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Ralph Rapson dies at 93


The head of the University of Minnesota's School of Architecture for 30 years, Rapson left a legacy of inventiveness.

Ralph Rapson
Ralph Rapson

April 1, 2008; updated April 3

As the architect of such well-known Twin Cities buildings as the original Guthrie Theater (1963), the Philip W. Pillsbury House (1965), and Cedar Square West (now Riverside Plaza, 1973), Rapson had a national and international reputation. He designed award-winning buildings across the United States as well as the American embassies in Stockholm and Copenhagen.

He also designed numerous single- and multi-family dwellings, churches, and institutional buildings like the Rarig Center for the Performing Arts (1972) on the Twin Cities campus and the Humanities and Fine Arts Building (1973) on the Morris campus of the University of Minnesota. One of the last of the second generation of modern architects in America still practicing, Rapson was at the drawing board the day of his death.

Rapson's achievements at the University of Minnesota included ushering in a new era of modern design, a dramatic departure from the Beaux Arts tradition--a more classical approach to building--that had formerly characterized architectural education at the University. Rapson's vision of an integrated approach to design led him to establish the program in landscape architecture and to advocate for all of the design disciplines being in one unit, something that the University achieved with the College of Design in 2006.

"His architecture reflected his personality: modest and unassuming and, at the same time, playful and inventive."

He served as the head of the School of Architecture from 1954 to 1984, and Rapson Hall--home of the College of Design's School of Architecture, department of landscape architecture, and other units--is named in his honor. Rapson also helped establish the Ralph Rapson Traveling Fellowship, which enables University graduates and local architects to travel and continue their architectural studies.

Memorial

For updated information about the service and memorial funds for Ralph Rapson, see the College of Design blog.

"While Ralph lived long enough," says College of Design Dean Thomas Fisher, "to see the demolition of some of his many outstanding buildings--the Guthrie Theater, the Pillsbury House, the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church--he also saw a widespread revival of interest in his work over the last decade or two, especially in his low-cost, prefabricated housing ideas and in his light-weight furniture designs. His architecture reflected his personality: modest and unassuming and, at the same time, playful and inventive.

"Ralph's passing represents the end of an era, not just for Minnesota's design community, but also for American architecture. One of our last living links to the first generation of Modernists, such as the famous Finish architect Alvar Aalto, is now gone."

A graduate of the University of Michigan and Cranbrook Academy, Rapson was a colleague of mid-century modern designers such as Charles Eames and Eero Saarinen, and a fellow educator with Aalto at MIT. Rapson also led the architecture department of the New Bauhaus School in Chicago, before coming to Minnesota in 1954, where, in addition to heading the architecture school, he established the firm, Ralph Rapson and Associates, Inc., in Minneapolis. His architect-son, Toby, who graduated from the University of Minnesota and is now the firm's president, eventually joined Rapson. Recent projects by the firm include the State of Minnesota Centennial Building, the Mixed Blood Theater, and the Conservatory at the University of Minnesota's Landscape Arboretum.

Rapson's career and his many contributions to the communities he worked in are chronicled in a 1999 book, Ralph Rapson: Sixty Years of Modern Design, co-authored by Rapson's son, Rip Rapson, Jane King Hession and Bruce Wright. In the introduction, the authors identify the intrinsic spirit that characterized all of Rapson's pursuits--teaching, design practice, mentoring of students, and faculty and community involvement. His drawings, they write, are:

"...always full of people--not the required scale figures one usually sees in architectural rendering but people with personalities. Indeed, over the course of his career, Ralph Rapson may well have drawn more people than any other architect past or present... This focus is telling, because it shows that he has never lost sight of the fact that architecture is first and foremost, about the people who use it."