Reflections from a family member
The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis
April 21, 2008
Leonard Bernstein wrote: "The key to the mystery of a great artist is that for reasons unknown to him or to anyone else, he will give away his energies and his life just to make sure that one note follows another inevitably, leaving us at the finish with the feeling that something is right in the world, that something checks throughout."
I am struck by how much my father's notes followed one another, inevitably -- how his personal qualities so fully mirrored his professional qualities. A sense of joy. A passion for people. A ceaseless curiosity. A deep loyalty to his community.
I'd like to say a word about each of these qualities.
A sense of joy
The first was sense of joy. When he was designing the Guthrie, Dad remarked that his intention was to make it a place of "delight, anticipation, gaiety, mystery and drama." Words that resonated as well with the arc of his life.
Drama to be sure. His taste in literature was strongly inclined toward Greek and Roman history, with a little bit of Alexander the Great and Attila the Hun thrown in for seasoning. He loved the high drama of Errol Flynn swashbuckling through Captain Blood or Charlton Heston engaged in a chariot race to the death in Ben Hur. Actually, most any epic would do. Some of my earliest memories are going out to the Cooper Theater to watch Peter O'Toole and Omar Sharif and lots of camels in Lawrence of Arabia. And then there was El Cid, about the only time I saw my father tear up -- when the mortally wounded Spanish hero El Cid, propped up on his horse by his troops, gallops toward the invading Moors and scatters them in retreat. Stirring stuff.
This fascination with the epic wasn't just limited to historical extravaganzas. For many years our ritualistic Sunday night dinner was popcorn and tomato soup in front of the TV to watch All-Star wrestling. I never could figure out exactly what the attraction was, but Dad loved imitating the Crusher's deathly claw hold. My mother was appalled, as any self-respecting product of a Boston Catholic family would be. So Dad resorted to taking our housekeeper Helen, who spent several years in a Polish Nazi concentration camp, to the Minneapolis Auditorium to watch the evil and unsavory Mad Dog Vachon and Dick the Bruiser try to take away the World Championship tag-team belt from the righteous and worthy Verne Gagne and Renee Goulet. Fat chance. But I'm not sure that Helen knew that and, by all accounts, she found this rather peculiar form of morality play completely compelling.
Gaiety and delight were the foundation stone of my father's approach to daily life. One thing he missed about being in the east was that it was harder to go to the racetrack -- he loved the idea of these gorgeous big powerful animals going at full tilt in front of spectators frenzied by the prospect of realizing some small economic payback from the outcome.
He needed color all around him, of course. A yellow bathroom door. A huge red circle on the garage. A rainbow high above the front porch. Bright Marimekko drapes. A green Jeep or a blue helicopter in the line drawing of someone's house.
And he reveled in the down-to-earth and the lusty. Following a lecture at the School of Architecture in the early 60's, the great architectural historian Sigfried Giedion grew bored with a black-tie reception and said to Dad, "Rapson, this is boring. Show me America!" Never one to shy from a challenge, Dad whisked Giedion away to the Persian Palms, a particularly nasty bar nestled between a pawn shop and a flophouse on Washington Avenue. He deposited the very short, tuxedoed Giedion on a bar stool between two ladies of the evening while he went to check the coats. By the time he got back, Giedion, who had ordered drinks all around, raised his glass in salute: "This is it Rapson. This is America."
Perhaps it was that sense of zest that accounted for his great love of joyful, passionate music. Rummaging around in his attic last week, I found hundreds of albums of early Louie Armstrong, Bing Crosby, Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington. He used to make pilgrimages to the Emporium of Jazz in Mendota Heights to hear Doc Evans and his New Orleans Jazz Band or, more recently, to a south Minneapolis bar to hear a jazz ensemble led by his bus driver, Akmed Abdulkaim. Whenever we celebrated his birthday, his request was the same: a million dollars and a live Dixie Land band at Tower Hill.
A passion for people
Vibrant, spirited, living in the moment. So much of this was traceable to the same all-consuming passion for people that was so apparent in his drawing and teaching. The second quality I mentioned earlier.
Dad once wrote: "If architecture is an art, then it is an emotional expression. So my concern as an architect is for the shape and form of our environment and reflects my deepest feelings about the way people live, work, and play."
Play is an operative term here. Dad loved sport, whether it was physically lifting Eero Saarinen from his drafting board and carrying him downstairs to play his first touch-football game at Cranbrook, enlisting Bucky Fuller in pick-up softball games at the University of Minnesota, pitching eight ringers out of every ten horseshoes he threw, or teaching me a devastatingly effective screwball for our whiffle ball games in the front yard. He was an enormously physical guy, walking everywhere, and back again -- I don't recall him ever setting foot in a taxicab.
Not that I'm going to go there, but this physicality extended to a pretty strong fondness for women. He used to say that he loved their form, but I think there was something more to it than that. When he was at the Bauhaus in Chicago, he introduced figure drawing to the curriculum, searching out his talent pool from the bar on the first floor. Lazlo Moholy-Nagy, a pretty tightly-laced guy, stopped up one afternoon to see what his head of design was doing in the studio. Pretty straight-forward: lots of sketchers in a circle around a female model perched stark naked on a stool. Moholy-Nagy blanched, turned on his heels, and never again dropped into the drawing class unannounced.
