01 Sep 2017

An Architecture Major from ’94 Reviews the New Colleges

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Alexandra Lange, a Yalie Architecture grad, reviews Peter Salovey’s new recently-opened colleges.

The colleges, designed by Robert A. Stern Architects (Melissa DelVecchio was the design partner), were intended as a kind of time travel. I graduated from Yale in 1994, and I could not remember what occupied the triangular block during my time, so undistinguished were its contents, but I do remember the deep sigh of having classes nearby “up Science Hill.” In order to shrink that distance psychologically, the university asked the architects to make more of what it had down below: James Gamble Rogers’s ten colleges of the 1930s, in a mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Georgian styles. Rogers loved a visual trick to create coherence, akin to that of the tower. My own college, Pierson, is red brick Georgian on the inside, but it has a grey neo-Gothic wrapper on Elm Street to match its neighbors across the road.

On a recent visit, as I toured the colleges, ducking in and out of courtyards and vaulted tunnels, I felt respect for the thoroughness of the pastiche. Franklin is roughly triangular, with one big rectangular and two small wedge-shaped courtyards within. Murray… is more regular, with three courtyards enfilade. The bricks, the slate roofs, the gates, the lawns: all very charming. The small courtyards are quaint; the giant courtyards, camera-ready for graduation.

The architects at RAMSA learned their lessons well, and have employed every possible means to make the new colleges as charming as the old. No one could argue that they are being assigned second-best. Given a few years, and a little grime, most people may not even realize these are from 2017.

The illusion dispels once you go indoors, and the conflict between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries begins to sap the energy from the rooms. The problem is scale, mostly. These residential colleges—what other universities might call “dorms,” but with the addition of on-site faculty housing, dining and recreation facilities, and generous courtyards—were built to accommodate a 15 percent increase in Yale’s undergraduate student body. Because the freshman dormitories on Old Campus can’t be expanded, the freshman of these colleges will live with the upperclassmen, meaning every facility needs to be sized for 450 students. That’s larger than all but the largest of Yale’s existing colleges, which were built in a simpler time—socially and mechanically.

So the public rooms at the Head of College’s house, where s/he might hold a lecture or a dinner, are sized for a 400-strong buffet line to march through the pantry. The hallways and doorways are wider so that all of the rooms and gender-neutral bathrooms are accessible. The architects, working to combine Yale’s preferred room configuration— suites of singles and doubles off a common room—with contemporary fire regulations had to create long hallways, which the old colleges’ design studiously avoid.

Student rooms were fine: three times the size of my freshman dorm room, with a vestigial chair rail and elaborately paneled doors, the world outside seen through leaded glass. The intimacy and delicacy of the tight neo-Gothic spaces (which could also be dark and uncomfortable) was gone. In its place, I often felt like I was at the hotel next to a university, which apes its style as a branding exercise.

The dining hall at Franklin College feels enormous, its bulk broken down by side nooks, housed in little classically-fronted rooms that can each seat 20 to 25 students. The chairs, the moldings, the round window providing a view: Everything felt gigantic, puffed up to cover the baronial proportions of the room.

The dining hall was one of few places the architects were expressing some native personality—postmodernism rather than historicism—via the deep moldings around every opening, the flamboyant round lighting fixtures, the chairs with their own rows of arches on the backs.

Stern’s choice of a Cole Porter (Yale College 1913) quote above the non-working fireplace, “It was just one of those things,” seemed to be trying to express joie de vivre, but that was not what I felt. The room felt wrong, proportionally, functionally, spiritually. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have a female alum quoted above the fireplace at the first opportunity? Or someone more beloved by the classes of the 2010s? Why build a non-working fireplace at all, especially opposite a 21st-century working kitchen? Why build such an enormous room at all, another place for haunches to be speared, when co-eds today would rather eat a salad on the lawn? The disconnect between the look and the mechanics showed through the skin.

I do not believe that residential colleges built in 2017 should look like those built between the first two World Wars, in turn an Americanization of Gothic colleges built in England in the fifteenth century. Who taught me to believe this? Yale, where I was educated in the history of architecture in buildings designed for the university by Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph.

RTWT

HT: Tim of Angle.

There is, of course, plenty to infuriate intelligent older alumns.

Firstly, the preposterous names. One college is named for the worthy-enough Benjamin Franklin, as a concession to to the whim of Frankin Templeton Investments founder Charles B. Johnson ’54 who wrote the check. The problem is: Benjamin Frankin has no real connection to Yale.

The name of the second college is far worse. I’d prefer that it were named for Benjamin Franklin’s dog, rather than some colored lesbian who once attended the Law School, whom nobody not a communist had ever previously heard of. This level of Affirmative Action up-sucking to Identity Groups is just plain nauseating.

The deliberately non-working fireplaces are a nice symbol of today’s Yale, constituting a perfect example of the wussification of the place (some utter nincompoop fire marshal back in the 1980s, after most of two centuries in which working fireplaces had failed to burn down the university, concluded that fireplaces were a fire hazard, so Yale obediently closed them all up), along with offering an extremely apt metaphor for Yale itself. Yale being these days to real Education what a non-working fireplace is to Warmth & Light.

This Chicago Tribune piece has a slide-show of photographs.

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The Lumpenproletariat of the Labyrinth - American Digest

[…] The name of the second college is far worse. I’d prefer that it were named for Benjamin Franklin’s dog, rather than some colored lesbian who once attended the Law School, whom nobody not a communist had ever previously heard of. This level of Affirmative Action up-sucking to Identity Groups is just plain nauseating. Never Yet Melted » An Architecture Major from ’94 Reviews the New Colleges […]



Seattle Sam

“not a communist or lesbian” is not much of a limiting factor at Yale these days.



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