Ralph Rapson, architect of the original Guthrie, has died

Ralph Rapson
Architect Ralph Rapson, photographed here at age 91, was the architect of the original Guthrie Theater. He died over the weekend at the age of 93.
MPR Photo/Marianne Combs

When Ralph Rapson was born in Alma, Michigan in 1914, his right arm wasn't completely formed. His parents had it amputated at the elbow when he was a small child.

He learned to do a lot with the remaining arm, including draw, paint, and throw a mean knuckleball. When he eventually decided to study architecture, he wasn't as adept at building three dimensional models as other students, but he was able to focus his creative energy into his renderings.

Rapson blew out perspectives and solved spacial problems using only pen and paper. He drafted designs with people in them not just for scale, but to capture the spirit of the place, and give it a sense of life.

"I'm very much what I'd like to label a functionalist," Rapson said in an interview with MPR two years ago. "I believe very stongly that mankind is the yardstick in which we're working and somehow or another one must satisfy the aims, the physical the aspirations the hopes of people when you're designing buildings."

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Rapson excelled at drafting competitions, winning many awards. But he also irritated his teachers, insisting on applying new, European modernist techniques to his drawings.

Rapson drew in stark black and white, instead of using traditional watercolors, so that the design would stand out in its pure form.

Rapson's education at the University of Michigan, followed by the Cranbrook Academy of Arts, allowed him to work with architects from all over Europe without ever having to leave the Midwest. His style reflects a Midwestern love of comfort and lack of pretention while still presenting a sophisticated modern design.

Tom Fisher, the University of Minnesota's Dean of Architecture, said Rapson is often credited with humanizing modern architecture.

"He showed how design is a kind of game, that you start with a certain very simple idea and you play with it," he said. "You push and you pull and you open out and fold in and you set rules for yourself and you play with them."

"He showed how design is a kind of game, that you start with a certain very simple idea and you play with it."

Rapson's style of architecture was open and innovative. The U.S. Government hired him to build embassies abroad that would reflect a new image after World War Two.

It was at the University of Minnesota that Rapson showed his talent for teaching and mentoring the next generation of architects. As dean of the department, he brought in guest lecturers such as Buckminster Fuller and Frank Lloyd Wright.

Just as he had an international education, Rapson made sure his students did too, meeting architectural talents from all over the world. He hired professors who were also working architects, so his students were exposed to the practical realities of the business, not just design theory.

Under his leadership U of M architecture students regularly went on to win prestigious prizes and be hired in well-known firms.

"So much of what dad stood for seems to me was the integrity of the design process," said Ralph Rapson's oldest son, Rip Rapson.

Rip says his father won't be remembered as a star architect, but he will be remembered as a man of conviction.

"I think dad set a very high standard of excellence," he said. "I think he will be remembered as having the highest levels of integrity and I think that that's not a bad standard by which to be remembered."

Rapson's sense of personal integrity got him into trouble. While working on the designs for the Guthrie Theater in the early 1960's, Rapson often went head-to-head with the theater company's founder Sir Tyrone Guthrie. Rapson and Guthrie had strong, but competing visions.

The Guthrie Theater was a great success, but it cost Rapson his reputation. Job offers declined. To add insult to injury, many of his once-loved buildings were being torn down to make way for the latest trend. Still, former student and contemporary Leonard Parker said Rapson's vision never wavered.

"Believe me, I'm telling you as a practicing architect, it's hard to resist when other people are getting recognition for some flighty thing to say I'm going to keep doing the same thing I'm doing I don't care if they pay attention or not," he said. "And Ralph had that quality. He was persuaded and convinced that what he was the right thing to be doing in terms of modern architecture."

Ultimately architect Ralph Rapson dedicated himself to his singular vision for more than 70 years. In recent years he had the pleasure of seeing some of his designs come back in style.

He kept an office in the Cedar Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, not far from a colorful and controversial housing complex he designed. There he worked with his younger son, architect Toby Rapson, and more recently his grandson Lane Rapson.

Two years ago, Rapson's health was already failing. The arteries to his brain were slowly clogging, and doctors told him it was too risky to operate. And yet Rapson still showed up at the office each day, ready to dive into his next project.

"My attitude is well, why not just go on living doing the things I enjoy and live as fully as I can? Who knows what's going to happen? I hope I'm working right up to the last day, It ain't work - it's fun!" he said.