our Time"

Charles Siegel

...for structural systems, construction methods, the sake of art


Innovation of form can (and sometimes fabulously does!) serve as an expressive, artistic gesture. Injecting beauty into built form is a hallmark of a civilized society.

Moreover, innovation of form for its own sake can be very important as a demonstration of novel structural systems or construction methods that can then be applied in more mundane applications. I have heard Gehry take credit for working with contractors to pioneer construction methods that have become useful for improving precision in any construction project. Try as you might, this value of innovation cannot simply be dismissed because you don't care for a particular test case.

Your appreciation of "traditional architectural style" in no way eliminates the artistic merit that can (although not necessarily) be produced with innovative forms. Nor does it eliminate any of the benefits of experimenting with new forms.

If you believe buildings by Paul Rudolph or Frank Gehry fail as artwork, as I suspect you do, you are certainly entitled to your opinion. But as I see it, you would be better off making the argument on those grounds, rather than trying to say there is no value in sculptural forms or experimentation with different forms.

...and I am STILL waiting for ANY coherent criticism of Paul Rudolph's actual design. Aside from leaks, which may or may not be a construction problem and not a design defect, can somebody PLEASE make something that resembles a reasonable complaint???

Art and Place

"If you believe buildings by Paul Rudolph or Frank Gehry fail as artwork, as I suspect you do, you are certainly entitled to your opinion. But as I see it, you would be better off making the argument on those grounds"

Buildings are not just art works. They are also places that people use.

The biggest problem of contemporary architecture is that starchitects think about creating sculptural objects but do not think about placemaking. For more information about what I mean by placemaking, see the Project for Public Places.

I think Rudolph's and Gehry's buildings fail as artworks, but I think they fail even more obviously as places. Rudolph's are very grim places to be, and Gehry's are such anti-human places that they cause vertigo.

Of course, I made it very clear that Gehry creates bad places, when I described how his building caused vertigo. But you miss that point and buy into the starchitects' artsy world view when you say I should argue that these buildings fail as works of art.

Charles Siegel


Yet again...
Can you please provide any meaningful argument that "Rudolph's [buildings] ar every grim places to be"? I see a consistent dislike on your part for certain artistic forms, but the rest of your arguments come across as rationalizations to support an artistic preference.

Why do I have to keep asking for you to articulate a real fact-based (or at least logically compelling) argument against Rudolph's design?

Unbroken roof planes are not without problems

Actually, your assumption that multiple roof planes is an inherent risk is yet another instance of jumping to conclusions to find fault with the architect, without knowing any basic facts.

There are some very real structural reasons that larger unbroken planes are not without problems. They can be more prone to stresses from wind sheer, live loads (snow), uneven settling, etc. Moreover, given the way leaks run once the external surface has been compromised, larger planes could make maintenance harder by increasing the area that has to be examined to locate the source of a leak.

It is not clear that Paul Rudolph's design actually took any more risk at all. Perhaps it did, but this is yet another assumption that has been made to find blame the architect, in the absence of any facts.

Multiple Roof Planes

Unbroken roof planes may cause problems, as you say, but that is not a reason to go to the opposite extreme and break up the building as many fragments as Rudolph did. And, of course, baycityroller did not call for an unbroken roof plane; he just criticized the very excessive fragmentation of Rudolph's building.

I think you know as well as I do that Rudolph did not break it up in this way because he thought it was practical way to avoid the problems of unbroken rooflines. He did it to create an artsy object in the cubist style - as if this were a sculpture rather than a building that has to work not just as art but also as structure and as place.

Matthew Hardy makes a good comment about this point under the article:
"The very complex form will also be difficult to bring up to modern insulation standards, with so many different junctions and shapes a challenge to detail and construct reliably. Similarly, many of the most outré Gothic Revival buildings were lost, because nobody had any enthusiasm for them, and because they were terribly expensive to maintain. You might see Rudolph's building as the product of a rapid period of evolution that threw up some very experimental building types that simply didn't stand the test of time."

That seems to answer your question about whether this is a problem with the design or with the construction. This design makes construction and maintenance more difficult and more expensive. There are lots and lots of leaky joints to waterproof and insulate, and no one wants that extra expense.

Cubist paintings in museums do not cause this maintenance problem. Buildings designed as if they were cubist sculptures do.

Incidentally, traditional architects never made this obvious error of confusing architecture and sculpture. Michelangelo's buildings are beautifully and artistically designed, but they do not look anything like his sculptures.

Charles Siegel

Sleight of hand?

Your reference does not address leaks. Are you trying to pull some sleight of hand here?

Your quote contends that it would be expensive to bring the building to "modern standards." That has nothing to do with the suitability of the original design.

