Letter: A derivative design

Re: A design inspired by my time at Yale (Jan. 29): Lord Norman Foster is one of the foremost architects in the world and Foster + Partners has designed spectacular projects all over the world. But for anyone familiar with his work and that of the firm, the design of the new School of Management building is disappointing.

First, it relies heavily on design components that appear in many of the firm’s previous projects. Those familiar with the Carré d’Art in Nîmes, France, or the Imperial College Business School in London will have a strong sense of déja vu when they see the overhanging roof and long row of slender, multi-story supporting poles on the Whitney Avenue exterior. And those familiar with the Center for Clinical Science Research and Clark Center at Stanford will, as Yogi Berra once said in another context, have a sense of déja vu all over again when they see the glass boxes and curved forms in the SOM building.

It’s not surprising, of course, that architects return to certain design components; these components are, after all, part of what distinguishes their work from others. But it does make later designs less original, a reflection of the previous work rather than a response to the unique features of the site and purpose of the building being designed.

The relevant language in the zoning ordinance by which the application to build the new SOM will be evaluated requires, among other things, that it complement the design and values of the surrounding neighborhood. The Board of Aldermen will likely approve the application — probably unanimously and without further modification — in the next month or two. But it is hard to imagine a design that would complement the design and values of the surrounding neighborhood less than this one.

In placing the building close to Whitney Avenue, positioning the entrance to the garage and loading docks on the south side of the building and providing ample landscaping in the rear, the design is clearly sensitive to the building’s residential neighbors on Lincoln Street. But the four and five-story glass walls on the north and south sides crowd the side boundaries — evidence that the building is simply too massive for the site. And the front exterior — which might have been appropriate if the building had been set well back from the street or, like the one in Nîmes, in a plaza — simply ignores the surrounding neighborhood, both Yale and non-Yale, altogether.

From those three sides, the building appears, more than anything else, to be simply a monument to Foster + Partners.

David Cameron

Jan. 31

The writer is a professor of political science and director of the Yale Program in European Union Studies.

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