The Guthrie Theater, Minneapolis
April 21, 2008
Ralph Rapson is still with us, and still among us,
Not just in the many extraordinary buildings -- the houses, churches, theaters, and institutional structures that he designed --
But also in the remarkable memories we all have of him as a person -- as a father and grandfather, a friend and colleague, a fellow faculty member, and a brilliantly accomplished architect --
And also in the educational legacy he left behind as the head of the School of Architecture at the University of Minnesota for 30 years. The generations of students who studied there during the Rapson era remain one of the most important ways in which Ralph will continue to live on for decades to come.
I sit in Ralph Rapson Hall, at the desk that Ralph sat at when head of the school, and near my desk sit a set of accreditation reports from the Rapson years that reveal the compelling character of his vision. In them, you see the boldness of Ralph's architecture in educational form.
Ralph advocated, almost from the moment he arrived in 1954, the idea of creating a college of environmental design, that would, like Cranbrook, where he did graduate work, combine all of the design disciplines in a highly interactive way. He partly achieved his vision, starting the program in landscape architecture, for example, but it was a little over 50 years after Ralph first proposed it that we finally achieved his vision with a new College of Design encompassing all of the fields he thought belonged together. When I called Ralph to tell him of the new college, he said, in classic Rapson fashion, "Well, it took you long enough!"
Ralph also had an inventive mind when it came to curriculum. The "pyramid" structure of studios, in which students across grade levels worked in teams as they would in an office, ultimately proved too difficult to manage, but it reflected Ralph's determination to run a school that prepared students for the challenges of practice. Likewise, thematic studios, with titles like "advocacy," "experimental city," and "galaxy," showed his commitment to exploring the outer limits of professional pro-activism. Meanwhile, Ralph also encouraged the most down-to-earth community work, with architecture students joining other disciplines to help in various inner-city neighborhoods.
As I would talk with Ralph over the last decade about the school then and now, our conversations revealed how much had changed -- the University's size, bureaucracy, and tuition, for example -- and how much hadn't. He would recall the slowness of decision-making and the politics of parking at the University, and it all sounded very familiar. And when he spoke of his efforts to balance the profession and the discipline, with part-time practitioners and fulltime academics both teaching, and his commitment to the important issues of the day, from affordable housing to urban revitalization to technological innovation, I was struck at how much we tried to do the same. Ralph not only ran the school; he set up professional relationships and a progressive mindset that remain firmly in place and that will no doubt continue to shape the program for a long time to come.
Ralph's modest demeanor gave cover to his tenacity and courage to do what he thought was right. I remember a dinner with Ralph and the director and architects of the new Guthrie Theater, at which, after Jean Nouvel spoke of his largely replicating the layout of the old Guthrie's thrust stage, Ralph calmly said that he wouldn't have done that. And Dale Mulfinger witnessed a long-ago meeting of the heads with the dean of the Institute of Technology, who announced that the School of Architecture had just been ranked second in the country, at which point Ralph pounded the table and said that if he had gotten the resources they deserved, it would have been number one. The honesty, clarity, and straight-forwardness of his buildings matched the same qualities in his character, which served him well in the sometimes rough-and-tumble world of architecture and academia.
At the same time, Ralph could be as playful as his buildings. In a lecture I gave about his work last week at the public library, I called him the "playful modernist," not only because I think it describes the wit and humor in his work and in his own personality, but also because Ralph understood how much design is really a serious form of play, a process of imagining alternative scenarios within a set of rules, sometimes imposed from without, and sometimes self-imposed. Ralph used to say, that we should "acquire a infallible technique and then allow yourself to fall prey to inspiration," and that line, from Buddhism, captures the sense of play that made his work so extraordinary.
I found it gratifying in recent years to see how students had rediscovered Ralph, even as the larger community went about demolishing some of his best buildings, such as the Guthrie Theater and the Prince of Peace Church. His early work in low-cost housing, lightweight construction, and furniture design seems especially appealing and appropriate today, and when Ralph came to the school for reviews, a buzz would go around the building among the students about his arrival. I am also glad that we had a chance to recognize Ralph for the incredible contributions he made to the college and the community, including the renaming of the architecture building as Ralph Rapson Hall and the public celebration of his 90th birthday, to which over a thousand people came.
With his passing, after such a long and illustrious life, we now have a new assignment: to honor Ralph by remembering what he stood for and carrying on what he began. At one level, that means continuing, in the school, the excellent educational system that he put in place, balancing the practical and the polemical, the profession and the discipline of architecture. At another level, it means each of us embracing, in our own way, the example of his life, one spent largely doing what he loved to do, everyday, up to a few hours before he passed away. We all have the capacity to live such a life, and his showing us the possibility of doing so may be the last, and greatest lesson that Ralph Rapson left for us to learn.