Architect was last link to 1st modernist wave

Times Staff Writer

Ralph Rapson, a modernist architect who designed the Greenbelt House for the 1940s Case Study House program in Los Angeles and the landmark 1963 Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, has died. He was 93.

Rapson died of a heart attack Saturday at his home in Minneapolis, his son Toby, also an architect, said Tuesday.

Also known for his postwar designs of U.S. embassies in Sweden and Denmark and innovative houses, churches and university buildings mostly in the Upper Midwest, Rapson spent 30 years as dean of the architecture school at the University of Minnesota.


“Ralph’s passing represents the end of an era, not just for Minnesota’s design community, but also for American architecture,” Thomas Fisher, dean of the University of Minnesota’s College of Design, said in a statement. “One of our last living links to the first generation of modernists, such as the famous Finnish architect Alvar Aalto, is now gone.”

Rapson’s most enduring design might be one that he drew in 1945 but which remained in ink-and-paper limbo until decades later. Case Study House No. 4, or the Greenbelt House, was commissioned by Arts and Architecture magazine and its editor, John Entenza, who put architects to work designing modern homes that could be mass-produced and, theoretically, be within the means of middle-class families.

Many of the houses became architectural icons in Los Angeles, immortalized by photographer Julius Shulman. The homes include Charles Eames’ Case Study House No. 8 in Pacific Palisades and Pierre Koenig’s No. 22 in the Hollywood Hills.

Then age 30, Rapson envisioned his prototype as “urban infill,” his son Toby said, a small dwelling composed of two modules separated by a greenbelt, “a place where a family could relax, a green space that the house would be centered around.”

Glass walls and skylights helped blur the indoor-outdoor line, and accordion-pleated doors were all that divided private from public living spaces inside.

“He drew it beautifully,” Toby Rapson said, “with a liveliness that showed how houses were used for inhabitants. He brought a spirit to the design that captured imaginations for 60 years.”


Although a client was not found to build the house in the ‘40s, a version was constructed in 1989 for an exhibit sponsored by Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art.

In 2003, the editors of Dwell magazine staged a design competition for an affordable modern house. Rapson and his firm submitted plans based on the Greenbelt House. They didn’t win the contest, but North Carolina entrepreneur Nathan Wieler liked the architect and his ideas so much he started a company that builds modular houses using the Greenbelt design.

Other Rapson creations have been swept up in the recent resurgence of interest in mid-century modern design. The Rapid Rocker, his curvy maple and fabric take on the traditional rocking chair that was part of the Knoll Furniture line in the 1940s, was reintroduced a few years ago, and other furniture and housewares designs are also being produced.

Though Rapson found renewed success in recent years with some designs, he saw part of his legacy destroyed.

To the dismay of preservationists, some of his most celebrated buildings have been razed in the name of progress, most notably the Guthrie, which opened in 1963 and quickly became an outstanding venue for regional repertory theater. The asymmetrical auditorium with its unique thrust stage and confetti-colored seats was demolished in December 2006, five months after the acting company moved into a new, larger theater designed by French architect Jean Nouvel and built on the banks of the Mississippi River. (Nouvel was awarded the Pritzker Prize, architecture’s highest honor, on Sunday.)

The Guthrie began as the brainchild of director Tyrone Guthrie, who dreamed of presenting Broadway-quality productions for Middle America. The forceful Irish stage director and the Midwestern architect clashed from the start.


“It became apparent early on that he had some fixed notions about the theater and wanted someone to draw up his ideas,” Rapson told the Minneapolis Star Tribune in 1993. “I thought it was the architect’s job to learn as much as possible [about the client’s needs] and to have the final say. All of this got us off to a very cozy start.”

Because Guthrie wanted intimacy between the actors on stage and the audience in the seats, Rapson conceived a steeply raked slope of seats on one side of the house and a sharp overhang on the other side. The result was no seat more than 58 feet from the thrust stage.

For the exterior facade, Rapson drew a series of sketches trying to please Guthrie.

“I thought the building should say something about the mystery, the excitement, the glamour, the honky-tonk that is the theater,” Rapson said in 1999.

His final plan featured layers of glass panels and wood forming a screen between the lobby inside and the outside elements. But the wood construction didn’t survive the test of the harsh Minnesota winters and was eventually removed. And although the entire structure was torn down a few years ago, the interior design of the theater was re-created in the new building.

Rapson was born Sept. 13, 1914, in Alma, Mich., with a deformed right arm that was later amputated. He learned to draw expertly with his left hand.

He earned architecture degrees at the University of Michigan and the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, where he studied with Charles Eames and Finnish architects Eliel and Eero Saarinen. He taught at what is now the Illinois Institute of Technology from 1942 to ’46 and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from 1946 to ’54 while also maintaining an architecture practice.


He became head of the University of Minnesota’s school of architecture in 1954 and retired from teaching in 1984 but continued working until his death.

“I just love to draw. And to work,” Rapson told interviewer Cathy Madison in 2007. “I expect to be carried out of here. They should pile me up with a bunch of my models and dump me in Lake Minnetonka, ship me out like the Vikings did, on one of my six-foot paintings.”

In addition to his son Toby, he is survived by another son, Rip, president of the Kresge Foundation; and six grandchildren. His wife of 51 years, Mary, died in 2000.