23 Aug 2017

Yale’s Two New Colleges Open Today

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Blair Kamin, at the Chicago Tribune, reviews Yale’s new residential colleges which are open for business for the first time today.

When Yale built its signature Collegiate Gothic residential colleges between the two world wars, critics derided the buildings as “girder Gothic.” That term took aim at the disconnect between the colleges’ medieval-looking outer walls and their modern internal frames of structural steel — a sin against the modernist commandment that thou shalt express a building’s structure. The legend even grew that the leading architect of the residential colleges, James Gamble Rogers, had workers pour acid on the stonework to give his buildings an instant sense of wear, age and authenticity.

But that story, which provided terrific material for Yale tour guides, may be nothing more than an urban legend. More important, time has proved Rogers’ critics wrong.

Anyone who has visited Yale or Rogers’ buildings at Northwestern University, including the Deering Memorial Library, cannot fail to be impressed by Rogers’ masterful manipulation of scale and materials; his inventive, often whimsical, use of traditional architectural languages; and the way his buildings, which drew from the example of the ancient colleges of Oxford and Cambridge, engage their surroundings and encourage their users to interact.

So Yale’s new residential colleges, which New York architect and former Yale architecture school dean Robert A.M. Stern designed according to the Rogers model, have a very high bar to meet and some tough questions to confront: Do they refresh the Gothic tradition, as Rogers did, or are they a pastiche? Does it make sense for Yale, which claims to prize diversity and inclusion, to replicate the physical world of Rogers’ day, when the university’s student body was largely WASP and male?

It will be impossible to fully answer these questions until students move in Aug. 23, but a recent visit suggests that Stern has neared Rogers’ standard without matching him. The new colleges are strong, city-enhancing buildings and their interiors are graced with commodious, tradition-tinged rooms that students who grew up reading Harry Potter novels can be expected to appreciate. Yet Stern’s traditionalist architecture, which is draped like a Ralph Lauren suit over an underlying frame of steel and concrete, is uneven in quality, wavering between self-assured reinterpretation and over-the-top eclecticism.

Named for [a dual identity group token nobody not a Communist has ever heard of] and founding father Benjamin Franklin [who has no real connection to Yale], the colleges will allow Yale to gradually increase its undergraduate student population by 15 percent, to about 6,200. The university is not disclosing the colleges’ cost. Like Yale’s 12 previous residential colleges, 10 of which were completed under Rogers’ leadership, each of the new ones contains student rooms, a dining hall, a library and residences for faculty members who administer the college and advise its students. Yet there are crucial differences: With roughly 450 students apiece, the colleges are larger than their predecessors — in some cases, more than half again as big. And they are separated from Yale’s central campus by a large cemetery that sits south of their triangular, 6.7-acre site.

RTWT

HT: Matthew MacLean.

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