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May 4, 2000, Thursday


A Modern Masterpiece Becomes Child's Play

THEY hate Starbucks and the Gap, love flea markets and a good adventure, buy everything vintage except socks and underwear, own at least 8,000 books, and have collected 500 chairs and thousands of other Modernist artifacts. Now, with all their booty in tow, they're moving to New York from the San Francisco Bay Area to take up residence in a nine-story house that may be Manhattan's most eccentric and uninhabitable. They're the Boyds -- Michael, 40; Gabrielle, 35; Sam, 9; and Henry, 5 -- and they're as single-minded and iconoclastic as the dwelling they've just bought.

''We want to be guinea pigs for the experiment of living in this place,'' Mr. Boyd said on Monday, after he and his family took possession of the $5.5 million Beekman Place triplex designed and once occupied by the late architect Paul Rudolph, as well as the six floors below it. Committed to living in a spartan way in the triplex and moving their copious collection into the lower floors to create a private library and museum, the Boyds plan to take up full-time residence in Rudolph's highly personal Cubist architectural work next month, when their children complete school for the year.

The chrome and gray interior of the triplex -- begun by Rudolph in the late 1960's and tweaked up until his death in 1997 -- has at least 30 discrete levels and gaping multistory cut-throughs, which kept Rudolph's party guests off balance and the Boyds' younger child disoriented as he stumbled onto a landing with a transparent floor while searching for his new bedroom. (''No, honey, your room is downstairs, not upstairs,'' his mother directed him.)

Architectural critics have both celebrated and deplored the house, calling it extremely intelligent, deliberately brutal, the most important living space in New York, vertigo-inspiring and, with its reflective mirrored surfaces, a kinky progenitor of the 70's disco aesthetic.

One thing is for sure, said Joseph Holtzman, the editor in chief of Nest, a magazine about and for those who fetishize the domestic environment: the triplex is an expressive piece of architecture the likes of which will not be seen again in Manhattan, given the stringency of building codes and landmark rulings that have taken hold since Rudolph planted his aesthetic seeds more than 30 years ago.

''We're like a family going into outer space,'' said Mr. Boyd, who with his wife has amassed a major collection of furnishings from 1900 to 1975 (selections were exhibited at the San Francisco Museum of Art last year). But instead of poking around galaxies, the Boyds will be probing the inner spaces of Rudolph's sanctum sanctorum, whose Plexiglas bathroom fixtures and mazelike floor plan explore the nature of exhibitionism, challenge conventional notions of domesticity and keep its inhabitants decidedly on edge.

''Michael Boyd is the perfect person to take over the Rudolph house,'' said Mr. Holtzman, who is credited by the Boyds as the matchmaker between themselves and the Rudolph estate. ''He is the most intelligent collector of Modern design I have ever met. His collection will make a significant addition to New York's resources. As far as the house goes, Michael both understands and respects the architecture, and will preserve it as a rather large object in his own collection.''

Though the Boyds are fans of Paul Rudolph's earlier works, including the brutalist Art and Architecture Building at Yale University, where Rudolph was dean of architecture for seven years in the 60's, they are at least as interested in his later designs, including the triplex. The apartment is reflective of a time when staunch Modernism gave way to a still-rigorous but more expressive spatial language.

''Rudolph is an enigmatic character,'' Mr. Boyd said. ''He's an exact contemporary of Marcel Breuer, Craig Ellwood and Arne Jacobsen, all of whom did really great early high Modernist work and then went on to gain a language of their own that was completely stunted by the arrival of postmodernism.''

''What most people think of as Modernist today is highly simplified,'' he explained. ''There are figures like Rudolph, Joseph Cornell, Frederick Kiesler, Hans Bellmer and Carlo Mollino who practiced a more quirky, eccentric and frankly sexual brand of Modernism that isn't associated with the sterile German buildings many people think of as defining the movement.''

The Boyds and their two young sons are giving up life in an 8,000-square-foot 1960's-era house in the suburb of Piedmont, Calif., for what Mr. Holtzman calls ''a mean house'' that was never designed with the needs of a couple with young children in mind (witness the aggressive, spearlike banister edges that greet guests in the lobby, the lack of railings on most of the steep marble and metal staircases, the designed-in experiences of vertigo and disorientation throughout the house).

''First of all, we're not your average nuclear family; we're all a little eccentric, the children even more so than us,'' said Mrs. Boyd, who cited her sons' favorite movie stars as Carmen Miranda and Veronica Lake and who considers the family's aesthetics and social attitudes more liberal-European than puritanically American.

''Most people's idea of cozy domesticity makes us want to reach for an airsickness bag,'' added her husband, who said the family decided to leave the Bay Area because they needed a larger home for their collection. (Their business, providing musical compositions for television commercials, allows them to live wherever they wish.)

The Beekman Place house, Mrs. Boyd pointed out, was a better deal than structures of a similar size back home. ''What we're really excited about,'' she added, ''is to wake up every morning and be inspired by this place. How many people get to live in a Constructivist sculpture?''

Though their live-in sculpture may well be inspiring to adults, can children really live in it?

Standing in the vertiginous Jacuzzi tub in his bedroom, which cantilevers strikingly over a several-story drop, Henry, 5, cried, ''Oh, Mommy, I'm afraid, I want to get out.'' After she allayed his fears, he reconsidered his options, and said with a devilish grin, ''I can pour water way down here, over the side.''

His older brother, Sam, loved the see-through sink and stainless-steel floors. He and Henry were thrilled to camp out on the built-in beds in the living room on Monday night while their parents made sure that they didn't fall off any unprotected balcony ledges.

The couple plotted out where their prized furnishings by Gerrit Rietveld and other Dutch Constructivists will reside, in the ninth-floor master bedroom; the living room, on the seventh floor, will house pieces from their Danish Modern collection.

While the Boyds initially expected that the house would be sold to them with all of Rudolph's furnishings and artworks intact, the estate has not yet been probated because of the existence of two wills. Most of the architect's personal property had to be removed but may be reinstated at some later date, Mr. Boyd said. ''We're hopeful that at some point we'll be able to bring the work back into the house to restore it as closely as possible to Rudolph's original intention,'' he said. They plan to clean up and paint the house, but there will be no renovation, beyond rebuilding one wall in the master bedroom, which Rudolph took out when he became infirm.

For the executors of the Rudolph estate, the arrival of the Boyds was a gift. The house had been on the market for almost three years, while Fred Williams of Sotheby's International Realty fielded six or eight serious offers. Many of those parties backed out when they began to understand how complex the space would be to live in and restore.

The house was about to be sold to a developer who planned to gut the Rudolph triplex and turn the building into five condominiums when the Boyds rode in like white knights to preserve the building. (The proceeds from the building's sale will support the collection of Rudolph's drawings, models and papers that the architect bequeathed to the Library of Congress.)

The Boyds are planning eventually to share Rudolph's treasure through scheduled tours and may open their own collection to the public, as well. The lower floors of the building, which Rudolph rented out, will house their collection of minimalist work, as well as accommodate recreation rooms for the family.

As Henry and Sam jumped up and down on the squishy sunken bed in the living room, one could actually feel this unyielding house begin to bend and warm to its extroverted new residents. ''I have always been impressed with the dark, voyeuristic aspect of this house,'' Mr. Holtzman said. ''I now see the humorous side to this place. These two kids will turn the place into a multilevel treehouse. It's actually perfect for their shenanigans. ''

As the great Modernist Le Corbusier once said, in the tension between historic preservation and real life, life is always right.

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company