In midtown Manhattan, where the urban landscape is rapidly densifying with ever-more luxury high rises, a narrow, 20-foot-wide lot on East 58th Street houses a slice of preserved, late-modernist spatial artistry. Nestled snugly between neighbourhood retail shops and traditional brick row houses, the white-painted steel-and-glass Modulightor Building was architect Paul Rudolph’s final creation before his death in 1997. A facade of intricately interlocking squares and rectangles steps up six storeys, the detailed geometry conveying something of the complex assemblage of interior spaces found within.
Originally designed as a seven-storey residence-slash-showroom space for Modulightor, the lighting company Rudolph founded with his longtime collaborator Ernst Wagner in 1976 and that still operates today, the project was completed as a four-level structure in 1989. Between 2007-2015, the fifth and sixth floors were added by a former Rudolph employee working from the architect’s early sketches. Today, the geometrically ornamented building houses Modulightor’s storefront and basement-level fabrication centre, along with the Paul Rudolph Heritage Foundation and a series of duplexes, one of which is still occupied by Wagner. “As the building and I have grown together, I feel like it is my ‘outer skin’,” says Wagner, who has lived in the building since 2000. “At the same time, it’s like a piece of art that I see with different eyes each time I behold it.”
For Wagner, the Modulightor Building embodies his friend and colleague’s cerebral design philosophy, which was rooted in psychology and found expression in spatial articulation. “The layered spaces are orchestrated to give an ever-changing view of the structure,” says Wagner. “In a way, it is like walking on the narrow, winding medieval streets of an old European city into an open palazzo, and suddenly seeing a soaring Gothic cathedral.”
Inside, a monochromatic palette of glacial white unifies a complex arrangement of solid planes and framed, negative spaces. Space and volume are sculpted through architectural elements such as open staircases, which extend confidently from vertical bookshelves. Geometries progress down these planar stairways onto white tiled floors before rising back up through exposed, delicate steel I-beams. Lighting fixtures lift the geometry skyward, their compositions airy yet encompassing. “Paul created a multi-tiered spiral of spaces,” explains Wagner. “As one transitions across the levels of the building, the width and height of the space keep changing, creating a kinetic assemblage of spaces and viewpoints.”
Softening the rigorous angles and sharply-defined casework boxes are Rudolph and Wagner’s eclectic collections, ranging from Turkish industrial machine parts to African sculptures and Japanese transformer figurines. Layered atop it all are textural compositions in greenery. “Paul brought life into the space with plants,” says Wagner. “When people come into the building, they often say it makes them feel the oxygen in the air.”
While Rudolph is best known to architectural history for his Sarasota, Florida residences and his brutalist concrete edifices including the Yale Art and Architecture Building, where he was chair for six years, the architect’s last spatial sculpture at 246 East 58th Street in Manhattan is perhaps the purest expression of his raison d’être. “The Modulightor Building was a laboratory where Paul worked out and perfected his ideas on space and light,” says Wagner. “One of Paul’s legacies is his ongoing curiosity—a way of experiencing the world that encouraged discovering and viewing things freshy. He taught so many of us how to see.”
The Modulightor Building is open to the public by appointment, and during the Paul Rudolph Foundation’s open houses on the first Friday of every month.