In the world of architecture, it doesn’t get any better than winning the Pritzker Prize — an honor in architecture akin to the Oscar, the Pulitzer or the Nobel. Now, imagine the likelihood of running into four Pritzker winners on the same day, at the same time, in one place.
This is what happened to dozens of School of Architecture students who remember when Frank Gehry, Richard Meier, Thomas Mayne and Jean Nouvel — Pritzker winners in 1989, 1984, 2005 and 2008, respectively — converged on Rudolph Hall two years ago. No, the gathering wasn’t a Pritzker winners’ reunion; rather, Gehry and Meier were both teaching classes that spring, and their two friends had joined them on the panel to critique their students’ final projects.
The Yale School of Architecture has had a long-standing tradition of bringing practicing celebrities to teach, said School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65. Some who have led studio classes at Yale in recent memory include Philip Johnson — the winner of the very first Pritzker in 1979 — and Zaha Hadid, the only woman to win the prize. But while this approach has existed for decades, it has become an even greater priority under Stern’s tenure, students and professors said, bringing in among the best recognized stars in architecture and design to teach over the past decade.
Stern noted that it has always been the dean’s responsibility to pick the incoming faculty, and the rationale behind attracting established working architects as visiting faculty is to prepare students to one day run successful international firms, he said. Even though their face-time on campus may be limited, the best architects in the business will help cultivate the best working architects of tomorrow, Stern said.
“They make the school one of the most exciting learning places in the profession as a whole,” Stern said. “They teach and they inspire.”
The school has had special funding dedicated to the recruitment of distinguished faculty. Since the establishment of the Davenport Visiting Professorship in 1966, several chairs have been endowed, the most recent of which being the Lord Norman R. Foster Visiting Professorship and the Charles C. Gwathmey Professorship, both established this fall. Combined with the continuous stream of the high-profile and highly regarded guests who have spoken at the school — including Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA, who won the 2010 Pritzker along with her partner Ryue Nishizawa just last week — four professors and 20 students in the school said Yale’s program has brightened the starpower in its halls over the past several semesters.
“I try to bring in people who are effective teachers who represent the broadest range of people and sometimes to act as a correction to an overemphasis that I see in the school,” Stern said.
On the day when Gehry and Meier were holding their star-studded panels two years ago, Ian Mills ’03 ARC ’10 was in his first year at the School of Architecture. Trying to sum up his impression of the day, Mills sighed: “Inspiring.”
“It was a very energetic, frenetic day,” he said.
This air of prestige and celebrity, heightened during the critique, is one that students in the school said they experience on a daily basis. While not all the professors are Pritzker winners, every member of the permanent faculty is “very, very accomplished,” first-year Liz Bondaryk ARC ’12 said.
“It’s all part of the atmosphere that the dean tries to create,” she said. And indeed, while the most widely-known professors are not always there, their presence is still palpable, she said.
Gehry himself said the presence of world-famous architects in a classroom is integral to the education of an architect, allowing students to see beyond the barrier between themselves and their seniors.
“It’s important to de-mystify it so people know they’re not gods, they’re not starchitects,” Gehry said in a phone interview from his Los Angeles office Wednesday. “They’re just human beings.”
Pritzker winner and former School of Architecture professor Robert Venturi was also humble, saying he does not see himself as a celebrity, nor does he think of the atmosphere in his class being impacted by his achievements.
In their first two years, architecture students are not able to take the advanced studios that are chaired by the visiting established architects, but that is not to say they will not come into contact with famous architects. First-year students are all required to take Peter Eisenman’s “Formal Analysis” class, giving them a good taste of the glamorous classes available to the third-year studio students. Eisenman is famous for being a member of the “New York Five,” who helped to form Modernist architecture in the 1960s.
“There’s a presence in the class when you go in knowing of the architect and his work,” Margaret Hu ARC ’12 said. “Even he comes into the class with an air of, ‘I’m Peter Eisenman.’ ”
But Eisenman said the content of his class, not his fame, should attract students.
“When people take my class, I don’t think it has anything to do with the fact that I’m a starpower,” he said. “I think there are a lot of other seminars and conferences that are quite low profile but academically very important.”
BEYOND AWARDS, FRIENDSHIPS
Now in his final year, Mills counts Gehry’s studio among his roster of current classes, where Mills has been working to develop plans for a concert hall in Istanbul, Turkey. Having gone on two trips with Gehry now — one to Turkey to see the site of the semester’s hypothetical project, another to Los Angeles to visit Gehry’s firm — Mills and his classmate, Palmyra Geraki ’06 ARC ’10 said the class has developed an intimate camaraderie.
If anything, Geraki said it is this intimacy that will linger after the end of the semester and after Gehry has returned his focus exclusively to his work.
“He’s a very sweet man — very low key,” she added. “I just don’t have the words.”
Gehry is among the handful of architects who have taught on-and-off at the school since the early 1980s. He said he was initially wooed to the school by his friend Cesar Pelli, who was the dean at the time. During that first semester at Yale, he said he was smitten.
“From the beginning I loved Yale,” Gehry said in the phone interview. “I love playing with younger people — helping teach them not to get caught in traps and how to be themselves. I love watching them grow.”
However, while the students have spent a considerable amount of time with the architect, they have nonetheless seen much less of the architect inside the classroom than a traditional professor. Stern noted that visiting professors are only required to maintain a total of 18 contact days with the school, while a permanent member of the faculty has approximately 28 classes to attend during a full semester. This means that, at least for Gehry who maintains an office across the continent in California, he comes every other week for blocks of time or communicates via satellite with the students.
But as Mills noted, the ability to interact with the Gehry outweighs the shorter amount of time the renowned architect spends on campus.
“He’s definitely very accessible,” Mills said of Gehry. “It just means that your time with him — the hour or 30 minutes a week — it’s much more valuable.”
And, as an added benefit, some students move on to work in Hadid or Gehry’s firms.
“[Students] contribute to the discourse and bring something to the table,” Hadid said in an e-mail. “It’s important that they feel they’re part of the process, and part of the progress we make.”
For those hoping to get a glimpse of Gehry, he will be speaking at the Yale School of Architecture on Thursday, giving a talk titled “Current Works.”
Correction: April 6, 2010
An earlier version of this article contained three errors. First, the article misstated the date of architect Frank Gehry’s lecture at Rudolph Hall. The talk is scheduled for Thursday, April 8, not Monday, April 5. Second, the last name of Michael Holborn ARC ’12 was misspelled. Third, the following quote was misattributed: “There’s a presence in the class when you go in knowing of the architect and his work… Even [Peter Eisenman] comes into the class with an air of, ‘I’m Peter Eisenman.’” The quote should have been attributed to Margaret Hu ARC ’12, not Holborn.