In Conversation: Alec Purves
YSoA Professor Emeritus, faculty member since 1976 and served as acting dean from January to December 1992. He received a B.A. and an M.Arch from Yale University.
AP: I will give you a brief chronology of my experience, because the first two years we were in the Kahn building on the fourth floor. I left after the first year, because I just had it with education with Yale, the whole thing. I went into the army, and was there for three years. Then I came back and had one more year left while the Rudolph Building was under construction, and we all loved it. It’s so didactic. If you have a question, you just have to look around and find the answer.
The Rudolph Building was so fascinating because none of us had ever seen a structure like that. We would go over at night, and sort of climb around it, which was pretty stupid, because it was a very dangerous site, there were always crops of multiple floors, but it was very exciting. And when we moved in, the architects loved it, the painters and sculptors did not. That’s something worth mentioning too, up until the fire, the art school was in the same building. Painters like Neil Welliver or Sy Sillman were around. You could have these wonderful conversations with other artists of different media. The sculptors, not so much, the sculptors were down in the basement. I don’t recall having many conversations with them, but we did with painters, not as much as I wish now in retrospect I had. It was all part of one enterprise. That was actually very exciting to have different ways of doing things in the same building.
The building now, I admire it tremendously. I think Charlie [Gwathmey] did a fantastic job of renovating it, a lot of love and a lot of care. I think it’s magnificent. But it’s a little more chic than when we were there, it was much more of a working place. The fourth floor was filled with desks, which Rudolph had designed, they were not terribly practical but they were very elegant. This was one reason I moved back to my own apartment, I really couldn’t deal with it. John Pierce, who was a classmate, we had desks on opposite ends of the room below the skylight and it leaked. So if it started to rain, we sort of checked to make sure the other guy was there. And if not, we go over to cover his desk to keep it dry. Otherwise, it was wonderful. The noise level was a little high too. That’s another reason that I went back to my apartment, which was just across the street where the British Art Center is now.
The idea of osmosis learning was very high because we were all literally on top of each other, it was very crowded; much more crowded than the studios are now, not currently, but as they have been since the last renovation. You have much more space than we did. We managed to survive. The major reviews, at least initially, were held down in the pit, which is where the gallery is on the second floor. That was the review space. Over between the two piers, that are on the west end of the space, the floor stepped down several levels; so you could have a kind of little theater there. Up at the level of the floor, which went around behind the piers and continued across, there were five or six panels that were supported on a single post in the center. You could rotate them. The idea was that while one student was presenting, another student could be pinning up behind, when you wanted to shift, you just flipped the panels. Of course, that didn’t work, because if you had a drawing that was too big for a panel, you were out of luck. The panel also wobbled, so if somebody was actually pinning something up on the back, and you were trying to present it made you a little seasick. It was also very formal. That process didn’t survive all that long.
I think we did our reviews after in Weir Hall. That was an annex of the architecture school; the administrative offices were over there initially.
LP: To your last point, Rudolph Hall sounds like the construction of this new fortress, the first gathering point of a school which was previously a little more dispersed. I’d be a bit curious to hear about how you think that transition from the Kahn building, or a series of buildings, to include all the non-students into Rudolph Hall. How did that change the social landscape of the school?
AP: I think you became much more used to running into members of the administration in the building, obviously, they were on the third floor and not on the fourth floor. You ran into them casually, which you didn’t do so much when we were in the Kahn building. I think that changed the relationship somewhat.
Paul Rudolph was very present in the building. His office, which is where Deborah is now, was wide open, as it is today; there were no doors. There were doors inserted when the building was renovated the last time around, it was made into a more private office, acoustically secure, but it wasn’t when Rudolph was there, and it isn’t again now. So one had the sense, even if it may not have been true, that there was more transparency. You had much more of a sense that the dean, or he was the chairman at that point, was available.
In the diagonally opposite corner, which is where the big Norman Ives mural is, was where the School of Art administration was. The dean of the School of Art and Architecture was in that space, which is now faculty offices, just behind the Mural. So everybody was there and on the third floor. If you wanted to see somebody, you would just go to the third floor. So I think that it made the administrators a little less distant.
