News’ View: Eli aesthetic renders Stern best for job

Yale’s admissions viewbook is filled with images of improbably elated students working and playing in the shadows of dignified, old-looking edifices. Gables, dormers, green shutters and gargoyles frame images of life as it ought to be at dear old Yale.  

Eager prefrosh apply in droves. 

There’s no doubt Yale knows how to sell its product. The viewbook’s designers knew exactly what we (yesteryear’s eager prefrosh) want, as do University President Richard Levin and the Yale Corporation.

So it’s no surprise that Yale’s newest colleges will look “old,” and that Robert A.M. Stern ARC ‘65, dean of the School of Architecture, will design them. Architects are, perhaps rightfully, disappointed at the lost opportunity.

But we students should be well pleased. 

Levin did not need to search long and hard for an architect.Yalies, after all, are suckers for anything with even a whiff of tradition about it. Stern has the credentials to satisfy us: he’s one of the best architects of traditional buildings, and he knows Yale well. 

Elis also enjoy luxury — 24-hour gyms, hardwood floors, fireplaces, marble showers and the like. Stern’s pretty good at that, too. Apartments in a recently completed building he built in New York City are selling for tens of millions of dollars to some of the world’s richest people. It’s fitting that the architect of the world’s most expensive apartment building should design the world’s most expensive college dorms. 

Levin is sure his pick won’t disappoint.

“[Stern] is, from a professional point of view, probably the premier designer of residential spaces in the world today, and he understands how to make residential spaces work and create a sense of both comfort and intimacy,” he told us. 

In the same breath that administrators privately decreed the colleges should be brick and limestone, they also decided that the School of Management’s new home should be glass and steel – the contemporary architect’s materials of choice.

In stark contrast to the process leading to Stern’s appointment, Yale held an open competition to pick an architect for the SOM project. Yale finally settled on Lord Norman Foster ARC ’62 winner of his profession’s highest prize and known for his contemporary designs.

Even though a survey of SOM students revealed, predictably, that they would prefer to study in staid traditional surroundings, Levin and the Corporation decided Yale could be bold with the project. They could get away with it, he joked, because SOM students are only on campus for two years. 

If anything, Stern’s selection shows us just how far administrators are willing to go to please us in the hopes of wooing more like us.

In stipulating that the colleges should be traditional structures, Yale is, in a way, forsaking its traditions. Yale has historically been at the vanguard of architecture, as anyone who has admired the lines of Louis Kahn’s art galleries on Chapel Street or the curves of Eero Saarinen’s Ingall’s Rink can attest. Those buildings were arbiters of the aesthetic of their time. The new colleges won’t be.

And for that, we can thank ourselves.

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