The architecture of Richard Levin

On Oct. 6, 1994, just over a year after his inauguration as Yale’s president, a boyish-looking Richard Levin addressed his faculty. He talked at length about plans to renovate some of Yale’s oldest buildings and then mentioned the ongoing construction of Henry R. Luce Hall, which he said signaled the new administration’s focus on “aesthetics.”

Maybe he should have used a different word.

Richard Levin “breaks ground” at the Rose Center, which serves as the Yale Police Department headquarters.
Richard Levin “breaks ground” at the Rose Center, which serves as the Yale Police Department headquarters.

After all, Luce Hall is considered by students, faculty and architecture critics alike to be among the worst pieces of architecture on Yale’s campus, and is almost certainly the least attractive building constructed here in the last two decades. In a telephone interview this week, Sterling professor emeritus of the history of art Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 called Luce “a mistake that destroyed Hillhouse Avenue.”

If that is true, then Levin is — at least in part — to blame. Although plans for Luce were developed before he became president, it was Levin who asked Edward Larrabee Barnes, the building’s architect, to rotate Luce so that its front side faced Hillhouse.

Even though Luce is set back from Hillhouse Avenue, the row of mansions that Charles Dickens is said to have called America’s most beautiful street, Scully and others insist that had the building’s narrow side faced the road, it would have better maintained the avenue’s structure. Whatever one’s thoughts on the particulars of Luce, though, there is no doubt that the building’s opening was not an auspicious start to Levin’s tenure as Yale’s chief architectural patron.

But Luce was not the last building that Levin would open. In Levin’s 16 years as Yale’s president, the University has devoted more than $4 billion to construction and renovation. Though at first Levin focused primarily on renovations, the projects have grown more ambitious over time, and there is no doubt that the campus of today — let alone the campus of, say, 2020 — has Levin’s orderly, pragmatic mark all over it.

DEFERRING MAINTENANCE NO LONGER

Levin took office at a time when asbestos was — literally — falling on students in dining halls. Yale’s campus, the victim of the so-called “deferred maintenance” of the 1970s and 1980s, was in disrepair. So the president’s first focus was, understandably, on renovating those buildings that were falling apart.

Linsly-Chittenden Hall reopened in 1998 after a nearly 1½-year renovation that cost $22 million but brought light to a previously dim building. Around the same time, a major restoration of Sterling Memorial Library was undertaken. More than $1 million was spent on window repairs in the Starr Main Reference Room alone.

The Irving S. Gilmore Music Library, also opened in 1998, was part renovation and part new construction. Even during his year as dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, Levin said in a recent interview, he had seen that the University needed more space for its music collection. So when the opportunity to build a music library in what had previously been an out-of-the-way courtyard in Sterling emerged, Levin seized it.

“I remember thinking that this was just grotesquely irresponsible,” Levin said. “We had Mozart manuscripts sitting in wet boxes. I got to be president, and one of the first things I did was I said, ‘What are the plans for the music library?’ ”

A plan for the project by former School of Architecture Dean Cesar Pelli was rejected because, at $35 million, it was too expensive for Yale at the time. But the scheme that was ultimately built, planned by the Boston-based Shepley Bulfinch Richardson and Abbott, was embraced in equal measure by students and architecture aficionados. Its lyrical trusses hold up a curved roof that encloses the old courtyard; the mezzanine-level reading room below is now one of the most popular places on campus for studying.

A CONTROVERSIAL BALCONY

But life at Yale is about more than just studying, and Levin knew that the 12 residential colleges would need to be renovated at some point. Unfortunately for Yale, the renovation of Calhoun College that took place over the summer of 1990 proved that a college could not be renovated in just one summer.

Instead, students would need to be moved out their college for a full year so that construction workers could have up to 15 months to work on the buildings. This required the construction of the New Residence Hall — better known as “Swing Space” — in 1998. While the 124,000-square-foot building, designed by Herbert S. Newman and Partners of New Haven, is a pragmatic triumph, it lacks the imagination and character that define the best residential colleges of James Gamble Rogers 1889.

Students in Berkeley College were the first to occupy Swing Space, during the 1998-’99 academic year. Berkeley received a thorough renovation that would set the stage for future projects; its basement was reconfigured, student suites were upgraded, and the building’s exterior was repaired. Since the completion of Berkeley’s renovation, Swing Space has been home to students from a different college each year. By 2011, each of Yale’s 12 residential colleges will have been renovated.