There is a meaningful criticism of a building that lacks flexibility to adapt, but unfortunately that's not quite the argument that you made. Nor is it clear that such flexibility was part of the program that Rudolph was charged to provide for his client.

Moreover, with any experiment, you need to be prepared to experience some failures. If every experiment is successful, you learn nothing meaningful. Even if you could somehow show that Rudolph's design had failed, that certainly does not suggest to any rational person that the design was a poor experiment.

You seem to be grasping very hard to find something to criticize about the architecture, but keep showing that the only thing you really have is a preexisting bias. You still have not come up with any fact-based arguments against Rudolph's design that are even slightly compelling.

You may not like it, but please try to be transparent and honest about what you dislike, rather than trolling the internet to try to cherry-pick something to support your prejudgements.

Not So Slight

The very large number of joints between the masses of the building makes it harder to avoid leaks and also makes it harder to insulate. Both make the building more expensive to maintain. That is the very obvious point of my last post, and it is as fact-based as you can get.

"Even if you could somehow show that Rudolph's design had failed, that certainly does not suggest to any rational person that the design was a poor experiment."

It suggest to any rational person that it should be demolished, since we should cut our losses by demolishing failed experiments.

I do not troll the internet; I am a regular commenter on planetizen and on a few other sites.

You seem to be unable to have a discussion without insulting the person you are arguing against. Rather than talking about the design, you say that I am not transparent and honest, that I troll the internet, that I cherry pick - just as you could not disagree with baycityroller on the facts and instead had to accuse him of an "ideological rant." Anyone who reads planetizen comments regularly knows that your claim that I got here by trolling the internet is false, and because you have commented here many times, I can only assume that the claim is a deliberate lie.

I have news for you: you are as fixated on your prejudgments and as ideological as anyone in this discussion. The difference is that you are stuck with an ideology that is fifty years out of date - the ideology of the mid-century modernists.

Charles Siegel

Failed Brutalist experiments? Not with public money they don't!

"Moreover, with any experiment, you need to be prepared to experience some failures." urbanresidue

Sure. Fine. Got it. Don't blame Modernists and Brutalists when their (many) buildings fail to stand the test of time and taste. It's the fault of the contractors! The superintendents!

That's all well and good, but when public money is involved...that's different.

If these wannabe sculptors want to build statues for their own ego gratification, first, and for people to live and work in, second, they need to find private investors to fund them.

Not one dime of taxpayer money should pay for these "works of art," especially when they need repair and rehabilitation.

Can we at least agree on that?

Who Failed?

Two quick points:

1) Government extends funding for all sort of experimentation and public art. What basis can you provide to demand that the field of architecture be excluded?

2) Would you really apply these same criteria to architectural styles you happen to personally prefer? Unless you are willing to insist that tax incentives be disallowed for any historic landmark with a cornice, you are not being honest with yourself. Cornices proved to be a maintenance problem that sometimes became a direct threat to safety. (I have not heard of Paul Rudolph's buildings killing anybody...) Cornices served no purpose other than being "works of art." There were a few decades where cornices were clearly seen as something that had failed "to stand the test of time and taste." Should we fund those failures?

Ask yourself: Do you really demand with the same fervor that "Not one dime of taxpayer money should pay for" the preservation of buildings that have cornices?

Do you really agree to that?

Me, I am not willing to agree yet that Paul Rudolph's architecture failed, because nobody has said anything reasonable at all to suggest that it has. Again, all I get is more facile dislike of an architectural style that is currently out of vogue. Personally, I am more impressed by the preservationists who fight to preserve significant buildings when they are unpopular.

My neighbors in a Paul Rudolph building

I know a few of my neighbors who actually live in a building by Paul Rudolph.

They thoroughly appreciate the floor plan of their apartments. Although they have a lot of complaints about the building, the vast majority of their gripes are related to deferred maintenance by the management company.

Which Do You Live Near?

I am curious which Paul Rudolph building you live near.

The only one I have seen in person is Tracy Towers in the Bronx, which he obviously intended as an artistic sculpture and which is obviously as grim and impersonal a place as any mid-century housing project. See the picture at

It was built in 1972, after Jane Jacobs and others had made it amply clear how socially destructive this sort of design is.

Needless to say, this project has biased me against Rudolph. But you may live near one of his better buildings.

Charles Siegel

Let's stick with Tracy Towers

I am very curious about your assessment of Tracy Towers.

Have you ever been inside Tracy Towers, or have you only seen them from the outside?

Have you ever spoken with anyone who lives at Tracy Towers, or are you substituting your own artistic preferences for their lived experiences when you evaluate the performance of the architecture?

