When it comes to architecture, Yale College has the mentality of the prototypical, snobbish modern art critic: If you like a chosen design, then you obviously have an eye for architecture; if you don’t, you must not understand it well enough to appreciate it.
Perhaps the best example of this in recent years is Yale’s decision to construct two new residential colleges. Despite the University’s insistence that it would take student opinion into account when making the decision, President Levin announced his support for the project on Feb. 18, 2008, only a week after a News poll revealed that only 25 percent of Yale students supported the creation of two new colleges and a full 49 percent outright opposed them.
Similarly, students have long ridiculed the infamous “modern” residential colleges, Morse and Ezra Stiles, despite the lavish praise often heaped upon them by both the administration and progressive architects. These colleges, designed by famous architect Eero Saarinen ARC ’34, were intended to be “radically different” residential colleges, and in this the architect succeeded spectacularly.
Saarinen himself described the project as an effort “to create an architecture which would recognize the individual as individual.” While one of his goals, dictated by prevailing student sentiment, was to create colleges largely composed of singles, the intention of many of his design choices remain a mystery. For one, Saarinen abandoned the concept of right angles, arguing that right angles confined the individual. Unfortunately, in his eagerness to innovate, he overlooked furniture’s affinity for square corners. Today, while the design does have its supporters, most students regard Morse and Stiles as the worst residential housing on campus, and some, including myself, considered it an outright disaster.
Why is this? Could it be that students are too ignorant of ’60s-era design philosophy to appreciate it, or is there another explanation? The simple and obvious explanation is that Morse and Stiles were built in an entirely original style without much, if any, student input. Thankfully, after 47 years, the University finally has an opportunity to rethink Morse and Stiles and finally reconcile Saarinen’s vision with students’ wishes.
Despite the opportunity, both the University and the project’s architects have never directly consulted students in either Morse or Stiles and have not provided a channel for constructive feedback of the planned renovation. Given the unique nature of the two colleges and the widely acknowledged disparity between them and other colleges, it would seem obvious that the individuals most able to fix the problems with the design are those who have lived in Morse and Stiles for years.
As a resident of a Morse sophomore suite that has been renovated to match the new design, I have to say I am concerned with the direction of the renovation. I believe that the architects have misunderstood the true advantages of living in Morse, for the planned renovation will remove many of the college’s perks.
Despite all that we complain about, Morse does possess many unique and good architectural amenities that cannot be found anywhere else in Yale’s residential college system. Our spacious built-in desks, large bookshelves, walk-in closets and plethora of singles can be more than adequate compensation for the lack of common rooms. By focusing on enhancing Morse’s unique amenities rather than destroying them in pursuit of making Morse like every other college, Yale could finally set right what was wrong with Saarinen’s original design and the execution of it.
The problem, however, is that neither Yale nor its architectural firm is aware of even the possibility of what I have just outlined because they have not taken the time to ask. I would go so far as to say that they have actively dismissed any criticism of or feedback on their plans. It seems as though the reasoning behind this is guided by the belief that students are merely temporary residents without any special insight. Sadly, such a view is shortsighted, and nothing could be further from the truth.
As the residents who have to live in these buildings, we understand their failings and successes better than anyone else could hope to. When buildings are designed without the input of their target inhabitants, the results can be disastrous. It would be a tremendous waste of $150 million to make the same mistake twice and find the students no happier than they had been before.
In the future, the Yale administration should give more value to the insight that student opinion can provide. To move forward on any major residential project without student feedback is a tremendous mistake and one from which I had hoped the administration would have learned in the past.
John Scrudato is a sophomore in Morse College.