Like Father, Like Son

For architect Josh Rudolph, the love of design runs deep in his DNA.

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One of Josh Rudolph’s projects. Photo by Jeff Davis

If anyone was ever destined to become an architect, it’s Josh Rudolph. His paternal grandfather, George Cooper Rudolph Jr., a licensed architect, was once the top architectural renderer in New York City, working closely with Skidmore, Owings and Merrill as well as Philip Johnson and Eero Saarinen, on such iconic buildings as the 1962 TWA Terminal at Idlewild Airport, Lincoln Center and the U.S. Air Force Academy.

Josh’s father, George Cooper Rudolph III, went on to found Rudolph Architects in the 1970s in New York City, where he worked with a number of big clients, including the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, as well as schools and golf clubs. “I spent my whole life in his office,” Josh Rudolph says, “since the day I could crawl.” Whether it was destiny or DNA, he says he didn’t know what else he would want to be. “I had a knack for drawing, I loved model building and I loved being around my dad.”

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Josh Rudolph. Photo by Jeff Davis

Rudolph, who grew up in Sea Bright, New Jersey, close to Asbury Park (and even worked out at the same gym as Bruce Springsteen), earned his undergraduate degree in architecture at Princeton, then went on to earn a master’s in architecture at the University of Maryland. After his dad “retired” (“actually, my dad is still practicing—most architects are like Frank Lloyd Wright; they work until the day they die”), Rudolph and his wife moved to Colorado to be near his wife’s parents. Now, his practice here, Rudolph Architects, is entirely residential, with a definite East Coast flair.

We love your houses. Does your design aesthetic feel East Coast to you?
“Well, I certainly love that style. I grew up in a shingle-type home on the Jersey Shore and spent a lot of time in the Hamptons with friends, so it feels pretty personal to me. You don’t see a lot of shingle-style homes in Colorado, but I feel like I brought the proportions with me—like the big roofs that come down fairly low. I’m designing a farmhouse down in Cherry Hills right now that has a really East Coast vibe; I’m really excited about it.”

How popular is that look out here in Denver?
“The funny thing is, there are a lot of transplants here, and somehow they find me. Whether it’s a builder or a referral, we are immediately on the same page. Although sometimes folks move here from the Midwest or the East Coast and they’re used to living in a traditional house, and they want a fresh start with a modern home.”

What’s the difference?
“The big difference is that, historically, in a traditional home, you are carving spaces out of a mass or volume, whereas, with modern, you are placing objects in space; you’re not carving objects out of space. My favorite contemporary architect is Mies van der Rohe, and even though he worked 60 or 70 years ago, everyone today is still trying to achieve what he achieved: a simplification of the architecture. But really refined contemporary architecture requires tremendous attention to detail; it requires a lot of time and thought, plus a good builder, to really make it sing.”

What makes architecture timeless?
“There are plenty of contemporary buildings that are timeless. The Farnsworth House or the Barcelona Pavilion (both by van der Rohe) are as timeless as it gets. I attribute it to getting the proportions right, so the height and the interior space all feel like they are at a human scale. I don’t know if you can train for that, or if it’s something innate. Friends who are musicians or artists—they are just born that way. They were wired to hear music, and very good architects are wired for proportion. You can drive around Denver and see the difference: homes that truly resonate and others that are … undercooked.”

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A Cherry Hills house designed by Rudolph Architects features the big, low roofs and grand interior proportions that Rudolph loves. Photo by Dan Sweeney

You do almost exclusively residential now. Why is that so satisfying?
“I love the personal aspect of it. In my mind, if a project goes well, I’ve got a lasting friendship, which is great. I get to meet all walks of life—a scientist, a banker, an attorney—which is really fun. I’m a fairly sociable guy, and I like to learn about people. And on the professional side, every project is fresh. None of my houses look like any others because I am catering to somebody’s dream.”

How do you make those dreams come to pass?
“The most important thing, and something I think I’ve gotten better at over time, is to be a really great listener, because I will pick up on little things in a conversation that I can work into the design. I might pick up on some cue that they don’t even know how to verbalize. For example, I had a client who was moving here with some very interesting pieces of furniture that were oddly shaped and wouldn’t work in a normal room. When those pieces showed up on a drawing, the client was just thrilled because I was paying attention.”

What kinds of inspiration do clients bring?
“It’s helpful if they come with a thousand pictures of things they like, even if they don’t know why they like it. It could be a detail on a house. A piece of furniture. Flowers catching the sunlight in a particular way. Typically, I just listen: What’s their goal? What vibe do they want? Do they like music? Then I go home and put together a program that identifies everything we’ve talked about. Often, they’ve never built a house before, but I’ve done this enough times to ask things like, ‘So do you think you want a little wine cellar next to that sitting area?’ We talk about square footage; we stand in a room so they can get a sense of proportion and I’ll say, ‘Does this work for you?’ We’ll talk finishes and see if we have to downsize for their budget.”

What happens next?
“We tweak. Things always change in the process, so the second most important thing for an architect, after listening, is being flexible. It’s critical. You can’t just get married to a scheme early on because it’s always going to change. My mantra is keep the design simple because it’s going to get complicated. It always does. After talking to a client, I walk the site: Are there established trees? Where’s the sun during certain parts of the day? For example, I try to put early morning spaces on the east side of a house, to pick up eastern morning light. Are there any great views? Are there ways to capture green energy?”

And then you start drawing?
“Yes. I get out a big roll of yellow tracing paper and a big fat Sharpie marker—it has to be big, because I don’t want to start the process by knitting; I want to do broad strokes to get a sense for what’s called parti. I start my drawings by attacking the circulation or flow of a house. If you fight the flow, you’ll be fighting it the entire time. You want the flow to be very straightforward. And I don’t like to start with a big wow entrance; I’d rather have things unfold as people progress through a house. It’s more dramatic.”

After you’ve met with the client, done computer renderings, and tweaked those, does the design process stop there?
“It’s funny. My dad is a pretty impatient man—German through and through—but he always wanted to create something beautiful, so the design process never really ended for him and it doesn’t for me, either. I don’t leave the office, close the door and leave the drawing there and go home. I’ve got a print, a plan or an elevation in front of me almost all day long. Even if it’s in my car and I can just stare at it and suddenly a light will go off and I’ll think ‘That’s what we should do.’ ”

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