Designer in ‘the art of living’
If you’ve never heard of Bernard Rudofsky, the subject of a small, dense new show at the Getty Research Institute, you might start by asking your mother. She may know at least a little something about the primitive-chic Bernardo sandals he designed, which were made famous in the 1960s by Jackie Kennedy and other style mavens. If she belongs to a certain generation, she may have owned a pair.
Better yet, ask a couple of gray-haired architects, particularly those with long memories when it comes to landmark exhibitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. They’ll have plenty to say about Rudofsky’s 1964 MoMA show, “Architecture Without Architects,” which celebrated the vast visual appeal of “non- pedigreed” design around the world, Sudanese cliff dwellings as well as Italian hill towns.
They may even be able to share some details about the handful of private houses that Rudofsky, in his all-too-limited career as a practicing architect, produced for clients in Spain, Italy and Brazil. Those houses offered a remarkable combination of modernism’s precise geometry with Japanese asceticism and the informal, whitewashed seaside vernacular of Mediterranean domestic architecture.
“Lessons From Bernard Rudofsky,” organized by the Getty and the Center for Architecture in Vienna, is the study of a polymath, a charmingly complicated figure who spent his life pursuing a particularly refined brand of epicureanism. Rudofsky was a “virtuoso of the art of living,” as one contributor to the catalog puts it. Ada Louise Huxtable called him “the master iconoclast of the modern movement.”
Born in 1905 in a small town in what is now the Czech Republic and educated in Vienna, where he wrote his doctoral thesis on vernacular architecture in the Greek isles, Rudofsky slowly built a career as a scholar-nomad, designing houses, painting remarkably good watercolors, organizing entertainingly polemical museum exhibitions and writing books on Japanese culture (“The Kimono Mind”) and the declining art of urban design in the West (“Streets for People: A Primer for Americans”).
Rudofsky, who died in 1988, was a walking contradiction in many ways. He was a lifelong critic of the fashion industry whose sandals, meant as a rebuke to the unnatural, deforming designs of shoe manufacturers, became a huge hit for that industry. He lamented the way that traditional cultures were changing but also repeatedly forced change upon himself, uprooting himself (and his wife) every few years.
He was intensely interested in traditional architecture but saw each separate tradition he studied from a definite remove: He was a detached contextualist, a globe-trotting regionalist. He argued for an intimate relationship between architecture and the natural world but also agreed with his friend the designer Josef Frank that “the further the forms of architecture are from those of nature the better they will be.”
His best work, no matter the medium, mixed the sensuality of the Mediterranean, the studied restraint of Japan and the knowing universality of a keen-eyed, lifelong traveler. He called architecture a “vase for life” and also “a frame for a way of life -- and with luck, an intelligent way of life.”
A piquant approach
Curated for its run here by the Getty Research Institute’s Wim de Wit and Christopher James Alexander, and designed by Everett Katigbak and Leon Rodriguez, the show is arranged in homage to Rudofsky’s own aggressive, piquant and colorful approach to museum installations, which he called “exhibition design with a sting.”
The windows on the outside of the Research Institute’s foyer have been tinted red. Every visible inch of wall space in the building’s L-shaped gallery has been plastered over with a dense, colorful mixture of architectural plans, textile patterns and other designs by Rudofsky. There are pages from his sketchbooks, models of his house projects, photographs of his MoMA installations, video footage and examples of his fashion work. (Alas, Rudofsky’s clothing designs never caught on like the sandals.)
If the show tends toward the honorific -- and thus lacks the sharp satirical bite of Rudofsky’s most meaningful exhibitions -- its crowded appeal is also enough to make you wish the Research Institute had more gallery space. Still, the very lack of room may lead visitors to seek out Rudofsky’s work outside the museum, which is all to the good. The slim catalog for “Architecture Without Architects” is a good place to start, as is the thicker one for this show.
What’s most surprising about “Lessons From Bernard Rudofsky” is how timely it seems, at least in a low-key, indirect way -- how many of those lessons, that is to say, seem relevant to debates in contemporary architecture. At the core of Rudofsky’s philosophy was the conviction that architecture lost its way when it began trying to dominate nature, rather than exist in a kind of complex symbiosis with it, and when it began to value progress for its own sake. In “Architecture Without Architects,” he was not just celebrating traditional architecture; he was also critiquing the architectural academy.
“In orthodox architectural history,” he wrote in that show’s catalog, “the emphasis is on the work of the individual; here the accent is on the communal enterprise.”
All those ideas are hugely important now as architecture begins to grapple with environmental problems -- and with its obsession with celebrity over the last decade or so.
Once again, “the accent is on the communal enterprise.” That’s true in places such as New Orleans, where a nexus of community organizers, philanthropists and architects is finally making some headway in the post-Katrina rebuilding effort -- while the celebrity architects who simply parachuted in have failed to do much good. It’s true for young architects in America and Europe who are banding together in loosely collaborative firms, sometimes joining forces only for certain projects or competitions.
It’s also reflected in the growing interest, among designers in several disciplines, in adapting the computer industry’s open-source movement to their own work. Young architects are increasingly putting basic designs for shelter and other structures in the public domain, where they can be adapted or improved for use in a particular location. Those designs are “anonymous” in the most optimistic and productive of ways.
A cooperative ethos can be seen, finally, in the rising realization among writers, scholars, bloggers and architects alike that if we insist that the only architecture that counts is that designed by the famous names that fill history books, we restrict ourselves to a very constrained and myopic view of the built environment. The idea that propelled Rudofsky’s life and work -- that architecture with compelling stories to tell is all around us, every day, if we’d only open our eyes to see it -- may finally be starting to take hold.
‘Lessons From Bernard Rudofsky’
Where: Getty Research Institute, Getty Center, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Ends: June 8
Contact: (310) 440-7300, www.getty.edu