This article was originally published on Common Edge as "Contrary to Architecture's Critical Establishment, Robert A.M. Stern's Yale Colleges Are a Triumph of Placemaking."
In late January I attended a moving memorial service at Yale’s Battell Chapel for Vincent Scully, the man who led me to architecture as a career, and who continues to inspire me as a writer and historian. While there I took the opportunity to tour Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges, Yale’s first new residential colleges in half a century. I came away marveling at the quality of the architecture, and thanking my alma mater for its vision and commitment to enhancing the city and the campus.
My reaction was starkly at odds with that of the establishment architectural press. Some critics saw the cost of the colleges as extravagant, though Princeton, Harvard and Stanford have probably spent more on campus improvements in recent decades than Yale. Additional criticism came from some corners for the choice of Collegiate Gothic as a style, and for Robert A.M. Stern Architects as the designers of the complex. Belmont Freeman, who preceded me at Yale by several years and also attended Penn graduate school during my time there, wrote a stinging review in Places Journal that chastised the university for not choosing a “progressive” firm like Kieran Timberlake as the architects (though their recently completed United States Embassy in London has met with mixed reviews). He called it “Tradition for Sale.”
Since I occasionally write for professional periodicals, I floated the prospect of a more positive review to my contacts. Architectural Record declined, as did The Architect’s Newspaper. Aaron Betsky wrote a similarly unfavorable review in Architect, the journal of the A.I.A., of which I am a Fellow. What kind of media community, I wondered, would pass up an opportunity to assess a major building by the former dean of the Yale School of Architecture, and one of America’s most successful contemporary designers, at the height of his career?
Let me be bold and buck the critical establishment: The new Yale colleges are the best collegiate dormitories, and among the best campus buildings of the past fifty years—anywhere. They were planned with care and serious consideration for the extraordinary campus that architects such as John Russell Pope, James Gamble Rogers, and William Adams Delano created over more than a century, and for the nine-square town that Vince Scully loved and helped to preserve during his many decades in New Haven. They represent the architecture of place over an architecture obsessed with form and fleeting theoretical rhetoric. Graham Wyatt, Melissa del Vecchio, and a team of architects under Robert Stern’s wise direction, produced a set of buildings that bear comparison with the finest of Rogers’s colleges—Harkness Quadrangle, Berkeley, or Saybrook.
Murray and Franklin Colleges succeed first as urbanism. Their two towers align with major streets connecting the main campus with Science Hill. Their public spaces are inviting, stimulating, elegant. Landscape features will enrich them when trees and shrubs mature, just as they do at Berkeley, Trumbull, and Pierson. Areas that could have been eyesores or safety hazards—the lower levels along an old canal—are instead lively bike paths and trails. The massing of each major element has been carefully considered in relation to both the city and to the nearby buildings. The courtyards are splendid—there is nothing bland in any of them, as Betsky contends.
As the home of a new community of scholars, staff and students, the colleges are even more compelling. Each has a distinct flavor, but the ensemble is integrated by a common style familiar to everyone at Yale. Rogers’s interpretation of English Gothic was quirky and very American, but Stern’s team studied it and found its groove. Like musicians rehearsing an idiom to master its subtleties, the architects caught every nuance in material expression, scale, and even sculptural details like gargoyles and finials. A full-scale test panel allowed them to find the right balance of stone, brick, glass and slate, something that eluded Demetri Porphyrios at Whitman College, Princeton’s feeble attempt at a Gothic dormitory. Most importantly, the room suites, dining halls, and master’s houses were modeled closely on the most successful pieces from the older colleges. To put an exclamation point on its efforts, the university hired former Yale faculty member Patrick Pinnell to design relief sculptures for key doorways and ornamental panels.
Freeman is wrong about Yale’s intentions, and wrong about the nature of these buildings. They are emphatically not “simulacra” of bygone era extravagance. They do not “revert to an archaic, centuries old visual language” in order to conjure up “tradition” that can’t be perpetuated in a modern world. Indeed, they prove that Collegiate Gothic is a living language that continues to offer room for new interpretations, and gives the same pleasure it gave to students in the 1930s.
Freeman admits that the buildings are “a capstone of Stern’s half-century career,” and that the planning is sophisticated. But he incorrectly asserts that they were more costly than other contemporary university buildings (certainly not on a per square foot basis, where Frank Gehry’s recent buildings take the prize). Parroting the zeitgeist rhetoric of Modernist ideologues fifty years ago, he laments the lack of “daring” and “innovation” that gave New Haven buildings like Paul Rudolph’s Architecture School and Louis Kahn’s Art Gallery. He fails to note that Beinecke Plaza, designed by Gordon Bunshaft, is still a failure as a campus assembly area, and that Marcel Breuer’s Becton Dickenson Laboratory continues to be an eyesore. His nostalgia for Modernism casts a blind eye over such failures as the New Haven Coliseum, the disastrous folly by Kevin Roche that was demolished a decade ago. Further contradicting his assertions, Yale did have the foresight to hire Sir Norman Foster to design its new School of Management, a building lavishly praised by Robert Stern at its dedication.
I concur with Freeman’s criticism of an economic system that supports inequality, the hegemony of the 1%, and elite universities that increasingly bend to the wishes of their powerful, oligarchic alumni. That situation is hardly unique to Yale, or Harvard, or even some elite state universities with large football programs. That isn’t the issue here; the issue is architecture. Excellence in architectural design doesn’t depend on style. It can only be the result of talent, leadership, and vision.
Let us give credit where credit is due, and stop sowing division in our ranks. Soon Rice will complete a new opera house for its Shepherd School of Music, designed by Allan Greenberg. It will merit serious critical attention in the press; but will it even be reviewed, let alone judged fairly? Universities like Yale, Princeton, Notre Dame, Delaware and Rice deserve praise for their decision to continue the rich architectural traditions initiated by their founders, and embrace successful campus plans created decades ago.
Yale leads the pack, I believe, by continuing a policy of hiring the architects best suited to enhancing a sense of place in particular contexts throughout the city of New Haven. When a trailblazing architect like Lou Kahn or Paul Rudolph was their choice, administrators ignored conservative critics and boldly surged ahead. Yet when an established master such as William Adams Delano, or Robert A.M. Stern, was ready to design according to well-established urban typologies, in a familiar idiom, Yale’s leaders made equally bold choices. In fifty years future students and the New Haven community will praise them for their courage and foresight in making these wonderful buildings. They won’t remember the price of the buildings, or the empty aesthetic squabbles that followed their arrival.