Stern to design new colleges

Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, the dean of the Yale School of Architecture, has been commissioned to design Yale’s 13th and 14th residential colleges, the News has learned.

University President Richard Levin confirmed the appointment when reached at home Wednesday night. A public announcement is scheduled for today, Levin said.

“He’s the ideal person to do this job,” Levin said by phone. “He has intimate familiarity with the Yale campus. He understands the context of undergraduate education here and the value and importance of the residential college communities.”

Since the first reports last fall that Yale administrators had privately decided to construct the new colleges in a traditional style, Stern’s New York-based firm, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, had been seen in campus architecture circles as the clear frontrunner for the commission. Earlier this summer, Levin disclosed that the University did not intend to hold an open competition for the job and would favor architects who knew the Yale campus, seeming to tilt the odds even more in the direction of Stern.

In a telephone interview Wednesday night, Stern called the colleges “a defining commission at Yale” and said he looks forward to getting started on their design.

“The residential colleges are one of the most important features of Yale,” he said. “They are really a hallmark of the College and of the University, so this is one of the great architectural privileges of my career.”

Stern will follow the legacies of James Gamble Rogers 1889 and Eero Saarinen ARC ’34, who designed the existing 12 colleges, and he pledged to carry their tradition forward and make the new colleges “as much as possible part of the web and fabric of Yale.”

And that’s why he was hired. University officials are certain about what they want the new colleges to look like; while they decided to be bold and contemporary with the new School of Management campus, hiring the famed British architect Lord Norman Foster ARC ’62, administrators have decided the new colleges will be built in a more traditional style to favor function over aesthetic pizazz.

While Levin said the University did not prescribe any design specifics to Stern, administrators, speaking on the condition of anonymity, have described their tentative vision for the new colleges in interviews several times over the last year. The University intends to erect the colleges in a traditional style — red-brick Georgian, perhaps, with limestone embellishments — and will not try to duplicate the Collegiate Gothic design of six of its existing residential colleges, administrators have said.

Yet Stern said he still expects the new edifices “to look like Yale colleges.”

“The residential colleges, by and large, look different from each other … but they all have certain fantastic shared characteristics: the courtyards, the sequences of shared spaces, the great dining halls and butteries and common rooms and so forth,” Stern said. “I certainly am going to try to capture that sequence and hierarchy in these buildings.”

Still, Levin acknowledged that the choice of Stern will almost certainly draw criticism from those in the architecture world “who were hoping for a truly avant garde designer to do this job, to create the Bird’s Nest of residential colleges,” as he put it, referring to the now-iconic Olympic stadium in Beijing.

“We thought hard about that, and we understand Yale has an important architectural tradition,” Levin said. “But we also … weighted heavily someone who could appreciate residential life here over someone who could create an exterior of a building that would look radical and innovative.”

Yale officials, meanwhile, are already using the news of Stern’s appointment to help raise money for the expansion, which, at an estimated $600 million, could make the new colleges the most expensive dormitories ever erected on an American college campus.

On the eve of today’s announcement, select University donors received confidential messages — obtained by the News — from Vice President for Development Inge Reichenbach informing them of the Stern’s impending appointment. “I hope you are as excited as I am to have such an outstanding person at the helm of this landmark project,” she wrote.

Contact Thomas Kaplan at


  • Anon.

    “We thought hard about that, and we understand Yale has an important architectural tradition,” Levin said. “But we also … weighted heavily someone who could appreciate residential life here over someone who could create an exterior of a building that would look radical and innovative.”

    President Levin suggests that the goal of sensitive and functional architecture is incompatible with modern design. This seems as though it's a false choice--I can only hope the new SOM building is sensitive and functional (as well as being innovative). It would be a real shame if Stern designed Yale's new residential colleges to resemble the work he did at Harvard Business School.

  • Chase

    Hmm… well, Stern is very skilled and knows Yale architecturally better than anyone. And I guess he deserves it, being the beloved Dean of the architecture school.

    But he definitely is the safe choice. He will deliver functional, competence, and typical beauty at the cost of the opportunity for something truly remarkable, new, avante-garde, revolutionary. Yale's architectural legacy will not be enhanced by this decision. These will be background buildings - nice places to live that nobody who doesn't live there will think twice about. Maybe that is fine, as these are intended to accentuate Yale's residential life rather than make an architectural statement or push the state of international contemporary art forward.

    But it is very, very disappointing to see Yale again and again pass up opportunities to add to and further develop the cultural legacy of this generation. It has been shown time and time again at other universities what the choice of a great architect can do for culture and for the university itself (Mies van der Rohe and Rem Koolhaas at IIT, Gehry and Holl at MIT, etcl.). Unfortunately, Yale's priorities are elsewhere. We, instead, have new colleges built in a faux-historical style to compliment the wretched boringness of the new Sculpture Building (Kieran Timberlake) and the embarassment that is the new art history building (Gwathmey Siegel). When will someone with architectural taste and vision, who won't just settle for the average & passable, take the helm at Yale?

  • Hieronymus

    Expect much criticism of Stern's remarks, as reported here (i.e., "Georgian with limestone highlights"), and I have to agree. While I would prefer to avoid "cutting edge" attempts (a la Stiles or, gads, A&A itself), I think that the site, distance, and goals of the new colleges lend themselves to something… different.

