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An apprenticeship with Ralph Rapson

The Tyrone Guthrie Theater, 1963
rapsonarchitects.com
The Tyrone Guthrie Theater, 1963

In 1954 I started first-year design at the University of Minnesota’s School of Architecture at the same time that Ralph Rapson became the head of the school. Over my four years of design study, Ralph was on juries of my projects a few times. The school was quite small then, perhaps no more than 100 students, if that. I am certain all of the professors knew which students were promising, and I might have been one of them.

Ralph had opened a small, second-floor studio at the corner of Oak and Washington, and usually hired one or two of the best students in the upper grades to work on the small commissions he began receiving. It would have been an honor to work with him, but I wasn’t asked. I did do well in school, though, and after graduating in 1958 I applied to graduate school at MIT and was accepted. Ralph wrote some letters for me, and I got some much-needed scholarship money.

I finished graduate school in the fall of 1960 and returned to Minneapolis to visit my family. One morning I stopped at Ralph’s studio office to thank him for writing those letters. I knew he would be in, because he spent his mornings at the studio and then walked over to the School of Architecture on the third floor of Main Engineering, where he spent his afternoons.

Guthrie project was a ‘go’
Ralph was alone in his small studio that morning; he greeted me and we had a good chat about Boston and MIT, where he had lived and taught for many years. Ralph told me he had just been given the go-ahead to develop the designs that he had produced for the Guthrie Theater and that the project was a “go” to be built. He asked me if I wanted to work on the Guthrie project.

He said he didn’t have any employees at the moment, except a student who just worked a few hours a week. Ralph said he had just talked to Bob Cerny, and Bob was going to lend him two of his young architects, MIT grads Gene Peterson and Dwight Churchill. I knew them both, because I had worked part-time for Bob Cerny for three years when I was an undergraduate student. I thought it was a great opportunity to work with Ralph, and I accepted his offer.

In a few days, and for many months after, there we were: Ralph, Gene, Dwight and me, working on the Guthrie project in Ralph’s little studio office of maybe 400 square feet in area.

Gene became the project manager, and he and Dwight took over the task of developing Ralph’s design for the building interior and, primarily, of the “house.” It was clear from the outset that Ralph’s idea of development was a process of examining all design-development possibilities for that area under study. He would come into the office in the morning and sit with each of us over the board to look at drawings and models that we had produced the previous day. He never said “do this” or, “here is a sketch I did, do this.”

Rapson’s attitude was infectious
The drawings he saw over the board in the morning were just a beginning from which to do more investigations and more drawings and models; he drew each of us out as to how this project could be the best it could be. It was an infectious attitude and we became part of the process. I couldn’t wait to get to work in the morning, and I would come back to the office after dinner; I worked Saturday and Sunday as well.

I loved it, and I loved the process. Gene and Dwight developed an incredible “house” under Ralph’s direction because he pushed them to that end. Gene’s development of the seating configurations and Dwight’s masterful development of the ceiling configurations became the iconic images of the Guthrie theater space.

I was working on the exterior design of the building. Ralph had worked famously with Tyrone Guthrie on the scheme for the “house,” but Sir Tyrone was less interested in the exterior so Ralph’s sketches of the exterior were less definitive. I didn’t quite know how to begin. We had this building scheme which abutted the old Walker Art Center to the east and lobby areas at the north and south sides of the building. This suggested glazing with light and views to the exterior and solid wall elements to the west, which enclosed back stage areas. We needed a unifying theme for the exterior.

I was looking to Ralph for direction, but he would just come in the morning and sit down next to me and look at my meager drawings. We would talk about the project and he would say, “Just keep going. Let’s look at all the possibilities.” It was frustrating, but it was exciting to be part of the process. I started to look at a scheme of layering, adding a type of open framework around the building, which could unify the disparate parts. Ralph liked that idea and we ran with it.

He was the teacher, getting us to experiment
Ralph’s office was just like a studio at school. He was the teacher, talking and drawing with us, getting us to experiment and having ideas emerge by the process of drawing and modeling. Of course, the Guthrie was all his, but he had let Gene and Dwight and me in on the development of the design. In so doing he allowed us to gain some ownership and quite an education in the apprenticeship. Ralph loved being an architect, and he told me once, he “felt sorry for anyone who wasn’t an architect.” He infused us all with that same spirit.

The Guthrie was a huge success, and Ralph began getting commissions for special building projects both in Minnesota and nationally. I stayed with Ralph for 15 years, working with him on memorable projects. Others joined the firm whom he mentored as he had mentored me.

I also joined his faculty, where I taught with him for 32 years. Ralph was a master architect and a dear friend, but I think he was admired most personally for his nurturing of young architects, both at school and in practice.

Kay Lockhart is an architect and associate professor emeritus at the University of Minnesota.

Related: Rapson remembered by Linda Mack 


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