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Continued: Architect of original Guthrie was an icon and an innovator

  • Article by: MARY ABBE , Star Tribune
  • Last update: April 4, 2008 - 8:53 PM

As the preeminent modernist architect in Minnesota for a half-century, Ralph Rapson had an out-sized impact on his adopted state.

He designed the original Guthrie Theater, headed the University of Minnesota's Architecture Department for 30 years and turned out seemingly endless plans for embassies, churches, homes, innovative furniture and an unrealized master plan for the redesign of southeast Minneapolis.

Rapson died Saturday at his Minneapolis home of heart failure. He was 93.

"Dad always joked that he wanted to be taken out on his drafting board, and this was about as close as he could get," said his son Rip Rapson. "His mind and memory were razor-sharp right to the end."

Rapson said his father had gone to his office Friday to sketch, rode his exercise bike Saturday afternoon and had made plans to attend the theater Sunday night.

"Generations of Minnesota architects came up through Ralph's tutelage," said Tom Fisher, dean of the University's College of Design, the successor to the architecture school that Rapson headed from 1954 to 1984.

"He believed we have to look holistically at design and wanted to bring all the disciplines together -- architecture, landscape, furniture, clothing, graphics, city planning," Fisher said. "He proposed that in 1954, and when we finally did it in 2004 he said, 'It's about time.'"

Born in Alma, Mich., in 1914, Rapson graduated from the University of Michigan and studied at Cranbrook Academy of Art near Detroit with Finnish architect Eliel Saarinen.

A birth deformity had forced the amputation of Rapson's right hand, but he overcompensated by becoming a superb draftsman whose brilliant sketches of buildings, landscapes and people were published in a 2002 book.

His drawings were "completely self-assured" and "looked quintessentially American," colleague Cesar Pelli wrote in the introduction. Rapson later made drawing the foundation of the architectural education at the University, said Minneapolis architecture critic Linda Mack.

Rapson taught at the New Bauhaus in Chicago and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston before coming to the University of Minnesota. By then he was already famous for his streamlined embassies in Stockholm, Sweden, and Copenhagen, Denmark, and his innovative furniture, including the "Rapson Rapid Rocker," manufactured by Knoll Furniture.

In the Twin Cities, he plunged into civic life, serving on the Minneapolis Planning Commission, opposing poorly placed freeways, championing urban planning, promoting good design -- and defending the city's honor.

For instance, he dismissed Frank Lloyd Wright as "full of hot air" after the famed Prairie School solon criticized Minneapolis in 1956. The next year, Rapson garnered headlines when he said the Minnesota Highway Department's plan to run 20 miles of freeway through downtown would be a "bloody mess." Editorializing against bad design, he wrote that "an angry environment full of discord and chaos confronts us at every turn," and called on architects "to build for pleasure and a full life rather than strangulation and slow death."

A 'glowing' Guthrie

The Guthrie Theater in 1963 is generally considered his masterpiece with its colorful interior and the promenades and balconies that made the audience part of a spectacle visible from the street.

"When the Rapson Guthrie opened, an extraordinary transformation took place in this city and the nation because it became a model for all the other regional repertory theaters," said Minneapolis architect Aaron Parker. "It was so incredibly vital and already when you parked the car you saw it as this lantern glowing with different layers of light."

Walker Art Center, which owned the building, tore the Guthrie down after the theater moved to a new home on the Mississippi in 2006. Other signature Rapson buildings also have been demolished, including a Pillsbury house on Lake Minnetonka and the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church for the Deaf in St. Paul.

While he was dismayed to see so much of his legacy destroyed, he was resigned to the loss, his son said.

"People assume he must have been alienated and bitter, but he wasn't," said Rip Rapson. "He did not think of his buildings as sacred spaces but as buildings that suited the needs of particular clients at particular times, and when those changed, he was philosophical about it."

Besides Rip, Rapson is survived by a second son, Toby, with whom he has practiced architecture for 30 years. He was preceded in death by his wife of 50 years.

Rip Rapson recalled several conversations in which he asked his father if he ever regretted leaving a promising East Coast practice to teach in the Midwest. The architect paused and then, Rip recalled, said that to have "helped educate the leadership of the architecture community for two generations at the University of Minnesota was the most important legacy he could have."

Mary Abbe • 612-673-4431

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