As with all of these kinds of situations, it makes a huge difference who the people are. Some people can be right in your lap and still be very distant, and other people will live miles away and be very close. And it has so much to do with the personality of the individual and whether they make themselves open or available, or don’t. I remember some faculty members who had administrative positions being extremely easy to talk to, and others were not. That really had to do with their personalities more than where their offices were located.
Come to think of it, Rudoph’s first year was my first year and his last year was my last year. So I was there at the beginning and at the end. He was a terrific chairman. He was about the shrewdest critic I think I’ve ever had. His desk crits were absolutely astounding. He was always on the mark. He wasn’t always gentle in his criticism, but he was fair. He could occasionally reduce us to tears, but that didn’t happen very often. Almost happened to me. When I came back from the army, I went into second year, and the second project we had was to do a theater. The site was next door to where Loria Hall is now, where the Wolf’s Head Society is. I was way over my head. I hadn’t done any design work for three years, I did my best, but it was a complicated problem. I presented my scheme, which a very good friend actually helped me finish drawing because I was way behind. And there was a silence after I made my presentation. Finally, Paul said, “Well, Alec we’ve come to expect more of you than this.” And then there was another silence. All the other members of the jury tried to pick up the pieces and make it sound more constructive. But he hit the nail on the head. I mean, it was a terrible mess. It looked okay at first glance, but if you took a second glance, it was just a mess. He was absolutely right, and I learned a lot from that moment. In any event, I think that’s one reason I did a theater for my thesis, I just had to get theaters out of my system. Which they’re not incidentally, I adore theaters of all kinds, and go on quests to find them from time-to-time. I think my favorite are those very small sort of house theaters that you find in Northern Italy. Which are just sensational little rooms, usually with a capacity of a couple of hundred, but not more. They’re just spectacular little spaces. Anyway, that’s something else.
LP: I suppose what I had meant to ask was to what extent do you think the YSoA as an institution might have been shaped by the new building? And how did architects come into their own within it?
AP: Even though the building was shared by painters and sculptors, it was always the architects building because it was such a dominant piece of architecture. I think we did identify with it very strongly, more than we did with the Kahn building. It also may have to do with my own personal development as an architectural designer. Starting off in the Kahn building, you really didn’t know exactly what you were doing, and as time went on, you got a little bit more confident in your capacity to produce something; that coincided with the move over into the Rudolph building. I’m not sure how much it’s a result of the building and how much it’s a result of my own personal development.
[…] It was running properly until the fire in ‘69. After that, it was just a horrible shell of itself. Not only did Charles Moore, who was the dean at that point, dislike it but the painters and sculptors moved out. It was very unsympathetically renovated for us. The lighting was totally changed, the uses were changed, the ceilings were taken out. I think at that time, the asbestos ceilings were taken out. And these horrible sort of screens were put on the outside of the windows to deal with what, admittedly was a problem, the sun coming directly through all that glass. But it really changed the character of the building and was much more jail-like and at that point, it sort of totally lost its glamour or interest for 99% of the population. Invariably, if you told somebody that was where you were working, they would commiserate and would just hate that building.
That’s why the recent restoration really is a restoration. It is in so many ways, not just cleaning it up, but restoring the character of the lighting even at a tremendous effort to get contemporary standard lighting to replicate the character of the old incandescent floods that were up there. It was just a huge piece of work and beautifully done. It restored much of the character, although it never had as much orange carpet and it had more plants.
It was really a wonderfully glamorous building, in spite of the fact that you would sometimes shred your knuckles as you reach for a door handle. Until I met Jim Stirling. He was very outspoken about spending a couple of nights in the guest suite which was upstairs where the lounge is now. Because, as I recall, the shower had an interior surface that was like the rest of the concrete which was not the happiest choice.
The architects continued to admire it… I shouldn’t say all of them did - a lot of people disliked it a lot. In the late 60s, early 70s, the building was held in very low repute, because it was perceived to be an overaggressive statement on the part of a sort of hero architect, which was not at all what people were looking for at that particular time. How people imagine who architects ought to be changes cyclically. Right now, it’s much more back to what it was like in the 60s, and I imagine it will change back and forth. I remember that Rudolph designed the building at a time when everybody was trying to struggle out of the straitjacket. That sort of vocabulary was perceived to be something much more expressive and massive, with weight that you could kick and feel as something present on the Earth rather than something ephemeral.
