The following is an interview with Junior Fellows Rob Johnson and Carter Jackson, both currently working in the Prints & Photographs Division to contribute to the future processing of the Paul Marvin Rudolph archive.
Melissa: Thanks for speaking with us. We’re looking forward to learning about your work with the Paul Marvin Rudolph archive, and also about some of the experiences you bring to your work on the collection. Can you start by telling us how you came to work here?
Carter: I’m a PhD candidate in the history of art and architecture at Boston University. As an undergraduate, I studied architecture with a goal of becoming a professional architect. Then I realized that my real interest was not so much in designing buildings but in positioning buildings in their cultural and historical context. I’ve always liked museums, so my ambition pivoted to working with architecture in the context of collections.
I worked for the Historic American Buildings Survey last summer and was documenting a building by Paul Rudolph – the Boston Government Service Center – and part of that involved coming to the Prints & Photographs Reading Room and working with the Rudolph archive as a researcher. Through that process, I became interested in his work as an architect. Last summer, I learned about the Junior Fellows program, and it was clear this position aligned with my interests. Here is one of the drawings of that building:
Rob: I’m a student at the University of Maryland working toward my Master of Library and Information Science degree. I graduated with a degree in art history as an undergraduate about ten years ago, and I was working in different roles in education in the intervening years: I served with AmeriCorps for two years, then I worked with a non-profit, and finally, I worked for a textbook publishing company before deciding to go to graduate school.
I wanted to work with historical materials and think of ways to connect them with the public and to researchers, so library science, and specifically archives, seemed like a good fit for me. Last summer, I interned at the archives at the Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art and was looking for more experiences at different institutions and different types of collections, which brought me to the Junior Fellows program. The Rudolph project stood out to me specifically because of the focus on architecture formats and the opportunity to work within the Prints & Photographs Division.
Melissa: As you noted, you’ve been immersed in the Paul Marvin Rudolph archive during your time working here as Junior Fellows. Can you tell us about Rudolph and why researchers might be interested in exploring the collection?
Carter: Paul Rudolph was one of the most significant American architects of the 20th century. Taught at Harvard by architect Walter Gropius, who started the Bauhaus School in Germany, Rudolph was part of the second generation of modern architects. He had a fast rise to fame, and also a quick fall from fame. He began by designing houses in Florida in the 1950s (see example below) and, later that decade, became the head of the School of Architecture at Yale, where he was asked to design the Yale Art and Architecture Building, which was completed in 1963.
The Yale building suffered a serious fire in 1969, and after that, Rudolph’s career took a turn. He was unable to find work in the States but found clients in Southeast Asia, where he designed some of his most monumental projects, such as the one below:
Rob: My knowledge of Rudolph comes from a different place. Coincidentally, I went to preschool across from the Boston Government Service Center. I didn’t know about Rudolph then – I only knew the building served mental health patients. It’s a very imposing building, and a lot of people dislike it because it’s all gray and not very welcoming. I also had negative associations with brutalist architecture, but looking at the beautifully rendered drawings offers a more idealized sense of what Rudolph was going for in trying to show the power of the state to help provide services to people.
Melissa: Can you tell us about your project in P&P? What specifically have you been doing to organize the collection?
Rob: Overall, the Paul Marvin Rudolph archive is really large, comprising about 150,000 items in a variety of formats, including architectural drawings by Rudolph, photographs, and textual material. We are specifically working with a selection of the Rudolph collection representing significant works by Rudolph that were featured in publications. These provide a good representation of what he accomplished in his career. We’re pulling the folders – a few of the items have been digitized – but for the most part, they haven’t been cataloged or recorded except at the folder level.
The folders mostly contain drawings, but there are also photographs and some ephemera. The folder for the Burroughs Wellcome Company headquarters is a good example because it has all types of drawings, photographs, and a contemporary magazine story about the building. One of the drawings even has a personal note written by Rudolph.
Here is a digitized section drawing of the Burroughs Wellcome Company building that I like:
So we’ve been going through item by item to add metadata into an Excel spreadsheet. We’re methodically going through the contents of each folder and describing the type of drawing, medium, the date if it’s available, any conservation issues, and other key data points.
It’s been really nice to compare notes with Carter as we’ve been going through because I sort of started at zero in terms of knowing what an architectural document is. Our staff mentor taught me about different types of drawings and how to describe them at the start of the project. It’s also helpful to work with Carter, who has an architectural design background, and can answer my questions.
Carter: And ditto to everything Rob said. My background is more in how architectural drawings are made and much less so on how they might be organized in an archive. Sometimes I’ll have a question about how materials are filed or some of the different kinds of media we are working with, and Rob can help provide expertise. So I think our areas of knowledge complement each other nicely.
While the bulk of the materials we worked with were related to Rudolph’s buildings, we also came across some of the drawings from his furniture designs. This elevation and small isometric sketch show a variation on the design of his signature tubular steel and plexiglass chair:
Melissa: Are there any additional details about working with the Rudolph collection that you would like to share?
Rob: One great aspect of this experience is that we are learning how curators and archivists in the Prints & Photographs Division work. We’ve been working with architecture curator Mari Nakahara and also with archivist Kristen Sosinski. Learning from them has shown me how the work of an archivist can vary so much depending on where you are and what you’re doing. The Library of Congress is big, and there’s lots of specialization that you might not see in other institutions. I’ve learned that the size of collections and type of collections drive the work too. It has me thinking more about types of archives and how that influences your day-to-day activities.
Carter: It’s been illuminating to observe the range of expertise present in the Division. I’ve developed a better understanding of how curators, archivists, and technicians collaborate to care for the P&P collection and make it accessible for the public. I think I took it for granted that collections were accessible online, but didn’t fully realize the amount of effort that goes into making that happen.
Rob: Working with the Rudolph materials has also made me think about architectural documents and preservation and how buildings aren’t always permanent – they can be modified or demolished. We take for granted these buildings around us. One reason why these drawings are important is that they provide evidence of buildings that no longer exist. The Library is able to hold these paper objects that might outlast the building itself.
Carter: I appreciate Rob’s points about preservation. For example, Rudolph’s Boston Government Service Center is one of his most controversial projects. It was designed, in part, to house people with mental illness, and it continues to do so. Now, it is slated to be redeveloped. During my time at the Library, I’ve thought about the ways that materials in an architectural archive can help us better understand an architect’s original vision for their projects and how to more sensitively balance their preservation with the need to make them function better today for at-risk users.
Melissa: Thanks for sharing some aspects of your experience with us. It’s been a pleasure learning from you!
- Read other Picture This blog posts about the Paul M. Rudolph archive: Celebrating the Centenary of American Architect Paul M. Rudolph and What’s So Brutal about Brutalism?
- Browse the thousands of digitized images from the Paul Marvin Rudolph archive.
- Watch presentations from the day-long celebration of the centenary of Paul Rudolph’s birth.
- Explore the Rudolph archive section of this guide: Architecture, Design and Engineering Collections in the Library of Congress Prints & Photographs Division.