It was in Berkeley’s dining hall, which would in later years become famous for its sustainable food, that the renovation proved most controversial.

KieranTimberlake, the architecture firm headed by Stephen Kieran ’73, added a balcony and stairs to the dining hall, helping to hide the college’s servery and adding a semi-private dining space above the main hall.

Critics griped that Yale was changing the character of its historic buildings; the University maintained that it was only making a small addition that would make the dining hall work better for today’s students. Levin, a pragmatist at heart, worked to find a balance between preserving great architecture and adapting it for modern use. Each proposed addition to a residential college was subjected to strict scrutiny from architects, University officials and even fellows of the Yale Corporation.

Paul Goldberger ’72, the architecture critic for The New Yorker, said in a phone interview that Levin was right to evaluate proposed changes to older buildings on a case-by-case basis.

“There’s a real difference between putting a little metal balcony into a dining hall,” Goldberger explained, “and putting a little metal balcony onto the outside of Harkness Tower.”

No proposal of the latter sort has surfaced during Levin’s tenure, but one can never be sure. After all, Kieran, in defending his balcony, said that, “for every change you do see in the colleges, there are probably dozens that were considered that you don’t see.”

DEMOLISHING DIVINITY

A decade ago this month, the School of Architecture sponsored a symposium called “Yale Constructs: Planning and Building for the University’s Fourth Century.”

The three-day program was heavy on presentation and light on discussion, but people still talk about the closing speech that Scully delivered. The University had, in 1997, made public a plan to demolish four buildings on the Sterling Divinity Quadrangle and move the Divinity School closer to Central Campus. Scully, Pelli and others saw the plans as an abomination.

At the symposium, in what current School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern called a “curtain-closing speech,” Scully railed against the plan to demolish the brick buildings of the Divinity School, which had been completed in 1932 and designed by the firm of Delano & Aldrich in a style that evoked the work of Thomas Jefferson at the University of Virginia.

“If the Divinity School were rebuilt according to the present plan, I’d have to rethink my future in this institution,” Scully said at the symposium. “Loyalty can only be stretched so far.”

Levin said Wednesday night that he was taken aback by Scully’s comments; the two had a talk in the president’s Woodbridge Hall office soon after. But the opposition to the Divinity project was especially troubling to Levin because so many of the school’s faculty had originally supported the idea of moving closer to the rest of Yale. As critics began to outnumber supporters, Levin decided it was time to back away from the project.

“The provost and I were left kind of hanging out there,” Levin said. “We figured if the people who really wanted this in the first place changed their minds, what was the point?”

So, a few months later, Levin announced that the buildings would not be torn down. Instead, the Divinity campus was renovated in 2003, and the greatest architectural conflict of Levin’s time at Yale ended without any resignations.

Stern, who, as an alumnus of the School of Architecture, wrote letters to Levin urging that he restore the Divinity buildings, said in an interview that Levin regained the architectural community’s trust by changing his plans.

“People respected that he listened to the voices of alumni and critics and reconsidered a wrong decision,” he said. “That always deserves respect.”

A ‘PRETTY CLEAR’ VISION

Leaving aside Scully’s remarks, the April 1999 conference was also notable in that the presentations made then presaged almost every single building project that has taken place on campus in the ensuing decade.

By this point in Levin’s tenure, Yale had embarked on one of the most ambitious campus planning initiatives in its history. Cooper, Robertson & Partners produced a 185-page “Framework for Campus Planning” in 2000; more specific plans were also produced to examine the future of Science Hill, the “Arts Area” around Chapel Street, and other parts of the campus.

Levin knew by then that Yale would have lots of money to spend over the next decade or so, and he wanted to have his plans ready.

“I wouldn’t say it was all in my head the day I started,” he said, “but I’d say around five years in, I had a pretty clear vision.”

“Pretty clear” is something of an understatement. The Cooper, Robertson framework, while not meant to be a rigid master plan, went so far as to outline the location of Yale’s two new residential colleges, which now may not open until some 15 years after the firm completed its study.

Laurie Olin, the landscape architect who has been instrumental in designing parks and walkways for Yale over the last decade, said he has seen few universities that are as diligent about making plans and sticking to them as Yale is.

