Paul Rudolph's Christian Science Organization building is on today's claass HAUS.
On the first day of spring break in March of 1986, witnesses watched as bulldozers approached Paul Rudolph’s Christian Science Organization building at the University of Illinois in Urbana. According to people on the site that morning, the first swing of the wrecking ball did little to damage the great concrete fortress, bouncing off the twenty-year-old building like a ball from a paddle. The proposed two-day demolition turned into a two-week dismantling as Rudolph’s signature sturdy concrete construction refused to fall easily to the destructive hands of developers. Eventually though, the building did come down, its broken textured blocks of concrete appearing in photographs like modern ruins.
Constructed between 1962 and 1965, Rudolph’s Christian Science building attracted considerable attention at the time it was completed. Designed at roughly the same time as Rudolph’s masterpiece, the Yale Art and Architecture building, the center embodied the architect’s shift from the sleek glass modernism of his early career to his heavy concrete monuments of New Brutalism. Like a miniature Art and Architecture building, the Christian Science center challenged the tenets of Functionalism, widening the definition of function to encompass the fulfillment of spiritual and psychological needs. Situated on a busy intersection surrounded by campus buildings of various sizes, styles, and materials, the dynamic structure emerged as a response to the larger urban context.
In many ways, the university's fearless concrete statement is typical of Rudolph’s more mature style. Signaling an unprecedented embrace of the human experience, the building consists of a series of defined volumes intersecting with larger looser ones. In reference to the surrounding urban landscape, Rudolph juxtaposed a monolithic material with recessed scale-giving elements to create an unexpected monumentality. With unabashed grandeur, the finished building seemed scale-less, its vertical piers the one constant anchor to the uneven mass. On the interior, Rudolph delineated space in a series of complex planes that framed and layered views of the inside. Manipulating light to provide a sense of movement and contemplation, Rudolph used a variety of window shapes to reflect sunlight onto colored panels, a technique that softened the concrete walls and shaped the user's spatial experience.
A place of repose and meaning, the Christian Science Organization building fulfilled both practical and spiritual needs, demonstrating Rudolph’s radical conception of space and purpose. When the building was completed in 1965, Rudolph was at the height of his career, enjoying the accolades of his daring new concrete vision. But by the time the center was put up for sale only a couple of decades later (due to a dwindling student congregation and soaring heating costs), the architect had fallen into relative obscurity with most of his work shifting from the United States to Asia.
Designed at a turning point in Rudolph’s career, the Christian Science Organization building met the same cruel fate that has confronted many of the architect’s buildings over the last few decades. Perhaps a signal of the more recent reluctance to preserve Rudolph's architecture, the failure of the university community to find a suitable use for the building (which was arguably in pretty decent shape at the time of its loss) triggered its eventual demise. In the end, the University of Illinois lost one of its most innovative and daring buildings by one of America’s most significant twentieth-century architects. For Paul Rudolph lovers, it's a sad story indeed.
Image at top:
Image from the archives of the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation.
This architectural historian cannot stop thinking about buildings, food, and that vintage rug she found online.