The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis
April 21, 2008
When the Rapson family asked me to speak today about Ralph's architectural legacy I was honored and eager to do so. I approached the task with confidence because more than once in the past I had addressed a large group of people about the significance of Ralph's work and career. But each of those times, the object of my remarks, my friend Ralph Rapson, was in attendance. It generally worked like this: Ralph would enter the room, trailed by a swarm of colleagues, friends and admirers. He would eventually take a seat in the front row of the audience, cross his legs, prop his cane against his chair, give the sign we could begin, listen politely -- and nod in agreement -- as I described the highlights of his remarkable architectural journey. When I completed my part, Ralph -- who was something of a celebrity -- would rise to the podium, make a self-effacing remark like "Jane knows more about me than I do," and proceed to delight the audience with choice -- and occasionally risque -- anecdotes of the famous and infamous encounters of his rich and fascinating life. Although I may have provided the history, dates, and details of his legendary career, my contribution was just string of words until Ralph stood up. Just by being there, in the simple fact of his physical presence, Ralph conveyed -- as words could not -- seven decades architectural accomplishment and a life well lived. Ralph was the stuff of legend -- and very charming to boot. But today it's different because Ralph is not in the front row and I must go it alone. I have to tell you it's much harder to do -- and will certainly be less entertaining -- without Ralph, the rock star of Minnesota architecture, as the main event.
Ralph was not the first modern architect to practice in the state, but he would become Minnesota's most influential proponent of cutting-edge modernism by nature of his dual role as practitioner and head of the School of Architecture at the University. When he arrived in the state in 1954 at the age of 40, Ralph already possessed a dazzling resume.
Born in 1914 in Alma, Michigan, Ralph evidenced his talents early in life. While an architecture student at the University of Michigan, his design and delineation skills brought him to the attention of renowned Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen, who offered him a scholarship to study urban planning under his tutelage at Cranbrook Academy of Art in nearby Bloomfield Hills. There, Ralph studied along side such future luminaries as Charles Eames, Harry Weese, Harry Bertoia, and Eero Saarinen. There was a magical combustion that occurred between Ralph and the creative Cranbrook community that ignited the artistic energies upon with Ralph would build his multifaceted career.
Ralph had a natural gift for drawing and, one could argue, this talent came to full flower at Cranbrook where he turned his marvelously original eye to the design of every imaginable object. He produced hundreds of fanciful studies for jewelry, lamps, tableware, costumes, and his particular favorite -- chairs. Beginning in the mid-1930s and for the next 70 years, Ralph created thousands of chair designs of unending invention and variety. On the strength of his designs, and his uncanny ability to produce irresistibly appealing drawings of the chairs -- generally draped with scantily-clad women -- he became the first Cranbrook graduate hired by H.G. Knoll and Associates. For Knoll he produced an eponymous line of nationally-marketed furniture that included his signature Rapson Rapid Rocker.
Ralph never tired of creating new chair designs -- many of which he produced while watching football on TV -- and without question they are an enduring part of his legacy. Truth be told, as a chair designer, Ralph Rapson is hotter today than ever. Not only has his Rapid Rocker been in high demand and limited production for some time -- this past year his design for a "Large Lounge" chair won Dwell magazine's highly-promoted chair competition. Now in production by Blu Dot, the chair will be featured at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair in New York in May. Not bad for a 93-year old. His victory over much younger competitors delighted Ralph who sent announcements to his friends with the addendum, "The old geezer can still win one sometimes."
In 1945, Ralph came to the attention of John Entenza, editor of Arts + Architecture magazine who invited him to participate in the Case Study House Program for affordable post-war housing. At 31, Ralph was the youngest of the nine architects handpicked by Entenza to participate in the seminal exercise. Ralph's "Greenbelt House," or Case Study House #4, was unique in its incorporation of a strip of nature in the house proper. The Case Study House program, which would have a profound effect on the design of post-war American houses, was nothing less than a watershed event in the history of modern architecture -- and it retains its relevance today. In 2002 the program was the subject of what must be the largest and weightiest book ever published by Taschen. Recently, Ralph and Toby Rapson revisited the Greenbelt concept for a Dwell magazine invitational on modern prefab homes. Several versions of the Rapson prototype were marketed, once again, underscoring the timelessness of the concept.
In the decade prior to coming to Minnesota, Ralph enhanced his impeccable credentials with a professional association with former Bauhaus instructor Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, under whom Ralph served as head of architectural curriculum at the New Bauhaus in Chicago. He also spent three years in Europe designing American embassy buildings for the Foreign Buildings Operation of the U.S. State Department, including our extant embassies in Stockholm and Copenhagen, as well as seven other projects. The buildings were groundbreaking demonstrations of the appropriateness of modern design for diplomatic enclaves. The open, welcoming, award-winning buildings were hailed as the new prototype for the American embassy of the post-war era. Immediately before returning to the Midwest, Ralph practiced architecture in Cambridge, Massachusetts and was an assistant professor at MIT's School of Architecture and Planning. With his wife, Mary, he also opened Rapson-Inc., at the time, one of the only stores in the country to market furniture, fabric, and other objects of modern design.