MK: Is there a space in the building that you have a strong connection with?
AP: I had for many years, a little office, in the stairwell. Nobody knew where it was, and it was heaven. Those in the know, knew where it was and knew where to find me, but nobody else did. It’s gone now, because it wasn’t original to the building and it is not part of a stair landing. But I think of the space whenever I walk up and down the stairs, and I walk through it. It was absolutely a heavenly hideaway. I had all my books in it, and the wonderful thing was, you were not on the third floor. So nobody knew whether you were there or not or what you were up to, it was great.
MK: We heard about these supposed offices in the stairwell. It seemed like a very interesting time, those weren’t exactly legal from what we understand. We also wonder if there were any people/groups that influenced your understanding of the building or shaped your perspective?
AP: It would have been Paul Rudolph himself, because of the way in which he talked about architecture, and the extraordinary capacity he had to imagine in three dimensions. That is so apparent in the building itself. There are a number of places where little details don’t work with quite the elegance that they might wear; where one thing was sort of bashed into another. In general, the complexity of that building is absolutely phenomenal. You could understand that he had it all in his head. It wasn’t so much the way he talked about that particular building. I don’t remember him talking about it all that much. But the way he talked about architecture in general, and the way he would talk about your own work was very much in-line with the character of the building. Otherwise, I would say it was students more than any faculty that would influence the way in which I thought about the building. In a way, it was ours to explore initially because we were the first students in it. It was kind of like going into a foreign land for the first time and discovering all these places you had no idea where there. So it was a treat, I think we all loved it, at least initially, until it started to leak.
LP: For us, Life after Love could stand for the building’s existence, post-restoration. It’s precious – a space of architectural and social display before all else. And we think that might be over now – hence, Life after Love. What are your thoughts on this?
AP: I think my first reaction is to be happy to get back in it. But, as you were describing Life after Love, I was thinking of the first instance of that phenomenon, which was the original one. Because when it was first built, it certainly was loved. Then it went into this period when it was no longer loved. When it was restored, its more glamorous aspects were highlighted. So it now has, until this current situation, a sort of preciousness that it had never had originally.
I would rather have it that way than when it was in that sort of interregnum, a mess and totally demolishable . I think the university kept putting it at the bottom of its maintenance list because it had no idea what to do with it. I think they would have been very happy to demolish it if it hadn’t been too expensive. Because you don’t demolish a building like this, easily. I suspect that it will be approached with a little bit more realism because of this current period of distance, this new life that was forced upon it. It somehow doesn’t come naturally to the building. The thing that comes naturally is to have people climbing all over it all the time, running into each other unexpectedly and learning from that, that’s what makes the building happiest. To have it sort of empty now, except for scheduled appearances, which doesn’t always work out very well, it isn’t the way it wants to be.
It’s like with personal relationships or anything else. You start with an infatuation. And then you go through a period where it’s like a sine curve, which is exactly the opposite. And you see nothing but the detractions. Then you even out and you find a way of balancing those two, determining whether you really are in love with whatever it is, or not. And you usually are, because your first infatuation probably carries the day in the long run, but it’s a more balanced kind of love. I think maybe right now we’re in the down cycle. We are now in a period where modifications have been made to the building. It isn’t as untouchable perhaps as it was immediately after the restoration, which was so perfect, and it looked so glamorous.
MK: A great and interesting thing that has come out of putting this issue together is, we’ve seen this as a time to step back and reevaluate the space that we work in and the school in general. The building has become a framework for the history of the architecture school as a whole, whether physically in the building or not. When we initially pitched this issue, we were just thinking about this time of COVID, and not really being able to access the studios starting in the spring 2020 semester, having that kind of strange disconnect from the building. We were asked by one of the other paprika editors: “what about all of the renovations that happened - when the windows were operable and then weren’t, and how that changed the way people worked in the building.” So we’ve really opened this up a lot more to the idea of reevaluating, stepping back. I think this is a moment of recalibration for a lot of people.