On Oikonomia: Saarinen's Ezra Stiles College Open After $55M Renovation

On Oikonomia: Saarinen's Ezra Stiles College Open After $55M Renovation

NEW HAVEN, CONNECTICUT–Yale’s Ezra Stiles College, designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1961, reopened to students last month after a one-year, $55 million dollar renovation. The project was the last in a complete overhaul of all the residential colleges at Yale, which started in 1998 and has cost over $500 million (adjusted for inflation).

Students are happy with the work, praising the new brick pizza oven in the dining hall, shift from single to suite-style rooms, and improved furniture and lighting. Jon Rubin ’12 told the Yale Daily News (YDN) the renovated Stiles is “definitely a step up” from the college he lived in two years ago.

For the Yale administration, the project is the final step in a long process to make their student facilities more competitive with peer institutions. “It’s really quite thrilling to have completed this entire cycle,” Yale University President Richard Levin said, in an interview with YDN. “There’s no question now that we have the best residential facilities in the country for our students.”

Yale’s renewed commitment to facilities is a welcome relief, as previous university administrations had allowed this and other facilities to fall into a state of disrepair. Despite the modern furniture and state of the art facilities in Ezra Stiles today, just 13 years ago all 12 of Yale’s residential colleges faced crumbling infrastructure due to lack of funding. Levin told YDN that even with current economic uncertainty it is unlikely that the colleges will ever again enter a similar period of disrepair. Since 2003, Yale has set aside an average of 2.7 percent of the buildings’ replacement costs each year to save for future repairs. Using this fund, Levin said, the next round of full-scale renovations will begin in 2051.

The project raises questions about the value of architectural design in building cultural capital. One wonders to what extent Saarinen’s signature adds to Yale’s ability to compete with rival institutions in attracting the next generation’s best and brightest. It is worth noting, for example, that YDN’s article on the subject only mentions Saarinen’s name once, mid-way through the article, and only because his “complicated architecture… makes navigating the building difficult.” Student reflection on the matter is limited, with the only ostensibly relevant quote in the article coming from Jennifer Fung ’12, who noted that  students must “go through like three doors to get anywhere…”

I, like most of you, cheer Yale’s renewed effort to conserve it’s architectural legacy but it is not enough to take private pleasure in such small victories. As Ezra Stiles residents graduate, many will become our future clients, maturing into powerful decision makers in the worlds of finance, real estate, and government. It is a shame that so little attention has been given to Saarinen’s work on the college as architectural genius. A missed marketing opportunity for the field as a whole, here yet another generation of individuals has been taught to think of the heroic architect as little more than the creator of irrational corridor layouts.

By way of understanding Yale’s position on the value of design, it is instructive to make a comparison to student views expressed at another high-powered academic institution in America’s northeast: the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). MIT is the site of two notable works by Saarinen, the Kresge Auditorium (1955), and MIT Chapel (1955). Their student-run newspaper, “The Tech,” features fifty-three articles mentioning “Saarinen” accessible on their website compared to YDN’s three. The articles, respectful in tone, generally focus on the architect’s humanism and contribution to MIT’s continuing architectural evolution. The sentiment towards Saarinen expressed by “Famous Architecture: Unique Buildings Echo MIT’s Innovative Style,” a February 1999 interview with then-Dean of the School of Architecture and Planning, the late William J. Mitchell, is typical. Article author Mary K. Tse leads into Mitchell’s comments by noting that “lthough some people have even said that the non-homogeneous, non-ivy-covered buildings are just plain ugly, in actuality, many of MIT’s buildings are literally works of art.” Contrast that with a recent YDN article written by an incoming student about her dismay upon learning that she was assigned to Saarinen-designed Morse College (adjacent to Ezra Stiles), denigrated as “the New Jersey of Yale.” In her article, “Less is Morse,”guest columnist Catherine Chiocchi laments general sentiment about the modernist housing facility by nothing that, “it’s safe to say that no prefrosh wants to be sorted into Morse or Stiles (unless they have some really strange Eero Saarinen fetish);” her most positive apology for Saarinen’s “box-like cement buildings” is that from a certain perspective they could be considered “not too shabby.” Another illustrative comparison is between President Levin’s recent comments in YDN to William J. Mitchell’s discussion of architecture at MIT. In ”With Stiles open, renovations are complete,” Levin focus on how it was “quite thrilling to have completed this entire cycle ,” noting that “you need to keep these buildings in great shape.” Architects, Saarinen or otherwise, are absent from his comments. Contrast this with Bill Mitchell’s reflections on architectural developments at MIT: “I don’t think it really matters very much whether most students know that buildings are famous, or even know the names of their architects. It just matters that the buildings are good, and contribute positively to the quality of student life.” While the core of their expressed sentiments is similar–buildings play an important role in shaping student life–the connotations are quite different. Whereas Levin positions Yale’s residential buildings as utilitarian objects in need of maintenance, Mitchell focuses on the buildings as pragmatic works of art, always authored even if anonymously. While to some extent the difference in their comments is a matter of their different backgrounds (Levin and economist, Mitchell a critic of architecture and media), recently developed methodologies of media analysis point to the overriding relevance of the comments as such.

