Harden: Stern offers elegance over absurdity

Yale students of the future have cause to smile now that Robert A. M. Stern ARC ’65, dean of Yale’s School of Architecture, has been selected as the architect for Yale’s two new residential colleges. His recently completed neoclassical building at 15 Central Park West in Manhattan shows why he is the right man for the job. The interior of the building offers the finest luxuries and modern amenities; the exterior blends perfectly and elegantly with the stately prewar apartment houses to the north.

Some have criticized the University for not making a bolder choice. These same critics would argue for a more flamboyant architect — someone who would make a “statement.” But when architects feel the need to make statements, the results can be calamitous.

Take, for example, the controversial Stata Center at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Designed by celebrity architect Frank Gehry, the building was touted by MIT’s William J. Mitchell as “the best thing he’s done.” Mitchell was dean of the School of Architecture at the time Gehry was hired to design the structure. His statement is astonishing because the building, which was only supposed to cost $100 million, was completed $200 million over budget, four years late and has since proved incapable of keeping out the rain.

Despite Mitchell’s enthusiasm for the project, MIT filed a lawsuit against Gehry’s firm last fall, alleging that “deficient design services” had led to serious leaks and mold in the building. The structure was only three years old at the time.

The Stata Center epitomizes what John Silber has dubbed the “architecture of the absurd” in his recent book of the same name. According to Silber, absurd architecture occurs when architects “overstep the practical limitations of their profession.” For Gehry and a number of others at the top of the profession, the interests and needs of clients and of the public are secondary to the whims of creative genius. Their brand of architecture devolves all too often into a kind of clamorous self-expression. Good architecture should serve the needs of the client, not the ego of the architect.

Currently, the world of elite architecture is fascinated by novelty. Originality must characterize every pillar and brushstroke. The fascination with individuality and narrative has helped steer the craft away from its roots as a practical art. And, paradoxically, traditional design has become quite novel.

Every year when Yale’s incoming freshmen receive their residential-college assignments, there are two words they dread: Morse and Stiles. In the early sixties, Yale hired Eero Saarinen ’34 to design two “radically different” colleges. Morse and Stiles — his work — certainly are different. But very few students want to live in them. No building can be called a success if its occupants reject it. In architecture, people matter. For many, traditional architecture is part of what makes Yale special.

The appointment of Stern may soften some student misgivings about the building of the new residential colleges. Last year, Stern told The New York Times, “I’m not considered avant-garde because I’m not avant-garde. But there is a parallel world out there — of excellence.” We should expect his designs will contribute to — without changing — the beauty of our campus. Kudos to University President Levin and the Yale Corporation for an excellent choice in Robert Stern. Years from now, residents of the new colleges will thank you.

Nathan Harden is a senior in Berkeley College.

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