Although some notable examples existed, modernism was not mainstream in Minnesota in 1954. Through education, determination, and professional clout -- Ralph set out to change that. His early work in the state was mostly residential -- including several houses in University Grove and the western suburbs -- and a number of small modern churches, each as unique as the diverse congregations they served.
But in 1963, Ralph Rapson put modernism on the Minnesota map in a compelling and prominent way with his design for the Tyrone Guthrie Theatre. The project was probably the one that Ralph loved and hated the most, the one in which he took the greatest pleasure and over which he suffered the most gastric distress. It was also the building that was most like Ralph himself -- strong, unique, artistic, playful, and -- above all -- about the magical way that people and architecture can interact.
In his plans for the Tyrone Guthrie Theater, Ralph brought the very best of modern design to Minnesota -- in fact he insisted on it. In doing so he created a building as imaginative and idealistic as the radically new regional theater concept it housed. A visit to the Guthrie was by all accounts an unforgettable experience, which was exactly what Ralph intended. Even before entering the building, theatre-goers encountered a marvelous abstract facade of solids and voids that wrapped the edifice like a thespian's mask and provocatively hinted at the theatrical wonders about to unfold within. Once inside, patrons took their confetti-colored seats, which surrounded the dramatic thrust stage, and experienced stunning world-class theatre in the dynamic yet intimate house. The Guthrie was an immediate national and international success and was a great source of pride for Minnesotans, a population that is generally darn hard to impress. To the surprise of no one, it became the architectural icon most widely associated with Minneapolis.
Needless to say, the loss of the Guthrie Theatre was a significant blow to Ralph. Referring to the demise of the building he simply said, "an architect can live too long, you know." But Ralph was also a practical man and a seasoned professional. He understood the essential paradox of architecture: Although it may be made of steel or stone and designed to withstand the effects of time and gravity, architecture is an ephemeral art subject to the vagaries of land values, fluctuations of the economy, and the whims and ambitions of powerful men and women. The reality is, architecture -- particularly mid-century modernism -- is notoriously and increasingly difficult to preserve. It is important to remember, however, that the building's loss in no way diminishes the brilliance of its design or its importance in the hearts and minds of generations of Minnesotans. The inexplicable but simple truth is, sometimes, that's just the way it goes.
In the tangible sense, both Ralph and his theatre are gone, but their intangible qualities, like a deep feeling or a favorite memory remain, and are powerfully present here today. Significantly -- and perhaps as a gesture of respect -- this space was modeled on Ralph's original design for the theater. But I would like to believe it was also an acknowledgement that way back in 1963, Ralph got it absolutely, positively right. With all due respect to Jean Nouvel, the new building may be his, but this theater is pure Ralph Rapson.
Ralph often said that for him, architecture was not work. Neither was drawing. One need only look at his wonderful, whimsical architectural sketches, which he enlivened with a universe of stylishly dressed, uniquely individualized people, to know this was true. As a famous colleague once observed, "Ralph can simply draw better than anyone else," and in fact, he was universally recognized as one of the most influential delineators of his time -- another important legacy. Had Ralph been a greedy person -- or even a savvy businessman -- he could have made a fortune selling his drawings. As it was, he donated them to a neighborhood church for their annual sale or sent them to friends on their birthdays. That was what pleased him.
There was a deep wellspring of kindness in Ralph that I have never known in a man of his stature. He was kind to admirers, supportive of budding architects, and patient with the curious. Because it came so naturally to him, he was completely unaware of how remarkable that quality was, or what a positive effect it had on people who had dawning dreams of their own. I know for a fact, his quiet encouragement emboldened more than one person to pursue his or her aspirations.
But perhaps it was a two way street. Few things energized Ralph more than a gathering with colleagues, students, and associates. He thrived on attending lectures, loved a good party and couldn't go anywhere without making a new friend. I honestly believe that it was his fascination with and understanding of humanity that made Ralph the really fine architect that he was -- it also kept him going for so very long.
Despite advancing years and a number of pesky infirmities, Ralph lived life with intelligence, curiosity, and exuberance up to the end. I often wondered what his secret was and, some years ago, I stumbled upon its source. We were talking about architecture, of course, specifically the Pillsbury House. I asked him what he most recalled about the building, which was by then only a memory. He said it was the play of light on the various surfaces of the house and how it drew you through the space. "One always wonders what's around the corner," he explained. "I'm the same way when I visit a city -- I have an insatiable desire to know what's around the corner, what's next."
I can only hope, my dear friend Ralph, that something truly wonderful was around that final corner.