Though an architect’s reputation rests upon whatgets built—and occasionally on what doesn’t—it’s rare that one is remembered for the more quotidian aspects of making buildings: entering competitions, instructing young architects, building models, drawing. Though Ralph Rapson’s eight-decade career as one of the U.S.’s most visible proponents of the International Style—he designed the original Tyrone Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, Case Study House #4, and the U.S. embassies in Stockholm and Copenhagen—is enough to place him on the map of 20th-century American architecture, any account of his legacy would be incomplete without considering him as a draftsman.
Rapson makes precise architectural drawings with sharp lines and a savvy sense of perspective, and though the technical merits of his draftsmanship are clear, the characters that people his renderings conjure an unex-pected dose of soul. Like a da Vinci drawing tarted up by James Thurber, one half-expects a punch line beneath each sketch in lieu of the standard architects’ mark. Collegiate types in checked pants, blousy broads with vampish cigarette holders, and the occasional helicopter whirling above populate his drawings and lend the wholesome brand of modernism a human touch. More than simply rendering a lobby or a chair or a house, Rapson’s drawings express the promises mid-century modernism was making to postwar America: leisure, affluence, and the sophistication and utility offered by an expansive new kind of design.
“I see people as animated parts of the building,” the 93-year-old Rapson says. “Whenever I’m designing a building or a piece of furniture, people become a strong part of my general approach. The design process isn’t just about bricks and stones; for me it’s also about the people in a building and how I expect them to live.”
Rapson was born in Alma, Michigan, in 1914; when he was an infant, a deformity caused his right arm to be amputated at the elbow. Drawing soon became his main form of expression—a way of talking through imagery. After an early brush with Frank Lloyd Wright at Taliesin, Rapson found his formative home, and a two-year scholarship, working at Cranbrook Academy of Art beneath Eliel Saarinen and alongside his son Eero. Together they worked for Saarinen the elder and on projects of their own, eventually winning a 1939 design competition for a new fine arts center at the College of William and Mary. “Cranbrook was a very exciting, dynamic place where I met and worked with guys like Charlie Eames, Harry Bertoia, and Harry Weese,” Rapson recounts. “But the William and Mary competition put me on the map as one of the new design personalities, if you will.”
As more commissions came his way, Rapson was invited to take part in one of modern architecture’s most influential programs: the Case Study Houses. In 1945 John Entenza, editor of Arts & Architecture, asked Rapson to design a practical, attractive, modern house in Los Angeles in hopes of sparking a revolution in postwar residential design.
Though 25 Case Study Houses were presented, Rapson’s Case Study House #4—or the “Greenbelt House” as he called it—was never built. Imagining it as a boxy single-story house with an open floor plan, Rapson chopped the structure into two glassed-in halves with a wide swath of green space between them. His drawings show women at work in their greenbelt gardens and men at play in lounge chairs en pleine air—a sanitized glimpse (gender roles intact) of the nuclear family for the atomic age. Filled with modern furniture, including his popular Rapid Rocker for Knoll, the house is the International Style writ small for the American middle class.
“Practically all the work I’ve done is not too far off from Bauhaus principles,” explains Rapson. And though he butted heads with Entenza, who thought the design commercially unviable, Rapson attributes the demise of Case Study House #4 to finances: “I didn’t want to do one in the suburbs. I decided to do a house in the city, in Watts or someplace like that. In 1945 you couldn’t get anyone to invest in the city.
After a stint teaching at the New Bauhaus in the early 1940s, where he worked and studied closely with Laszlo Moholy-Nagy and Mies van der Rohe, Rapson moved on to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He then accepted what would become a longstanding post at the University of Minnesota as the head of the School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture, one he held from 1954 to 1984. “As a professor of architecture I always demanded that I be allowed to do outside work,” says Rapson. “And as I look back on my career I wonder why I didn’t spend more time building buildings. I think I turned down more than I built. In that way teaching was a real luxury because I didn’t have to depend on my practice for all of my livelihood.”
Despite his teaching regimen, Rapson still managed to design scores of residences, including the many-pavilioned brick-and-glass Pillsbury House on Minnesota’s Lake Minnetonka, embassies, churches, museums, and perhaps his crowning work: the Tyrone Guthrie Theater.
Completed in 1963, the Guthrie was among the first American theaters to use a thrust stage—one that juts well out into the crowd, allowing the audience to surround 220 degrees of the stage—instead of the traditional proscenium. In a highly democratic stroke, Rapson sought to blur the boundary between the balcony and orchestra levels by mounting the seats to stage left on a continuous alpine slope. The façade was a matrix of Mondrian-meets-Millennium Falcon panels and fins hovering just off the building.
Today, Rapson is still at work with his son Toby at his Minneapolis practice, Ralph Rapson Architects. He’s working on some low-income prefab housing based on the Greenbelt House (he also contributed one of the 16 entries to the Dwell Home Design Invitational a few years back). His pace, however, has slowed. “I have a lame back from bending over a drafting board my whole life,” he confesses with a touch of pleasure. “But I still go in three or four days a week.”
2 / Visitors to Rapson’s apartment often had the soles of their feet painted and pressed on the ceiling in what he called “a Who’s Who of architectural footprints.”
3 / Rapson booby-trapped Saarinen’s bed on his wedding night by sawing most of the way through its wooden legs. It collapsed when the newlyweds lay down, eliciting whoops and applause from those gathered outside.
4 / After taking significant flak for Rapson and partner John Van der Meulen’s design
for the U.S. Embassy in Stockholm, his State Department colleague Ides van der Gracht complained, “The Swedes aren’t nearly as modern as they’re cracked up to be.”
5 / Tyrone Guthrie proved such a difficult man to work with on the Guthrie Theater that Rapson dubbed him “Tyrant Guthrie” and took to drawing him with devil horns.
6 / Rapson’s 1973, Corbusier-inspired Cedar Square West tower was meant to house a great diversity of Minneapolis’s population. It’s now home to one of the city’s largest concentrations of Somalians.
7 / In 1989 a full-scale model of the Greenbelt House was finally built inside the Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles.
8 / Jean Nouvel designed the new Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis to mimic Rapson’s version four decades before. Rapson says: “He stressed that the new thrust house be as close to the original as possible. There’s not quite the same intimacy but basically it follows the pattern of the original.”
9 / In the face of Minneapolis’s starchitect building boom (which includes Nouvel, Cesar Pelli, and Herzog & de Meuron) Rapson is unimpressed: “There’s a lot of half-assed modernism here. The public circulation of those buildings is really bad. You have to think about people when you design.”
10 / At 93, Rapson can still be found designing with a pen, noting, “I’m not a computer guy at the moment.”