New Haven: An architect’s hidden mecca

It may be easy to miss, but wedged between News Haven and Ten Thousand Villages on Chapel Street sits a door that leads to a world-class architecture firm.

It is the office of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, the firm of former Yale School of Architecture Dean Cesar Pelli. And just a few blocks away, two firms that are in many ways Pelli’s offspring sit firmly planted in New Haven long after their principals received Yale degrees. Even so, the architectural renaissance that has taken place in the Elm City is not altogether surprising, given its history: John Davenport’s nine squares, plotted out in the 17th century, made New Haven the first planned city in the United States.

“I love it here,” Pelli, who has worked in city for over 30 years, said in an interview. “I just hope they never kick me out.”

Even if Pelli were removed from New Haven, his legacy would not soon fade. Not only has he done significant work at Yale, but dozens of his former apprentices — from George Knight ARC ’95 and Jon Pickard ARC ’79, both of whom have offices on Chapel Street, to Rob Charney ARC ’76, Robert Orr ARC ’73 and others — continue to make their mark on the Elm City.

And while Knight, Pickard and many observers of New Haven architecture give Pelli credit for the influx of talent, the former dean credits his mentor, Eero Saarinen ARC ’34.

Pelli calls it the “Saarinen Legacy”: the famed Modernist architect had decided to move his offices from Michigan to New Haven, although he died before completing the move. But Pelli and others involved in Saarinen’s firms saw through the move to the Elm City. Over the decades, that decision has brought even more designers to town, Pelli said.

For Pickard, whom Pelli considers “family,” Yale’s role in New Haven’s architecture scene is just as significant as Pelli’s.

“Our disproportionate number of nationally and internationally recognized architects have elected to build their practices in walking distance of the University because Yale attracts the most talented young architects,” he said.

Pickard, who has designed a number of distinguished skyscrapers around the country, including the much anticipated 1180 Peachtree in Atlanta, noted that Yale also facilitates many attractive architectural events for New Haven residents, including a series of lectures this week by Pelli and acclaimed Paris architect Paul Andreu. But his firm has yet to build for Yale or New Haven, in large part because of the studio’s proclivity for tall structures.

Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, who runs a private architectural firm in New York City, added that the relatively low cost of living and working in New Haven — especially compared to New York — is another attraction for young architects.

But it is not just New Haven’s affordability that provides architectural opportunity in what Pelli called a “tiny New York.”

Just as the University itself offers lectures and events to the public that often focus on architecture, Wine Dine Design, a New Haven series of monthly evening discussions about design over wine and dinner is a testament to the revival of the city’s aesthetic sensibilities.

The second event in the series, held on Wednesday, featured a presentation by Knight titled “Savoring the Ninth Square.” In light of a catastrophic fire in Ninth Square on Dec. 12, Knight on Thursday night put forth a plan to revitalize a block at the intersection of Chapel and Orange Streets.

He started by evaluating what he called a standard redevelopment of the area. But then he likened what he called a “conventional plan” to a meal at McDonald’s — a far cry from the meal at Zinc that followed the discussion.

“That kind of development is like fast food — very satisfying in the short term, apparently inexpensive and very quickly getting the job done,” he said, standing in front of a slide showing a Big Mac and french fries. “But it would be a big mistake.”

Instead, Knight discussed his proposal for building smaller, more contextual buildings in the area, emphasizing the importance of retaining New Haven’s charm, even in a time of such extensive construction.

And with over 200 architects in town, according to the American Institute of Architecture, New Haven certainly has enough designers to change the city significantly in the near future.

Comments

  • anon

    You said Pelli is "world class", but a more accurate characterization would be that he is one of the 5 or 10 most famous architects in the world. Ever hear of the Petronas Towers in Malaysia?

  • umm

    is there any difference between calling Pelli "world class" and one of the "most famous architects in the world"?

  • Architecture Expert

    Pelli is good, perhaps world class, but he is certainly not one of the famous architects in the world. I do really like his work and think he's a very good architect, but I can think of at least 30-40 other architects that today's elite architecture students are more interested in studying than Pelli.

  • Anonymous

    All I need to know is that Pelli designed IFC in Hong Kong, which is the most badass office building any Yalie works in.

  • poncho

    unfortunately despite having all these "world-class" architects New Haven is hideous. then again it was the "world-class" architects in the 1950s and 1960s that made it that way with all the demolition of historic buildings in favor of oppressive and ugly new buildings.

  • rudolph

    while the old buildings of new haven probably were great, to call new haven's 50s and 60s buildings "oppressive" and "ugly" is naive and uninformed.

  • Anonymous

    The K of C tower IS oppressive and ugly. It has all the personality of one of those rolling dininghall tray carriers. Stand at the base of it sometime. Everything about it says " I am Gigantor. Humanity, you are nothing, and I acknowledge you not. "

  • Anonymous

    Pelli's IFC in Hong Kong is amazing. I envy anyone who works there.