Category Archive 'Eero Saarinen'

22 Feb 2010

Modernism, Not Workable Again

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I couldn’t find a decent photo of the interior courtyard of Morse, featuring the Morse Tower. They’ve planted some little trees, which get in the way now.

Morse College (along with Ezra Stiles) is one of two new residential colleges at Yale built circa 1961 featuring back-then very fashionable designs by Eero Saarinen, who whipped up a curious melange, alluding to medieval hill towns in Tuscany via a late 1950s marriage of George Nakashima to a comfy Disneyesque-version of Brutalist modern concrete architecture.

Students wound up receiving a basically ugly, somewhat industrial-looking modernist college with the sort of interior that might have been designed by communist hobbits… if communist hobbits had a lot of money. Their consolations were single rooms, and lots of expensive built in wood. The grain of the corridor doors in Morse was very striking, and I can tell you that back in the early 1970s at least half of the hirsute crowd of stoners in the Morse TV room could normally be found sitting facing away from the set engrossed in the grain patterns of the door. You could get wrecked just walking through that TV room.

One drawback of life in Morse was the fact that Saarinen had an aversion to right angles (too uncreative, I suppose), which produced peculiar room shapes. Two rooms in Morse College were notorious for having eleven walls, none of which was long enough to put the standard issue Yale bed against, while still allowing the resident to open the door.

Over the last decade, Yale has been “remodeling” (read: gutting and completely rebuilding) its residential colleges, completely revising floor plans and installing new PC green mechanicals, doubtless with an eye to packing in more students into less generous spaces.

At the present time, Morse is receiving its remodeling, which the Yale Daily News reports, once again, demonstrates just how feckless and irresponsible architects and the institutional administrators in the prosperous and happy 1960 era of Brutalism really were.

Though the college is built in the Modernist style, its aged facilities were anything but modern, [Evan] Yassky [of the Philadelphia-based architecture firm KieranTimberlake] said. Many of Morse’s internal systems, from electrical to fire safety, needed to be upgraded or replaced. An unexpected challenge was the difficulty of upgrading heating mechanisms inside the college because of the irregular angles of the buildings, Yassky said.

When the college was completed nearly 50 years ago, it was heated by means of hot water pipes cast into the concrete of the college’s floors. But some time in the 1980s, the pipes failed, and because they could not be pried out of the concrete, the University put together a slapdash set of above-ground heaters throughout Morse, said Chris Meyer of Turner Construction Company, the general superintendent of the current renovation. These were neither dependable nor particularly effective, he added.

Determined to get it right this time around, the University asked the architects at KieranTimberlake for a thorough overhaul of the heaters. But Morse’s irregular interior corners have turned the otherwise simple task of installing radiators around the rooms’ perimeters into a costly puzzle.

“It’s a challenge that I didn’t quite appreciate when we first started the project,” Yassky said. “It’s not like, instead of 90 degree angles, Saarinen used 70 or 80 degree angles. Every angle was different.”

Fitting each crooked corner with custom pipes would cost millions, Yassky said, so the firm modified the majority of the rooms to include more square corners for the heating. These new perpendicular walls are particularly noticeable inside the college’s new common rooms, where some walls have been opened or removed to create the suite-style residential spaces typical of Yale’s other colleges.

“It’s been a fascinating experience and intellectually stimulating to engage with Saarinen’s design,” Yassky said.

The most prestigious architects of that era could not be bothered to care about how someone a few decades down the road would have to effectuate a repair. Budgets were extravagant, the sky was the limit for materials and designs costs. “Let them tear it down and rebuild, when they need to fix a leaky pipe!” thought the great architect. The administrators never deigned to critique the genius’s design with an eye to how exactly someone was going to change the light bulb placed 50′ in the air or how anyone could repair heating pipes buried in concrete.

Modernist architecture was to buildings a lot like what liberal policy was to society: grandiose, gestural, dismissive of the past, narcissistically self-promotional, staggeringly costly, and totally impractical.


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