One woman occupied a special place in his passions, of course. My mother. Dad met Mary Dolan when he moved to MIT in 1946 as a dashing young bachelor whose reputation as a rising star preceded him. Mom was ready for him, and he never had a chance. They eloped and were married on a New Hampshire village green in front of a Justice of the Peace, Mom's sister Helen, and a farmer they had recruited from his field to serve as a witness and who insisted on bringing his pitchfork into the courthouse with him.
For 52 years, Mom was his partner in every dimension of life. Providing the business ballast for their furniture store in Boston. Organizing trips. Critiquing and editing his speeches. Keeping the books for his architectural practice. Trying to prevent Toby and me from killing each other. They nourished each other's souls -- through their nightly talks in the kitchen about the things that were driving Dad crazy, through their travels, through their cherished private escapes to the glass house in Wisconsin.
But his love of people had a darker side as well. If you were a friend of Dad's, you were well within the target zone for a pretty formidable streak of mischievousness. The day Eero Saarinen was to marry Lilly Swan, Dad snuck into their room and sawed much of the way through the wooden legs of their wedding bed. After the wedding reception, Dad gathered a group of Cranbrookites under the window of the Saarinens' room. The couple went upstairs, the lights went out, and about ten minutes later, there was a huge crash. Saarinen flung open the window and yelled, "Damn you Rapson!"
And many years later, there was Dad's insistence on singing the University of Michigan fight song at the top of his lungs at Williams arena at the crucial points of Gopher hockey games against Michigan. Not pretty. More than once, John Meyers, Leslie's dad, had to convince inebriated and irate student fans that they shouldn't throw a punch at such a distinguished university professor.
But the playfulness was just that. Never vicious or mean-spirited. He could be stubborn. He could be tough. He was, however, genuinely kind, empathetic, and gracious. Certainly to his friends, clients, and colleagues. But also to people he knew less well or not at all.
Toby and I spent our impressionable years, for example, sharing Thanksgiving and Christmas dinners with foreign students because Dad wanted to make sure they had somewhere to go on American holidays.
Similarly, during Dad's sabbatical in 1964, our family stayed at a modest bed and breakfast somewhere in the mountains north of Mexico City. We were the only ones there except for the husband and wife who owned it and their small black dog. At dinner, the couple found out it was Dad's birthday. They told us not to go anywhere. About fifteen minutes later, they brought out a green and blue and yellow birthday cake and sang happy birthday with us. Dad was really touched. The couple then left us alone as we cut into the cake. Or tried to anyway. It was like rubber. We finally pried a couple of pieces loose, but when you tried to chew it, your teeth just kind of bounced up and down.
Dad felt terrible. He wouldn't think of hurting the couple's feelings. So he told me to take my spoon into the courtyard, dig a hole in the ground, and bury our pieces of cake. So I did. I had just sat back down as the owners came out from the kitchen. Dad told them how wonderful the cake was and how much we appreciated it. They beamed and agreed to pack the rest up for us to take. A lovely resolution of things. As we were leaving, though, I noticed the little black dog digging away furiously at something in the courtyard. I didn't tell Dad.
A ceaseless curiosity
We were in Mexico because Dad was ceaselessly curious. Yogi Berra once said that when you come to a fork in the road, take it. That's what Dad did. He didn't want to experience Mexico by flying to Acapulco and sitting on the beach, but by taking third-class, open-car trains through the heat and dust of the central Mexican plains, by traveling treacherous mountain roads on rickety buses with local residents who crossed themselves and put their chickens on the luggage racks before we left, by visiting villages where people would come up to blond-haired Toby, pat his head, and say a phrase we later came to understand meant "God child" -- the first blond they had ever seen.
Mom bore the brunt of this travel-lust. India, Peru, Europe, Iran, Thailand, Nigeria, and on and on. China proved a particular challenge. Dad was invited in the early 70's to lead the first post-Mao era delegation of western architects to China. Mom and Dad were treated as royalty. At the sumptuous final banquet, a huge pot of boiling water was brought out and placed in front of Dad as the last course. The ultimate sign of hospitality and high respect: Monkey Head Soup. As the host lifted up what in fact appeared to be the head of a monkey very recently relieved of his earthly obligations, he explained that the distinguished guest would have the honor of the eyeballs -- a great delicacy. Dad may have been a curious guy, but this was stretching things a bit, and he completely froze. This is where the partnership qualities I described earlier about Mom came in handy. She didn't miss a beat. She thanked her host with a short Chinese phrase, took the eyeballs in a napkin, and somehow created the impression of eating one and sharing the other with Dad. The napkin and the eyeballs ended up in her purse, and the diplomatic honor of the western world was just barely salvaged.
Dad believed deeply in the power of travel in forming a design sensibility. Not only did it stoke curiosity, but opened one's mind to new forms, traditions, and patterns of life. One of his greatest satisfactions was the creation of the Ralph Rapson Traveling Study Fellowship at the Minnesota Architectural Foundation, which enables young architects to advance their education in architecture by pursuing foreign or domestic travel-study. He took no greater pleasure than in participating in the selection process and reviewing the winner's portfolio.