“It’s unusual when you have an institution that has enough continuity of people and vision and follow-through that they actually do follow a coherent plan over time,” he said. “Great institutions do that, and Yale has been exemplary in this respect.”

At the same time as all these plans were being produced, Levin realized that he would need help in overseeing all the building that was to take place around campus. He had been consulting with Thomas Beeby ARC ’65, a former dean of the School of Architecture, and ultimately brought Pelli and Stern along too.

The three now review all plans for major construction projects at Yale. They are known to Levin as the “three amigos,” to other administrators as the “troika” and to critics as the “Star Chamber.”

ARCHITECTURE AS EXPRESSION

A. Whitney Griswold, the president of Yale from 1951 to 1963 who commissioned Louis Kahn’s Art Gallery, Paul Rudolph’s Art & Architecture Building, Eero Saarinen’s Ingalls Rink and Morse and Stiles colleges, and Gordon Bunshaft’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, said this of architecture at Yale: “A great university should look at architecture as a way of expressing itself.”

There’s no doubt as to the modern ideals that Griswold wanted to express. Trying to decipher Levin’s expression is more difficult.

The president’s favorite new building on campus is the Malone Center, constructed in 2005 and designed by Pelli. Sitting tight on its site at the intersection of Prospect Street and the Farmington Canal, Malone is Pelli’s reinterpretation of Robert Venturi’s unbuilt plan for a mathematics building on an adjacent site. While Venturi’s proposal is considered more graceful in its connection with the canal, Malone is still a memorable building, and probably the most well-known new Yale building of the last decade.

Few of Levin’s other commissions stand out in this way, though. To hear Goldberger tell it, “There’s been a lot of good stuff but not extraordinary buildings that achieve national or international attention.”

Not every building needs to be famous, of course, and some of the newly constructed buildings are deliberately quiet. The Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building, for one, fills what was a void on Science Hill’s northern end. The building, designed by Bohlin Cywinski Jackson, includes a courtyard and gate by Kent Bloomer ’59 ART ’61 that make it feel like a part of Yale even though it’s around a mile away from the heart of Central Campus.

As Scully put it, Levin has been “good for the sciences.” With the addition of Kroon Hall, the new, sustainable home for the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies, Science Hill is undergoing a major transformation that is replacing loading docks and loud trucks with lounging students.

‘PLUSES AND MINUSES’

Just a short walk down Prospect Street, on the block between the canal and Sachem Street, Levin is arguably having his greatest impact.

On the block’s east side, Fred Koetter, another former dean of the School of Architecture, has designed a stone-and-glass building for the social sciences that will be called Rosenkranz Hall. One or two other buildings will be added on this side of the street, where the existing School of Management campus currently lies.

The red-brick residential colleges that Stern is currently designing will be built across the street. Asked if the varied styles on this block will conflict with each other, Koetter sounded hopeful.

“There’s places on campus where you get brick buildings across from stone buildings and so forth,” he said. “The thing that holds them together is the question of scale.”

Rosenkranz Hall is a large building that sits directly on Prospect Street. The best thing you can say about it, Yale administrators joke, is that it hides Luce Hall. But the question of its relationship with Stern’s colleges has received relatively little scrutiny. More controversial has been the decision to give Stern the commission for such a major project; his firm, after all, is not known for its avant-garde architecture.

“What’s the message?” architect Frank Gehry asked in an interview with the News. “A university is preparing people for the future. But you tell them, ‘We don’t know how to live in the present, so we want you to live in the past to go into the future.’ It’s an abdication of responsibility.”

Levin does not see things this way. He says he chose Stern’s architecture firm in large part because the University suspects that students would prefer to live in old-looking buildings rather than in masterpieces of modern architecture. Pre-war, after all, sells better than post-war.

“There’s pluses and minuses to cutting-edge architecture,” Levin said. “We got one great Saarinen building and two Saarinen buildings that have not stood the test of time. We got a Marcel Breuer building that is not so great. … But we also got great Louis Kahn buildings and probably Gordon Bunshaft’s best building.”

RESTORING KAHN, ET AL.

Still, Levin is planning a small foray into modern architecture with the ongoing construction of a new building for Yale University Health Services, designed by Mack Scoggin, and the planned campus for the School of Management, by Lord Norman Foster ARC ’62. Levin said he is trying to find a balance in Yale’s major projects between embracing contemporary design and building more traditional structures.

