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 thomas.kaplan@yale.edu

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