Dad's curiosity had other outlets as well, of course. His years at Cranbrook were so terribly formative not just because of his exposure to extraordinary colleagues, but also because he could experiment with so many disciplines. Weaving a coat. Designing tableware. Participating in ceramics projects. Painting. Experimenting with new forms of photography. That he carried this fascination with the varieties of artistic expression throughout his life is evidenced by the items that came to fill his living room. An African mask. An Iranian cemetery rubbing. An Eskimo soap stone sculpture. A Noguchi lamp. A collage of State Fair-like Spin-O-Art.
A deep commitment to place
He lived in that living room for more than fifty years. He was proud that he had put down such deep roots in this community. Hence the fourth quality: a deep commitment to this place. Dad never regretted turning down multiple opportunities to head schools of architecture on both coasts. He nourished an ardent love affair with Minneapolis and, through a succession of civic commitments to it, sought to make it a better place.
As a member of the city's inaugural planning commission, where he led the fight against the construction of I-35 and I-94 through historic Minneapolis and St. Paul neighborhoods. As a 25-year member of the Committee on the Urban Environment, where he encouraged small acts of beauty at a neighborhood scale. As a soldier in the Prospect Park and East River Road Improvement Association's many attempts to promote sensible zoning and land-use. As a regular contributor of watercolors to the annual church bazaar at Prospect Park Methodist Church. As an expert witness in the 1970 trial seeking to keep the Red Barn burger joint from obliterating an historic corner of Dinkytown -- an experience, incidentally, that prompted him to draw up a 60-story high-rise addition to the 12-seat Al's Diner across the street, a drawing that still sits in the Diner's window.
This powerful commitment to place was accompanied by an ethos of striking a harmonious balance between the built and natural environments. Fifty years ago, Dad presciently observed: "In the headlong rush to perfect scientific and industrial know-how, an angry environment full of discord and chaos has spread over the land, making it difficult to reconcile top-flight individual architectural excellence with the unbelievably low level of over-all environmental performance."
There was accordingly always a bit of the planner in his method. His first job out of college was developing traffic and planning studies for Eliel Saarinen's design for the new State Capitol in Lansing, Michigan. He later shared a Chicago apartment with the great city planner Kevin Lynch, where they spent endless hours talking about how American cities would have to be remade after the war, conversations filled with an idealism about the possibilities of organizing public space to address social and economic problems. And Dad's Ten Commandments of Architectural Design is a paean to context, historical integrity, and balance.
In Tom Sawyer, one of Dad's favorite books, Tom and Huckleberry Finn have the surreal experience of watching their funeral service from the gallery of the church after the town had thought them drowned. My cousin Mary Sullivan suggested to me that Dad had had his own Huck Finn experience over the last twenty years. He was the object of an extraordinary outpouring of attention, love, and respect from this community. There were magazine articles, newspaper stories, television features, awards, recognitions, and countless other gestures that reminded him of the regard with which his colleagues, his former students, and his community held him. Our family is deeply grateful for such kindnesses. Thank you.
But there is another dimension of the Huck Finn phenomenon. One great advantage of living such a long, robust, and engaged life is that your family has opportunities to join the journey and contribute to its joy and meaning.
Living so long and so fully meant that Dad could express his delight directly to his only granddaughter, Anna, about her circus performance on the triple trapeze. He could endure the bone-numbing temperatures of countless hockey rinks cheering on his grandson Miles. He could say hello regularly to his grandson Ian Ralph Rapson, who chose to live in the apartment across the hall from the office. He could admire the musicality of his grandson Avery at a piano recital. He could marvel at the emerging writing gifts of his grandson Devin. He could travel to Cranbrook for the opening of the Eero Saarinen show knowing that Gail and my kids would be rounding out one circle of his life by attending school there. He could watch his grandson Lane take an increasingly important role in Rapson Architects and could feel the pride of knowing that Lane's enrollment in graduate school would ensure another generation of architects in the Rapson line.
He could talk regularly with mom's sister Helen Sullivan and stay closely connected to her wondrous children Mary, Christine, and Billy, and their families. He could participate in our family's holidays and become a source of support for my wife Gail's failing father. He could develop a relationship with Leslie that enabled him to continue getting out and about for the last seven years with someone who cared deeply about him.
And he could spend the better part of twenty years working side-by-side with Toby in their architectural practice. Toby and Janet gave their heart and soul to my father and made it possible, in effect, for him to realize his desire of being carried out on his drafting board. That wasn't always a walk through the flowers. They helped him through his frustrations, suffered his obstinacy, and tended to the minutiae of his health, safety, and well-being. But above all, they participated in his brilliance, shared in his joys, and contributed to his accomplishments. They loved him as only family can.
So did I. And so did many of you. He went out in a gallop. No slow lethargic quiet slide into the grave, but a rollicking, exuberant dance of farewell. He would want to thank you all for making it possible. He had a ball.
God speed Dad. Your memory lives in our hearts.