End of Internet Discussion

There comes a point in many internet discussions when one party shows he is so cut off from reality that there is no point to continuing the debate.

In my criticism of Tracy Towers, I cited Jane Jacobs, who is known for describing how urban housing projects fail to create good public places. Tracy Towers obviously does not create good public places. If you deny that fact, which is clear to any normal person who walks by Tracy Towers, there is no point to continuing the discussion.

Much of what I have said on this thread is about the importance of thinking of urban design in terms of the places they create, rather than thinking of buildings as artistic sculptural objects. You simply ignore this point when you say I am talking about my "artistic preferences." Again, there is no point to continuing the discussion with someone who cannot see through the modernist error that a building is nothing more than an art object.

Finally, you will not even answer my question about which building of Rudolph's your friends live in. I might have learned something from this discussion by looking at a Rudolph building whose residents liked it, but I am not going to learn anything from you, because you are more interested in making petty debater's points than in sharing ideas.

Charles Siegel

The value of place? Come again?

Places are valuable to the people who use them.

Yet you steadfastly refuse to talk about the experiences of the people who use Paul Rudolph's buildings. Early in this discussion, I explained that I have spoken with my neighbors to understand how they liked living in homes designed by Paul Rudolph. Meanwhile, you went and posted a photograph of a building exterior to make your point about the value of Paul Rudolph's architecture.

I'll let everyone who reads this judge for themselves which argument shows a concern for place, and which expresses an artistic preference.

Since you will not engage in a honest discussion, then you're right about just one thing. There is no point for me to spend any more time with you.

I Said "Public Places"

"In my criticism of Tracy Towers, I cited Jane Jacobs, who is known for describing how urban housing projects fail to create good public places. Tracy Towers obviously does not create good public places. If you deny that fact, which is clear to any normal person who walks by Tracy Towers, there is no point to continuing the discussion."

I also said earlier:
"For more information about what I mean by placemaking, see the Project for Public Places."

Charles Siegel


They forgot to put "masterpiece" in quotes, just like that.

Dunno why urbanresidue is desperately defending this miserable crap - almost everyone outside of the avant garde design ghetto hates this stuff.

As for the few people who like it - that's an easy one. The residents of these horrible "masterpieces" tend to self-segregate. The people who can't stand the buildings eventually leave and only the arty, avant garde folks prepared to sacrifice comfort for chicness are left: Corb's Unite d'Habitation is filled with Corb-lovers. Safdie's Habitat 67 is filled with Safdie-lovers. Mies' Lafayette Park is filled with self-consciously "progressive" Mies-lovers. Few laypeople tolerate these abysmal designs.

This kind of architecture has a miserable record. It started with FLW's "Rising Mildew" and it's been going downhill ever since. Today's historicist Neomodernists are working hard to selectively revise this miserable history, but the public won't be fooled twice. But go ahead guys, keep convincing yourself that Pruitt-Igoe was a shiny, happy place, that Rudolph was a visionary, and that the general public "just doesn't get it." Apparently the only way to "get" this crap is to go through the architecture schools (cults) and train yourself to suppress natural emotions in lieu of arbitrary intellectual positions.

That there still are some people defending this stuff out there is truly appalling.

Eisenhower Memorial and the Avant-Garde

I hope the current controversy over the Eisenhower Memorial is a turning point that begins to discredit the avant-gardists. For some recent news, see

I think James Howard Kunstler has the best explanation about why laypeople are impressed by this sort of stuff. Their reasoning is:

I don't understand modern art. I am completely mystified by this building. Therefore, this building must be great modern art.

As Kunstler points out, the avant-gardists deliberately create buildings that disorient and confuse ordinary people in order to play on this feeling.

People just need to see that the emperor has no clothes at all, and the style will be consigned to the dust-bin of history, where it belongs.

(This doesn't apply to Rudolph, who designed ugly buildings that were different for the sake of being different, but who did not deliberately try to disorient people, as Gehry, Libeskind and most of the other Pritzker Prize winners do.)

Charles Siegel

What is appalling?

What is appalling is that people who claim to care about the built environment will substitute generic labels and empty rhetoric for the actual experiences of residents who spend their lives in real places.

A functional floor plan, a reasonable integration of a large building program on a difficult urban site, and family housing that is affordable for working people are all things that I can appreciate. I have seen those characteristics expressed in the Paul Rudolph building with which I am most familiar. Those aspects appeal to me far more than any of these stale stylistic stereotypes.

My neighbors live in a building designed by Paul Rudolph primarily because it was the best housing they could afford on modest means. I find it really unfortunate and a little disturbing that you jump so quickly to such negative conclusions about my neighbors just because you have a personal dislike of the architectural style of their building.

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