SOME 20 YEARS AGO, while living in a small village near Goshen, New York, I got my first driver’s license at the Orange County Government Center, the Paul Rudolph–designed Brutalist marvel of concrete blocks outfitting the space around me, tracking my every step. Back then, I didn’t know very much about the provenance of the building, but I thought it a weirdly lovely structure left alone in a staid Victorian village. Since then, after many years away and a move back home, I’ve visited the “Rudolph building” to get other documents and a number of passports. Each time, I entered the building through an uncouth side entrance off a pedestrian parking lot. Some part of the dingy interior was always cordoned off, and buckets lined up in multiple rows to catch the sedimented leakage.
Now, the building is shuttered, the Village of Goshen is a ghost town, and the very site Rudolph designed is mired in a controversy that, according to Michael Kimmelman and Joseph Giovannini, pits politics against culture and history.
The fight has been brewing hot since the Government Center was shut down by then County Executive Edward A. Diana, in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene. The county had, until recently, pushed forth its plan to rehabilitate the building by demolishing parts of the infrastructure, some of the hallway spaces, leaving the remaining two-thirds of the structure untouched. The plan also called for radically defacing parts of the concrete façade, upsetting preservationists who thought the Government Center would be effectively demolished just like other cherished Rudolph buildings. Then, developer and architect Gene Kaufman offered to buy the building from the county. He promised to turn it into an arts center, and offered to build a new county seat on an adjoining piece of property, a win-win solution. After some deliberation, County Executive Steve Neuhaus refused the offer and promised to push ahead on the county’s rehabilitation plans.
That set off a series of fiery responses. Joseph Giovannini suggested politicians in Goshen were bent on “ignoring history and the national interest” and compared the county’s plan to the Taliban’s wholesale destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas. Michael Kimmelman, writing in The New York Times, charged legislators with moving toward the expedient outcome, and standing against history by destroying a building that was recently included in the World Monument Fund’s global watch list.
I share the sense of loss evoked by preservationists and activists. However, although Giovannini and Kimmelman are right about the Government Center’s predicament, they are wrong about the solution: a privatized art space and a rigged-bid building construction will not work within the prevailing context in Goshen. Moreover, their universalist argument for culture trumping local concerns fails to take seriously the real problems in and around this controversy. Although Kimmelman underscores Rudolph’s views on the construction of a civic commons through his design, he fails to question whether the building played any part in structuring a commons, and what impact its closure has had on the public at large. Perhaps jurisdictional views on history are important, and, at some limits, they may trump the modernist holy covenant that binds an artist to her work. To bastardize a Rortian view, sometimes democracy takes priority over culture.
Paul Rudolph was a proponent of the view that architecture is marked by the social, the moral and material language in the service of democracy. The Orange County Government Center was the embodiment of that democratic view. Rudolph’s design featured a variety of means by which he invited different publics to become enmeshed in the messy business of social engagement. It is part of the Government Center’s tragedy that the public for whom it was designed never got to use it as a space for community engagement.
The building was forced to fall short of its public value from the start: early on, the interior space was cut up and redone to accommodate more office space, a job that went strictly against Rudolph’s plans. The entrance to the building complex, originally designed so that the public encountered it through the “green” courtyard, was redone: the public now entered the space through a side entrance off a parking lot. An addition to the building in 1997, a response to a declaration that the space which housed the Supreme Court was “unfit” for occupation, radically altered the way the local public encountered the building off Main Street, the main artery through the village. In time, the building became airless and dark, and those who encountered it saw only a sidewall, not the provocative invitation to community that Rudolph had designed. Over the years, generations of the visiting, voting public never got to see the building that was meant to be their civic commons; they never got to learn about it, they never got to love it.
Every spring and summer the roof of the Rudolph building leaks; there’s mold everywhere. The building has not been made ADA compliant. I’ve written elsewhere that part of the politics surrounding the building was to let it rot, so that it might one day be demolished in accordance to state guidelines. Nevertheless, either the building needs to be rehabilitated as is, or some other plan needs to be implemented. Given that the cost of rebuilding the structure back to Rudolph’s original has always been tagged prohibitively high — an issue that is, no doubt, part of the politics at play — a rehabilitation project was the only proposal seriously discussed. The building would be saved at some cost to the people, and to its integrity, but its social, civic function might be revived. In this context, and very late into this process, Gene Kaufman offered his proposal and it suddenly became a feasible option for preservationists. And since the people have always been denied their commons, the move to refashion the structure into an art center seemed unproblematic.
It would have been a blessing had a private investor or a consortium of investors bought the building outright years ago. That never happened. Kaufman’s recent proposal to take the building off the county tax rolls was the only one on offer. Preservationists fail to mention, though, that Kaufman’s proposal is conditional upon him getting the contract to build anew on the adjacent parking lot, a move that runs counter to fair bidding norms. The county executive rejected the proposal on those procedural grounds. Also, the final vote to move any construction along belongs to the Village of Goshen Board of Trustees, which oversees any re-zoning in the village and has local jurisdiction over the Government Center. And the village board has refused to go along with Kaufman’s plan. It has responded to various plans by insisting that only a proposal that brings the seat of government back to Goshen is acceptable.
Unless the village board can be lobbied and goaded to relent, the only feasible solution to the second stage of the problem is the rehabilitation of the Orange County Government Center as a structure that meets the modern demands of a modern public, and also meets other public mandates. Add in the fact that New York State has mandated that its courts must have permanent homes in permanent spaces, and, at this moment, is demanding the county immediately move forward on a construction, you get the plan Giovannini and others bemoan.
Activist and county officials should engage different solutions to meet those public mandates while maintaining some substantial embodiment of Rudolph’s design. Knocking a plan as soul-less won’t do. Calling public servants who have to deal with local taxpayers “cultural terrorists” won’t do. Brushing aside real politics, and a problematic history of the use and abuse of the building, to champion modernist values, won’t do. Architecture critics have to deal with the real problems of the contexts and circumstances in which their cherished buildings stand and fall. In a sign of interesting debates to come, local democrats have demanded that the public deliberate further to forestall a demolition of the building’s façade. Critics and preservationists have an opportunity here to discuss their views, and Rudolph’s views on the social, without invoking the empty-shell trope of the modernist genius.
A critic persistently defending Kaufman’s proposal might argue that historic structures can be put to alternative uses, and so stand as they were designed. They argue buildings in New York City, or Los Angeles, or liberal Charlottesville, Virginia, can be turned into a museum, or a mausoleum for a lately defunct culture. Sometimes, though, even that fails as the cost of rent soars. Consider the sad case of CBGB, which is now a somewhat popular John Varvatos menswear shop.
The downright alarmist tone of the criticism of local experimentation and politics sounds a lot like the nattering that accompanied the rushed takedown of The New Republic magazine. But now it seems the new magazine, under Chris Hughes’ somewhat questionable leadership, features more people of color, more women, more people with a more diverse education. It may be too late to save the august Rudolph building as it was meant to be, but there’s time yet to build a structure that, fitting Rudolph’s views, will create a more robust civic commons for the people of Orange County.