    I liked the "alpine chateaux" style someone somewhere noted (perhaps it was an alumnus sketch?), and I do wish Yale could retain either the current SOM dining hall itself or something along those lines, understated, obscured but not obscure…comfortable.

    We'll see. Anyone able to point to existing Stern designs for hints of things to come?

  • Calhoun '73

    Contrary to Mr. Kaplan's assertion, Rogers and Saarinen were not the only architects to build colleges at Yale. John Russell Pope designed Calhoun College (which I'm told is currently under renovation).

  • Anon

    RE: #2 Chase

    Yale tried that with the Saarinen colleges. When somebody is assigned to those colleges, condolences are often in order. Would you want two more in that vein, or perhaps two more that are functional?

    I also love the quick rush to call the Gwathmey building an embarrassment, without acknowledging that similar charges were levied against the neighboring A&A building (and numerous other buildings now considered non-embarrassing) when it first opened.

  • Nuke

    In a campus which has the best work of Kahn, Rudolph, Saarinen and Gwathmy, Yale has dug up the corpse of James Gamble Rogers.

  • student

    #2, it should be noted that MIT actually sued Gehry a couple of years after his building was completed due to "flaws in his design."

    While I agree the KT and Gwathmey buildings are poor, I think Stern is a perfect choice for the new residential colleges. If there's one thing he excels at designing, it's residences, most recently demonstrated by the success and acceptance (even by some of his critics) of 15 Central Park West. I wouldn't pick him for an Olympic stadium, but I'm completely confident he'll do a great pair of residential colleges.

  • design
  • Bob

    The A&A building was criticized when it opened because it's a concrete monstrosity that should have been dynamited 10 minutes after completion.

  • Anon.

    The A & A building (now Rudolph Building) was mostly celebrated as a landmark of American architecture when it was built. It remains one of the most architecturally significant academic buildings in the United States. Whatever your personal tastes and frustrations with the building, I would suggest taking a second look, it is in many ways a brilliant building.

    Certainly modernism is not without its problems, but that's no excuse for architectural reaction. Plenty of modern buildings are thoughtful, sensitive, and quite functional (they need not be as controversial or brash as the A & A building). The failures of the 60s and 70s shouldn't distract from what really is going on with selection of Stern and "traditional architecture." Like the renovation of Bass Library, this is an exercise in branding Yale College. The university is using of architecture to support the transformation of education into a consumer product. And for the consumers of an Ivy League education--students and parents--modern, avant garde architecture is scary and frequently ugly. Unfortunately, the solution to this problem seems as though it's likely to lead to some rather bland traditionalism.

  • Anonymous

    I believe Pope did Silliman as well (at least the parts that weren't cobbled together from earlier buildings).

  • Anonymous

    Most people are happier living in colleges designed by James Gamble Rogers than in those by Saarinien. I agree with #7.

  • Nuke

    #12 is correct, but that isn't the end of the inquiry. There is an intellectual component to modernism (along the lines of abstract expressionism) which is lacking in the historicism on which Yale gorged itself during the 1930's. It may be a little ridiculous to include her in this important discussion, but Ayn Rand had a point. Yale's periodic obsession with an alien history (i.e. it is not Oxford or Cambridge) does not flatter a world class university.

  • Amory
  • Chase (again)

    to #5 and #12:

    Just because the Saarinen colleges (Stiles and Morse) are not particularly nice places to live doesn't mean you should write off contemporary architecture altogether.

    Saarinen, while occasionally a good architect, was not exactly a great, wonderful, lasting, timeless architect. Besides, in the fifty years since, architecture has come a long way.

    As an analogy: would you sweat off sushi altogether because you had rotten fish at one particular restaurant, once?

  • John

    The choice of Stern for the colleges and Foster for SOM is smart PR as well. A flashy, architecturally significant design can help get SOM the national and international exposure it needs. Two new colleges that are livable, architecturally harmonious (the better to integrate them into the campus, even if they are a little far), and amenity-laden will work wonders with parents about to shell out $150,000. And if they turn out to be the most expensive dormitories ever erected on an American college campus, well, that'll get Yale some press, too.

  • Silliman '79

    Georgian and Gothic architecture both get a bad rap today because, despite their undying popularity with the public, architecture students are brainwashed to avoid them in favor of whatever Modernist style is currently in vogue. Consequently, traditional designs today are often consigned to hacks (think McMansions), justifying the prejudice. But Robert A. M. Stern is a first-rate architect who isn't bound by that prejudice, and therefore is free to find inspiration throughout architectural history. As a result, Stern's work is richer and more varied than most practicing today.

    I am delighted he received the commission for two new residential colleges at Yale. My only regret is that they will be tucked away behind the Grove Street Cemetery, rather than balancing each other on either side of the street at the foot of Hillhouse Avenue. Using the brick gateway of Silliman College across Grove Street as a central, unifying design motif, the colleges could create a splendid formal entrance to Hillhouse Avenue and Science Hill.

    Of course this means replacing the hodgepodge of university buildings that currently occupy lower Hillhouse Avenue, but displaced departments would be awarded new quarters as part of reorganized Science Hill -- perhaps even designed by Stern.