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Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design
By Mary Stucky
March 26 1999

You may not know his name, but you probably know his work. Ralph Rapson has put his mark on the Twin Cities as only an architect can - in the buildings many of us see and live with nearly every day: the Guthrie Theater, the Cedar West high-rise apartments, and many houses for people of modest and not-so-modest means. Perhaps most importantly, he was head of the University of Minnesota School of Architecture for 30 years, educating the architects of the future. And now, opening the weekend of March 27, the first major retrospective on Rapson's career, along with a new book on his life and work.

  Ralph Rapson
Photo: Afton Historical Society Press
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RALPH RAPSON WAS A PRODUCT of the American middle-west; born in the small town of Alma, Michigan, he loved drawing and building. But it wasn't until he was a young man that he discovered what he now calls both an art and a science.
Ralph: Architecture is a kind of contradiction; it's a contrast always between the theoretical and the abstract, and the reality and the limitations. I often think of a quote that Philip Johnson, the famous New York architect made, that without art, you have nothing but plumbing.
Despite his roots in the Midwest, Rapson looked to Europe for his inspiration, becoming one of the first American-born architects completely committed to modernism. Influenced by modern art, De Styl, Mondrian, cubism, the European Bauhaus movement, Rapson designed geometric structures often based on simple cubes with flat roofs, an open floor plan and always lots of light and glass, Rapson's self-styled buildings without walls.
Ralph: My notion of that is if we could build non-architecture, if it could be something so transparent that it didn't compete with nature; it becomes all glass, the transparency, the continuity of the site and the continuity of day and night becomes critical in the design.
And design did not mean just the structure. While teaching at MIT, Rapson also designed furniture which he marketed in a store he owned with his wife Mary in Boston. At this time Rapson also designed U.S. embassies throughout Europe.
Ralph: We set up an office, finally, in Paris. In part of the studio there would be three or four young Greek people working on the Athens building and then someone in another part of the studio working on housing in Dakar, or the consulate in Le Havre, and they all were competing to make their building more exciting or dynamic than the others.
In 1954, Rapson came to the University of Minnesota to teach and run the School of Architecture. The job was to continue for three decades. All the while he continued to wrestle the contradictions of his field.

In the mid 1950s Rapson designed a number of small, affordable homes for university professors in St. Paul, in addition to a notable residence for Philip and Eleanor Pillsbury in Wayzata. Two years ago, the new owners of the property tore down the house amid some protest.

Perhaps his best-known design came in 1963 for the new Guthrie Theater, a revolutionary design around a thrust stage, creating intimacy between audience and actors. The original Rapson exterior has been altered, the Guthrie's original facade, which Time magazine described as Mondrian-inspired rectangles of gray, white and glass, has been removed, much to Rapson's dismay.

Rapson: If I could be critical; I think it could be a bank, an office builging - it could be almost anything.
Jane Hession wrote the new book on Rapson that accompanies the exhibits and says the modernist style has been out of favor in recent years. Architecture is at least partly a question of fashion; baby boomers who grew up with modernism's knocked-off forms tired of it. But Jane Hession says that may be changing. < blockquote>Hession: Buildings of the age of the Pillsbury house, that was built in 1963, of late were less in architectural fashion. They were unable to be protected by National Historic Registration because they were not 50 years old. I just think that these ideas do come in and go out, with time. I really do think that modernism is coming back. Another Rapson design that's become something of a Twin Cities landmark is the Cedar-Riverside project, the first federally-funded, new town-in-town development in the country. A project whose backers idealistically believed that people of all incomes, ages and abilities could live in: high density, high rise apartments close to shops and cultural activities. This vision was never realized, but anyone traveling I-94 between the two cities knows Rapson's distinctive high-rise apartments with their colored panels.
Rapson: We had the dream that modern or contemporary design was going to really revolutionize and change the way we lived and thought about society. I think we thought we were part of a revolution that was going to change things considerably. We always had the notion that we could do something that would make the environment better for mankind.
Hession: There's a kind of innocence as well in Ralph's drawings and they do tend to recall a time when we were both simpler and there was an optimism about the future. It was a new world, things could be reproduced, mass produced; the craftsman was often absent, people were looking to the future and not the past for their inspiration.
At 84 years old, Rapson is still working every day in his studio near the University of Minnesota. He recently won a competition to design the Korean Embassy in Moscow.

The Rapson retrospective opens March 27 at the Minneapolis Institute of Art and the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota. It will include a re-creation of the Rapson store in Boston in addition to Rapson chairs, models and drawings. There will also be an opportunity to tour some of the buildings Rapson designed.

About the Book
"Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design" is published by the Afton Historical Society Press. 11" x 10 1/2", 256 pp., 300 drawings and illustrations, notes, bibliography, index, casebound in linen, ISBN 1-890434-14-0, $35.00.

To order, call 1-800-436-8443, (651) 436-8443 , or email