In the same way in which the Economist uses their “R-Word index” to chart the likelihood of a recession, it might very well be possible to use media sentiment as an index of potential architectural futures. Since 1990, the Economist has tracked incidences of the word “recession” in prominent news outlets to gauge the likelihood of economic downturns (while not foolproof, the index successfully predicted recessions in 1990 and 2007). The sentiment towards Saarinen and architectural design generally expressed in student publications at Yale and MIT bears correlation to the outcomes of recent new construction at the schools and, one can extrapolate, future architectural prospects. Consider recent “signature” projects at Yale: Kroon Hall (by Hopkins, opened 2009), Yale Health Center (by Mack Scogin Merrit Elam Architects, opened 2010), and Edwards P. Evans Hall (Foster + Partners, estimated completion 2013). Responsible but unambitious, these LEED-certified buildings more than satisfy the wants and needs of the various institutions they house but contribute little to the notoriety of our field (for example, respectively: article 1, article 2, article 3). Contrast this with recent projects at MIT, including the Ray and Maria Stata Center (Gehry Partners, completed 2004), Simmons Hall (Stephen Holl Architects, opened 2002), and the Media Lab and SA+P Extension (Fumihiko Maki & Associates, opened 2009). These ambitious works of architecture, loathed and admired by the field, public, and their occupants alike, have been effective at increasing public awareness of their housed institutions, their architects, and the discipline generally. So we, architects, should celebrate the conservation of Saarinen’s Yale masterwork, Ezra Stiles College, but also pay attention to how that news has been broken. It might be symptomatic of potential business with Yale (or any large institution) as a future client–and not always for the best.

AMENDMENT: Philadelphia-based firm KieranTimberlake served as architects for the renovation of Morse and Stiles Colleges. The project included the restoration and renovation of all existing facilities, the reconfiguration and updating of living quarters, and the addition of a below grade, naturally-lit, 30,000-square-foot common space. Partner Stephan Kieran’s comments on the renovation can be found in the following Yale Daily News article:

Arnsdorf, Isaac and Shim, Eileen. “Plan for Morse, Stiles revealed.” Yale Daily News, 3 April 2009. http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2009/apr/03/plans-for-morse-stiles-revealed/.


Balakrishna, Anjali and Henderson, Drew. ”With Stiles open, renovations complete.” Yale Daily News, 1 September 2011. http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/sep/01/stiles-open-renovations-are-complete/. Accessed 18 September 2011.

Chiocchi, Catherine. “Less is Morse.” Yale Daily News, 30 August 2011. http://www.yaledailynews.com/news/2011/aug/30/chiocchi-less-is-morse/. Accessed 18 September 2011.

Tse, May K. “Famous Architecture: Unique Building Echo MIT’s Innovative Style.” The Tech, VOL 119, Issue 27: 4 February 1999. http://tech.mit.edu/V119/N27/MIT_architectur.27f.html. Accessed 18 September 2011.

PHOTO CREDITS: Balthazar Korab Ltd., Yale Manuscripts and Archives, Emilie Foyer for Yale Daily News.

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Cite: Samuel Jacobson. "On Oikonomia: Saarinen's Ezra Stiles College Open After $55M Renovation" 27 Sep 2011. ArchDaily. Accessed . <https://www.archdaily.com/170141/on-oikonomia-saarinens-ezra-stiles-college-open-after-55m-renovation> ISSN 0719-8884

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