Rudolph lovers rejoice!
In honor of what would have been Paul Rudolph's 100th birthday, let's take another look at the Tuskegee Chapel.
A version of this post was published on August 7, 2017.
Constructed between 1967 and 1969, the Tuskegee Chapel is just one of those buildings that stays with you. It's daring, dynamic, and almost logic defying, a powerful symbol of spirituality comparable to Le Corbusier's Notre Dame du Haut or MIT's chapel by Eero Saarinen. Challenging conventional notions of space and flow, the Tuskegee Chapel is a fluid form where light, movement, and mysticism shape the religious experience.
Designed by Paul Rudolph (1918-1997) with John Welch and Louis Fry (both Tuskegee graduates and faculty members), the Tuskegee Chapel with its intersecting brick planes and folded roof rises dramatically from the campus landscape as the spiritual and cultural center of the university. An abstracted monolith (with no right angles) in the language of late modernism, the chapel's irregular exterior marks the beginning of a series of bold, fluctuating spaces- a recessed main entry leads to a low, sloping narthex, which then opens dramatically to a soaring sanctuary awash in natural light. In the sanctuary, the flat brick walls laid with red mortar seem to stand independently from the undulating ceiling that floats above the congregation. With no sense of confinement, the chapel's interior has a powerful celestial quality- it's as if the vertical space continues infinitely toward the heavens. While the various heights of the curving ceiling give the large asymmetrical room movement and motion, the nave's two focal points- a pulpit with an angled canopy and the elevated choir- anchor the swirling space.
Clearly a building that should be experienced, the chapel's design is, perhaps, best described by Paul Rudolph himself:
When working on the Tuskegee Chapel, I suggested a continuous slot of glass around the perimeter just below the roof, so the natural light enters the sanctuary diagonally. The roof is hyperbolic paraboloid in form for acoustic reasons, and the space rises diagonally and escapes through glass. The directions of the movement of space are in opposite but balanced directions, which is largely responsible for the dynamic quality of the space. In addition, there is a varying velocity of the movement of space. The floor is almost level, but the ceiling height above the floor constantly changes, so that the space moves rapidly where the ceiling is high but more slowly where the ceiling is low. All of this must be imagined, so that there is a balance between opposite movements of space and light.
Excerpt from an interview with Peter Blake in Paul Rudolph: The Late Work by Roberto de Alba (New York: Princeton Architectural Press, 2003).
And one more quick biographical note- Rudolph studied architecture as an undergraduate at Alabama Polytechnic University (now Auburn University) before completing his graduate work with Walter Gropius at Harvard. The architect would return to Alabama for several commissions, including the Wallace Residence (1961-1965), the Kappa Sigma Fraternity House at Auburn University (1961), and the master plan for the Tuskegee Institute (now University) (1958).
You can read more about Paul Rudolph here.
Happy Birthday, Mr. Rudolph!
Image at top:
Carol M. Highsmith, photographer. University Chapel, Tuskegee University, Tuskegee, Alabama. Alabama, Tuskegee, United States, 2010. Courtesy of the Library of Congress, 2010637792.
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