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September 13, 2005
Minneapolis, Minn. — On a crowded street in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, sandwiched between a futon gallery and an east African restaurant, is an innocuous black door. In small silver lettering a placard reads "Rapson Architects Inc."
Ring the buzzer and climb the stairs and you'll find yourself in the architect's offices, humming with activity as Ralph Rapson, his son Toby and others work away at a variety of projects. If it's summer, you might find one of Rapson's grandsons working at a desk.
Currently the staff is rendering designs for furniture, low-income housing and apartment complexes. Rapson's particularly excited about a glass house conservatory he's created for the University of Minnesota's Arboretum.
"If I had to describe it, it would be like a big pile of truncated diamonds," says Rapson. "It's about a football field in length, it rises to heights of 80, 85, 90 feet in places, and it's all glass." Rapson regularly works at least 40 hours a week, then goes home and draws some more while watching football on TV. His archivist Jane King Hession says he simply can't stop drawing.
"Whether it's furniture or architecture, or some clever little notecard, or an extra something he signs in a book it's impossible for Ralph not to draw and design," says Hession. "That's the essence of the man."
Rapson fell in love with drawing at an early age. He was born in Alma, Michigan, into what he calls an average Midwestern family. He delivered papers throughout high school, and then began painting signs for grocery stores and other businesses that wanted advertising. He was an enthusiastic athlete who pitched a mean knuckleball.
All of this he did with just one hand. Rapson was born with a right arm that wasn't completely formed; it was amputated at the elbow when he was a small child. But his left hand proved more than adequate.
Rapson learned about architecture in his art classes, and it became a new outlet for his love of drawing. He excelled at drafting competitions, and became a natural teacher of architecture.
Hession says Rapson was shaped by a particularly international schooling, working with architects from all over Europe, without ever having to leave the Midwest. As a result, she says his style reflects a Midwestern love of comfort and lack of pretention, while still presenting a sophisticated modern design. Tom Fisher, the University of Minnesota's dean of architecture, agrees.
"There's this chair that he designed -- that I don't believe was ever put into production -- but it was designed so that you could not only sit in it, but you could take cat naps in it," says Fisher. "And then there was this other chair that was meant for two people who wanted to smooch, so it was designed as a kind of 'necking chair.' And I just thought 'Wow, these are great! Why does a chair have to be this thing you sit up straight in?'"
Fisher says Rapson is often credited with humanizing modern architecture. He got his big career break at the end of World War II, when the United States was eager to build embassies throughout Europe. The U.S. government chose Rapson to help design its new image abroad -- modern, open, and innovative.
Soon after, the University of Minnesota invited him to be the dean of its school of architecture. Under his leadership, U of M architecture students regularly went on to win prestigious prizes and be hired in well-known firms.
Sitting at Rapson's old desk in what is now known as Rapson Hall, current dean Tom Fisher says Rapson is by far the most important Minnesota architect of the 20th century, and Minnesotans have failed to value him appropriately.
"I think this community should do more to preserve and honor his work, rather than letting it go and saying, 'It's too bad,' but not caring for it enough," says Fisher. "That will be viewed by people outside our community as being rather negligent on our part, and I don't think that's particularly how Minnesota wants to be perceived."
Rapson's defining work, the Guthrie Theater in downtown Minneapolis, is slated for demolition next spring. It will make way for the final stage of the Walker Art Center's expansion. A new Guthrie Theater is being built on the Minneapolis riverfront.
Rapson was not asked to submit a plan, but he drew one up anyway, taking advantage of the river and the surrounding walkways. He says only his son Toby has seen his design.
"I'm not one of these people that thinks that every building has to remain forever. Times change, conditions change, circumstances change -- we must move on," says Rapson. "But so many people have told me what wonderful times they've had coming and going to the Guthrie, that I think it's a terrible loss. People have asked me, 'Does it hurt?' Yes it hurts! It's like losing a child, if you will."
It's not only architects and theatergoers who feel so passionately about Rapson's contributions. Dennis Gimmestad is with the Minnesota Historical Society's State Historic Preservation Office. He says, with the Guthrie, Rapson gave Minnesotans direct access to some of the finest modern design.
"So many folks have had repeated encounters with that environment, that we have a certain tutoring, if you will, in experiencing and appreciating that style," says Gimmestad.
The Guthrie Theater was a great success, but it cost Rapson his reputation. Rapson and artistic director Sir Tyrone Guthrie had strong, but competing visions for the building, which opened in 1963. Word spread that Rapson was difficult to work with. Job offers declined significantly.
But Rapson is now in the unique position of living long enough to see his work come back into fashion. Developers are rediscovering his streamlined designs for homes from the 1940s and '50s. Former student and contemporary Leonard Parker says Rapson's vision has never wavered.
"And believe me, I'm telling you as a practicing architect, it's hard to resist when other people are getting recognition, often for some flighty thing, to say 'I'm going to keep doing the same thing I'm doing, I don't care if they pay attention or not.' And Ralph had that quality," says Parker. "He was persuaded and convinced that what he was doing was the right thing to be doing in terms of modern architecture."
Architect Ralph Rapson has dedicated himself to his vision for close to 70 years now. But his energy and industry are misleading, due to his declining health. Rapson readily admits he's on blood thinners, he uses a pacemaker, and the arteries to his brain are slowly clogging. At this point his doctors say it's too risky to operate.
"They don't want to do anything at my age, and even any kind of stents or anything might be fatal," says Rapson. "So my attitude is, well, why not just go on living, doing the things I enjoy and live as fully as I can. Who knows what's going to happen? I hope I'm working right up to the last day. It ain't work -- it's fun!"
Architect Ralph Rapson, designer of the original Guthrie Theater, innovator in modern design, and teacher to countless young architects.