Even still, Levin has proven himself firmly committed to renovating even Yale’s most modern buildings. Pretty much every building that needed renovation has been restored at this point — including the architectural icons of the 1950s and 1960s that make the University one of the great museums of modern architecture. The president who has shied away from building modern has not been shy about restoring modern buildings.

“I don’t think the Art Gallery has ever looked as good in its entire history,” Goldberger said of its recent restoration, “and maybe neither has the Art & Architecture building.”

Indeed, the 2006 renovation of the Yale University Art Gallery, overseen by Polshek Partnership Architects, has returned one of the campus’s most powerful buildings to splendor. And the restoration of A&A, now called Rudolph Hall, has been equally well received, though the addition that Charles Gwathmey ARC ’62 designed has been criticized as a bland hodgepodge of shapes.

Deborah Berke took the old Jewish Community Center on Chapel Street and breathed new life into it with a comprehensive restoration and addition so that the complex could house the School of Art. Work has been done to the Beinecke, and a thorough renovation and subtle underground addition to Ingalls Rink will be completed this fall.

Levin has had to learn about architecture on the job. He never took an architecture class as an undergraduate at Stanford, but he did take art history. Stern said the president “sees clearly and makes the right decision almost invariably.”

But with two new residential colleges, the new SOM campus and a number of other projects on hold because of the recession, the jury is still out on Levin’s architectural legacy.

This much, though, is undeniable: Levin has come a long way since he cut the ribbon at Luce Hall.

Comments

  • Yale as Art

    This is a wonderful article, worthy of the nation's oldest college daily newspaper at a great liberal arts institution. Bravo! Brava!
    Paul D. Keane
    M.Div.'80

  • Anonymous

    great article. scully is right -- luce destroyed TWO streets, hillhouse AND prospect.

  • Anonymous

    Levin's buildings haven't been great…but then again, he is an economist.

  • Anonymous

    Except for giving Stern the colleges commission, Levin's been good for the campus.

  • josh

    great article.

  • Y09

    Mark Twain, not Charles Dickens.

  • Anonymous

    It was Dickens. The myth is Twain. (Or maybe it was both of them)

  • Dutch Elms

    I've always heard it as Dickens. Part of the beauty he was referring to was the collonaded tunnel created by the now long deceased Elm trees, breakfast, lunch and dinner for some microbe from Holland.

  • About Twain & Dickens

    According to the city of New Haven, it was Dickens that referred to Hillhouse Ave. as one of the "most beautiful in America."

    see: http://www.cityofnewhaven.com/library/Tour/tour16.html

  • Hounie

    Calhoun was renovated in the Summer of 1989, not 1990.

  • calhoun '92
  • Anonymous

    Terrific timely article, although I wish it had included some comments on the new sculpture building.

  • JYip

    A masterwork.

  • CC' 94 to CC'92 above

    I arrived in 1990. It was renovated the summer prior. You are wrong- and this article was probably researched using the incorrect information in the YDN article you cite. This is how history gets polluted.

  • Y09

    This is one of the better of this type of articles in a long time. I wish it got more attention.
    It really put it into perspective: not a single building built by Levin, except Malone and maybe Kroon, is even decent. The Loria center is a downright disgrace, and everything else (the sculpture) are either out of place or look like a suburban office park creation. Rozenkranz is going to be equally average. Yale should get back into the habit of destroying buildings (look up Osbourne Hall). Morse and Stiles,as well as 451 College, should be gone!

  • Luce

    Luce looks like it was bought off the shelf at IKEA.

    Functional. Cheap.

  • John C.

    Calhoun renovations began in the summer of 1988. The goal was to finish before September; renovations went literally 'round the clock (much to the chagrin of New Haven and summer school students).

    The budget was ~$20 million; actual cost was at least double, and renovations were not completed on time. Indeed, completion was postponed to the following summer.

    Yale stepped back to re-consider its renovation policy, leading to delays for all colleges. When they resumed, renovations were at a much slower pace and made use of the innovative "swing space."

    Boola boola.

  • Hieronymus

    While I agree w/#15 in that buildings built under Levin are lacking (some more than others), I simultaneously applaud--and loudly--the restoration/preservation of many Yale landmarks (and not-quite-landmarks) that has gone on under his tenure. Good work!