Short on details, but big on value

The Greenberg Center, designed by Robert Stern ARC ’65, houses conference space for Yale’s Office of International Affairs.
The Greenberg Center, designed by Robert Stern ARC ’65, houses conference space for Yale’s Office of International Affairs. Photo by Paul Needham.

Value engineering, the process by which clients eliminate costly elements of building designs in order to save money, is understandably unpopular with architects.

Some designers like to point out that all value engineering does is suck the values out of buildings; Nicolai Ouroussoff, the architecture critic for The New York Times, once called it “a form of water torture.”

The Greenberg Conference Center was designed with cost-efficient architectural principles in mind.
The Greenberg Conference Center was designed with cost-efficient architectural principles in mind.
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So, after seeing the new Greenberg Conference Center on Prospect Street, one must feel bad for Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65, the School of Architecture dean who designed the building and who is also designing Yale’s two new residential colleges.

The Greenberg Center, which officially opened last week and which provides additional space for the University to hold conferences with world leaders, is by no means a bad building. It ably fulfills the needs of Yale’s Office of International Affairs and, though it is connected to the Betts House, it turns away from that historic building and does not distract from it.

Still, the first thing visitors approaching the Greenberg Center notice is the fake stone on the building’s base. Instead of leather insets on the writing surfaces in the main amphitheater, Yale chose to install a blue linoleum that is supposed to look like leather. In all, Stern acknowledged, the building is “lightly detailed.”

University President Richard Levin agreed, saying the Greenberg Center’s 114-person dining room is “in terms of finishes … probably not as grand as some of the dining halls in our colleges.”

While Levin said it was not a “cheap project,” the architects had to devote a great deal of attention and resources to the interpretation booths and kitchen facilities that are critical to the 13,000-square-foot building, which cost in the neighborhood of $10 million to $12 million. Expensive parts of the design had to be eliminated, and while there is no harm in negotiating down the price of the dining room’s china, as Yale did, other cuts matter more.

“It’s not like you’re going to a Marriott conference room,” cautioned University Vice President and Secretary Linda Lorimer, who first conceived of the idea for the center. “But, for instance, it does not have the kind of molding you might have in a Yale residential college common room.”

The question now is whether the two new residential colleges that Stern is designing for Yale will have that kind of molding. After all, while the intention for the Greenberg Center was always to make a building that “looks like Yale even though it’s not downtown,” as Sharon Butler, director of the center, put it, the intention for the colleges is to make a building that just plain looks like Yale.

That costs a lot of money, of course, and Stern said Yale has committed, for instance, to using real stone and brick on the outside of the colleges.

“A budget was established for the colleges before the meltdown and we are still working accordingly,” he said in an interview last week, adding that the budgeting process will continue and “no one knows what that will be like — whether we can have less or more.”

Levin, for his part, said he hopes the budget for the colleges will ultimately have room for the kind of architectural expression that set apart the work of James Gamble Rogers 1889. But, he added, that will “depend on where we are” in terms of fundraising.

If there is no room in the budget for ornamentation and other detailing, Yale may not be at a complete disadvantage; Stern and his firm, Lorimer said, “were incredible partners in cost efficiency.”

Zeynep Pamuk contributed reporting.


  • Larry

    Contrary to the opinion of the reporter, this is a good thing.

  • Anonymous

    Lorimer is right about the Greenberg Center not looking like a Marriott. It looks like a JW Marriott.

  • This article made me sick

    Considering the culture of excess which has lead to the current financial crisis I find this article deplorable. Only at Yale can students complain about a new functional academic building. So sorry it doesn’t meet your lofty standards. I look forward to sitting in the building constructed from the funds that you will donate to Yale in 25 years.

  • PG

    Imagine what value engineers would have done to James Gamble Rogers!

  • anon

    Are those folding tables in the dining hall?

  • Architecture student

    The problem with hiring architects like Robert Stern is that you end up with classical architecture without the budget for classical’s best bits.

  • However

    Those look like Albers paintings and not prints on the walls! Borrowed from YAG? Not so shabby, and not what you find on the walls at a Marriot.

  • Architect

    This is by no means a put-down on Stern, since this was clearly dictated by Yale’s budget, but this building is a real mistake.

    The comment above, about this dumbing-down being a good thing, is entirley misplaced. There is a place for buildings built down to a price, but the face that Yale presents to world leaders is clearly not that place.

    That it is an addition to the wonderfully detailed Betts House just makes those cost decisions in this context that much worse.

  • YaleProf

    The building is not the issue. The issue is that silly program — we already have an international center, and it is simply a waste of money to have a separate thing that has no connection to the university and exists only so some senior administrators can rub elbows with washed-up foreign politicians.

  • Veritas

    @Foetletaken – Just saw the center today. You are right, my friend; a JW Marriott is exactly what this building is.