Yale identified as steward of architecture

There were slides of Harvard’s brick-clad buildings, of Stanford’s mission-revival aesthetic, but Yale’s distinctively eclectic campus was physically on display at this weekend’s symposium on university architecture.

Although attendees learned of campus buildings across the country, they sat in Louis Kahn’s Art Gallery, having walked past Kahn’s British Art Center and the imposing tomb of Skull and Bones to get there. And at a reception on Friday night, guests mingled in the newly completed Sculpture Building, having walked past Paul Rudolph’s scaffolded Art and Architecture Building and James Gamble Rogers’ residential colleges to get to Kieran Timberlake’s new design on Edgewood Avenue.

But the role of these buildings was up for discussion at the symposium, entitled “Building the Future: The University as Architectural Patron.”

David Brownlee, professor and chair of the University of Pennsylvania’s History of Art Department, began the two-day affair with a keynote address on Friday evening.

As Yale School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 noted after the speech, Brownlee’s talk in many ways framed the discussion for the next day.

Posing a question that would become the focus of Saturday’s panel discussion, Brownlee asked whether a university should view itself as a campus or museum.

His answer: “both.”

In a discussion of this topic, William J. Mitchell, a professor of Architecture at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, emphasized that, as long-term owners of property and as important cultural institutions, universities have a special obligation to principles of good design.

“Architectural quality and ambition is a non-question,” Mitchell said. “There is a fundamental responsibility to see architecture and urbanism at the highest level of intellectual standards and cultural ambition. This is part of what a university is about.”

Reflecting on the symposium, Stern told the News that these discussions were important in that they showed the significance of architecture on campuses and the importance of a continual focus on campus design.

“The discussion reinforced the sense that the physical environment and the open spaces shaped by buildings are a crucial representation of what the university stands for in its academic programs,” Stern said.

But the way in which universities serve as architectural patrons can be problematic, several speakers said.

Mitchell noted that universities have intensely bureaucratic design processes — in large part because of their varied constituencies, ranging from students to donors, faculty to administrators — which can be detrimental to architectural innovation on campuses.

“Universities are not patrons,” Mitchell said. “They are complex, seething masses of individuals and sub-organizations of different goals and perspectives often in collision.”

In a humorous aside, Brownlee gave his own interpretation of a typical university design approach.

“Clam chowder,” he said, “is what you get when you apply peer review to paella.”

But Katherine Grace, a New Haven-based architect who attended the symposium, noted that universities can also be valuable architectural clients in that they bring thoughtfulness and prestige to projects.

Yale, panelists agreed, is certainly one university that has for the most part served as a good steward of great architecture.

It was in this context, then, that the future of Yale’s campus — particularly in light of the proposed expansion of Yale College — motivated administrators in the History of Art Department, School of Architecture and Presidents’ Office to host the symposium.

In his introduction to the event, David Joselit, chair of Yale’s History of Art Department, noted that, given Yale’s ambitious projects of late, it is essential to examine the University’s “tradition of commissioning great buildings.”

Stern commented that the way in which Yale’s campus interacts with the city of New Haven is representative of an increasing trend in campus planning: the gradual tendency toward partnership between universities and cities.

For Brownlee, town-gown cooperation is an “axiom.” As universities grow and projects become increasingly complex, he said, a sense of urbanism is important — schools must take the needs of those living in their surroundings into account. So, too, he said, is the importance of renovation and upkeep of facilities, as well as constant boldness in new building.

In a panel Saturday afternoon, University Planner Laura Cruickshank spoke about Yale’s current enormous architectural undertaking. In keeping with Brownlee’s advice, she recounted Yale’s many renovation projects, including the ongoing residential college renovation program, renovations of the Art and Architecture Building, the recent renovation of the Kahn Art Gallery and others.

But Cruickshank and Stern also emphasized that Yale is very much continuing to build for the future. In weekly meetings, Stern, as well as former architecture deans Cesar Pelli and Thomas Beeby review Yale’s many projects. The troika certainly stays busy, as, among other projects, a new School of Management complex, a new University Health Services building and, possibly, two new residential colleges are all in the works.

In these projects, Cruickshank said, Yale strives to both respect tradition and embrace architectural innovation. And as the new Sculpture Building demonstrates, sustainability is certainly one focus of university building today.

Comments

  • symposium was great

    glad Yale put such a fine production on. for Yale, of course, there is a unique challenge for the future -- having new buildings be of a quality at least comparable to that of the great buildings already in place on campus.