Stern pick incites debate

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Could the choice of a traditional architect to build Yale’s two new residential colleges actually betray the University’s tradition?

That’s what some critics are arguing one day after University President Richard Levin announced that he had tapped Robert A.M. Stern, the staid architect and dean of the School of Architecture, to design colleges 13 and 14.

In choosing Stern, Levin picked tradition and — he argues — comfort over experimentation and pizazz. But some critics counter that the selection betrays Yale’s legacy of pushing the architectural envelope.

“I’m skeptical that these buildings will be applauded in 30 years,” said Brent Ryan ’91, a professor of architecture at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Design.

To be sure, not all of the architects and architectural critics interviewed after the announcement of Stern’s selection for the job shared the view. Two were understanding of the selection and praised Stern as having the right temperament and aesthetic vision for the job.

Levin said the “difficult” nature of the site on which the colleges will be built — a triangular plot located behind the Grove Street Cemetery off of Prospect Street — might make traditional architectural styles a more practical choice. By choosing bricks and limestome, he said, Yale will be able to maximize the connections between the new colleges and the heart of the campus. Placing cutting-edge architecture in an isolated location could make the spot less desirable to students, he said.

“Departing radically from the tradition of the original Yale colleges, as was done with Morse and Stiles, was in many ways less successful,” as the resulting living spaces did not comfortably accommodate students, Levin said.

Still, some view the choice of a traditional design — paradoxically — as a rejection of Yale’s traditions. Joseph Giovannini ’67, a prominent New York architect and critic, said Stern’s postmodern style is anything but in line with the innovation of many of Yale’s past architects.

“The last two colleges … both invigorated the architecture of the campus and the spirit of the students,” he said. “With some disappointment I learned that we’re not taking up these traditions.”

But for Levin, it was comfort and community that took precedence. Acknowledging his choice of Stern was in some ways counter to the architectural innovation that defined Yale at Modernism’s zenith in the middle of the last century, Levin said the radical architecture of Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges, built by Eero Saarinen ARC ’34 in the 1960s, backfired.

“We understand Yale has an important architectural tradition,” Levin told the News on Wednesday. “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.”

Considerations of comfort and location differentiate this project from many others in which Yale’s designs made ripples in the architectural world, Goldberger said. After all, he argued, Louis Kahn’s designs for the Yale University Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art, Paul Rudolph’s for the Art & Architecture building and Eero Saarinen for the Ingalls Rink did not have to unify far flung corners of Yale’s campus.

Blair Kamin ARC ’84 of the Chicago Tribune, who was sympathetic to Levin’s choice, was also apprehensive that Stern could do little more than recreate spaces that harken back to a much different Yale — a Yale that predates the radical change of the mid-twentieth century.

“It’s a good choice, provided Stern doesn’t do a nostalgic, Ralph Lauren version of Yale’s Collegiate Gothic quads,” he said. “It isn’t a matter of reproducing what Yale looked like in the 1930s when it was a bunch of rich, white guys.”

Ryan also worried that Yale’s choice could threaten its image as a progressive, modern institution.

“It is an interesting conservative decision in light of the fact that Yale purports to be at the forefront of liberal thought,” Ryan said.

None of those interviewed explicitly named an architect he might have preferred, although Giovannini said he wished that Yale had chosen one of the architects Stern brought to teach at the Architecture School.

“Mr. Stern has been far more adventuresome in his appointments than he has ever been in his architecture,” he said. “I am disappointed for God, for country and for Yale.”

Perhaps Giovannini and the other critics can find solace in the fact that the new School of Management will be designed by acclaimed architect Lord Norman Foster ARC ’62 —out of glass and steel.

Contact NORA WESSEL at nora.wessel@yale.edu

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