The hand of Ralph Rapson

  • Article by: LINDA MACK , Special to the Star Tribune
  • Updated: April 4, 2008 - 6:28 PM

APPRECIATION In his role as educator, architect and advocate, Ralph Rapson shaped the built environment and influenced two generations of designers.

Ralph Rapson arrived in Minneapolis with his wife, Mary, and their first son, Rip, in 1954 to head the University of Minnesota School of Architecture. From that day until his death March 29 at 93, Rapson was "at the heart and soul of Minnesota architecture," said Jane King Hession, co-author of "Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design," and one of his archivists.

Even before landing here, Rapson was among the first generation of American Modernists. He studied and worked with Eero and Eliel Saarinen at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. And he taught at M.I.T. and the Institute of Design in Chicago with such giant figures as Lazlo Moholy-Nagy and Alvar Aalto, who brought Modernism with them from Europe.

By the time he was 40, Rapson had designed some of the first International style U.S. embassies, in Copenhagen and Stockholm. And like most Modernists, he put his hand to everything from rocking chairs to city plans. "The American designer Ralph Rapson" was pictured smoking a pipe in Knoll's ads for the 1945 " Rapson line" of contemporary furniture.

As head of the architecture school for 30 years, Rapson "trained or knew virtually every practitioner in the state," Hession said. His philosophy and famous drawing style shaped architecture here and elsewhere through the thousands who counted themselves as Rapson students. Scores, including Milo Thompson, Leonard Parker, John Cuningham and Duane Thorbeck, went on to start Minnesota firms. Others, such as William Pedersen of Kohn Pedersen Fox, have big international careers. Rapson's legacy includes a dozen deans of architecture schools and one university president.

His decision to become an educator curtailed his architecture career, but it fit him, said Hession, who recalled the many book signings where Rapson graciously took the time to talk to admirers and students who came to secure his famous double-R signature.

Hession said his inimitable drawings embodied his humanistic outlook. "He couldn't do a drawing without an individualized human figure in it," she said. "You could tell the era by the clothes the women were wearing."

Famous buildings torn down

Rapson's career, which included scores of houses, churches and performing-arts centers, mixed triumph and disappointment. His Cedar-Riverside housing development in Minneapolis originally was hailed as an innovative experiment to house people of varying incomes in dense urban environs. The once-colorful towers have endured as urban housing but have not aged well.

In 1963 his groundbreaking design for the Guthrie Theater put Minnesota on the cultural map, and the Phillip Pillsbury house on Lake Minnetonka was featured in Architectural Record. Both buildings were later leveled.

Does the loss of such seminal works mean Rapson failed as an architect?

No. Other significant houses by important architects have been demolished for the next owner's dream house. And the Guthrie didn't fail as a theater. Its user wanted to expand and its owner, the Walker Art Center, did not want to reuse the space.

Indeed, Rapson's signature design for the auditorium, with its asymmetrical seating around the thrust stage, was so successful that it was virtually reproduced in the Guthrie's new riverfront complex. (Though, as Rapson noted, without sufficient doorways to keep circulation flowing.)

"For every Rapson building that fell, there are numerous Rapson houses that are lived in and enjoyed by a new generation of homeowners," Hession said.

The typical Rapson house, such as those found in University Grove in Falcon Heights, is a rectilinear composition of glass and stucco. Efficient and unpretentious, they are like International style versions of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian Houses. But recently Rapson completed a remodeling of one of his earlier houses in Edina that was so grand and large that it attracted the attention of tony home magazines. He seemed to enjoy this success.

He also reveled in the revival of interest in mid-century Modernism that made him, at 90-plus, a darling of the young. Within the last five years, his 1945 design of a rocking chair was re-issued and unveiled at a gala opening at a modern furniture gallery in Uptown. His '40s design for the "Case Study House" competition was resurrected and manufactured as a pre-fab house for Weiler Homes of North Carolina. And a drawing he picked from his raft of furniture sketches won the 2007 Dwell lounge-chair competition and is being issued by über-hip Blu Dot furniture of Minneapolis.

He still went to work at his Cedar-Riverside office with his son Toby and grandson Lane. He still looked forward. His dramatic design for a conservatory made of ice-block forms for the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum is pinned on the wall.

"He was drawing on" the day he died, said Hession. "He couldn't stop drawing. He couldn't stop creating."

Longtime Star Tribune staff writer Linda Mack continues to write about architecture.

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  • Ralph Rapson

  • RAPSON LECTURE

    What: "Ralph Rapson: The Playful Modernist," a talk by Thomas Fisher, dean of the College of Design at the University of Minnesota.

    When: 7 p.m. April 15.

    Where: Pohlad Hall, Minneapolis Central Library, 300 Nicollet Mall, Mpls.

    Tickets: Free.

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