Much has been written about the comments made by the esteemed architectural critic Sir Nikolaus Pevsner during his key-note address at the original dedication of Yale's Art & Architecture building in early November, 1963. His speech, expected to be the high note of the presentation, began innocuous enough:
"There is a great fascination in standing in a new building. No rain has yet stained the concrete, no splinters have yet broken out of the steps of the staircases, nobody has yet explained something by a rapid sketch on a wall. No human desires and disappointments have yet left their invisible but unmistakable aura in the air. It is all still the dream of the architect miraculously come to life."
Things then began change when he turned to Yale's President A. Whitney Griswold and said, "You, Mr. President, have been unwise to invite a historian to address this audience on this occasion. The historian by definition is a relativist. For such an occaision you need an absolutist."
Pevsner, a strong supporter of functionalism in architecture, began to compare Rudolph's new building to the original 99 year-old building it was about to replace - and which he had visited that morning before writing his address.
He described Peter Wight's Street Hall, which he designed in 1864 when he was 26 years old, as a "provincial" reaction of individualism over the previous generation's preference for the "neutral" and "timid" Georgian style of architecture:
"At all costs no symmetry. At all costs no window without some strange and unexpected emphasis. Crescendos from emphasis to over-emphasis, whenever possible. Projections ... pretend to be butresses and turrets but were in fact introduced as geometry for geometry's sake."
Pevsner continued by comparing Rudolph's own building as a reaction to the strict "discipline and service" of the international style of modernism that grew in popularity from 1890 to 1914. His take on Rudolph's brand of "individualism":
"What do we see here? Massive piers of concrete rise. Projections are over-emphasized throughout. Heavy slabs are crossed by thin slabs. Spaces inside cross too and offer sequences of most dramatic effects by unexpected vistas inside the building and even out of it."
Yet even with the building's "too personal ambiance," Pevsner admired Paul's guiding principle that a teacher ought to have have a very pronounced, even provocative style - but that he should also help students to develop their own for that very reason. He encouraged the students present to appreciate the special opportunity to work with someone who had such a strong opinion about what constitutes good architecture - but not to imitate him.
Pevsner finished his speech with the conclusion that Rudolph's building was the very opposite of functionalism - which he believed was a building in which no aesthetic feature was allowed to detract from the function of the building for the user. In the rare case, he concluded, that the client is the architect or vice-versa - all notion of functionalism and the relevence of the building's program are impossible. Criticism becomes subjective and taste is all that is left over.
Looking back, it is interesting to see the building's problems and future (now past) so clearly laid out before an unsuspecting audience.
In a postscript to his speech added years later, Pevsner wrote:
"And what has happened since? In 1965 Paul Rudolph left to concentrate on private practice, leaving his school, designed to fit him and him only, to another head. This demonstrates the necessity of neutral designs for neutral buildings, i.e. buildings which must function well under command of a variety of men with a variety of ideas, and which must satisfy a variety of users."
We wonder what Sir Pevsner would think of the architecture being practiced by today's starchitects.