UP CLOSE | A green and golden age

No caption.
No caption. Photo by Amir Sharif.

There is a buzz at the Yale School of Architecture.

Over the past year, the renovation of the school’s 47-year-old home, Paul Rudolph Hall, earned a LEED Gold certificate; the school’s admissions office posted record numbers for total applications received; and the school managed to attract, yet again, some of the world’s most famous architects, including Frank Gehry, to teach this semester.

The Architecture School has undergone physical renovation as well as a revamping of its curriculum and faculty.
The Architecture School has undergone physical renovation as well as a revamping of its curriculum and faculty.

All this is in addition to the glitzy talks and exhibitions the school hosted this year. The New York Times featured these exhibitions in three articles, printing two more when two of the shows traveled through other cities. Rival schools at Harvard, Princeton, the University of Pennsylvania and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology received no such coverage of their programs or exhibitions.

Sitting in his paprika-carpeted office on the third floor of the school two weeks ago, Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 paused for a moment to consider the year. He slowly took off his glasses, uncrossed his legs and leaned into his desk: “There was a time when the school had faded behind its rivals,” he said. “But we’re relevant again.”

The school has been on “a steady climb” for some time now, said Cesar Pelli, who held the deanship from 1977 to 1984.

“I think it’s better than it ever was,” Pelli said. “Bob has been able to give that sense of excitement to the school — that you can understand everything that is going on by being there.”

As he approaches the midpoint of his third term at the helm of the school — making him, at 12 years and eight months, the school’s longest-serving dean — Stern has not only led the effort to physically renew the school, he has also continued with updates to its curriculum and faculty in response to current trends in architecture, from the recent fervor for environmental design to the cracking of the glass ceiling in the old boys’ club of architecture.

And rivalries aside, deans and former chairs of two architecture schools agreed that the Yale School of Architecture has never been better.

“I toast [Stern’s] success,” said Marilyn Taylor, dean of the University of Pennsylvania School of Design. “Bob has grounded the school and he has given it incredible visibility.”

But while the school is experiencing some of the best years in its history, architects and critics interviewed said the recent changes are only the first steps in a long path of improvement.

‘TERRIBLE SHAPE’

The school’s successes are a far cry from the expectations of many critics and students when Stern first took the helm of the then shaky architecture school in 1998.

Stern’s task was clear from the onset: he had “to haul the floundering institution back to glory,” as a New York Times piece published three weeks after his appointment made clear.

“The school was in really terrible shape when I became dean,” Pelli said, recalling his appointment 20 years before Stern’s, in 1977. The school was worn out — both physically and in spirit — during the social revolts of the early 70s, Pelli said. Because of the protests, from the rallies against the Vietnam War to the hubbub of the Black Panthers movement, the school was associated with political radicalism and academic delinquency, he added. The impression was so strong that an accidental fire that broke out in the school in 1969 was immediately pinned on student demonstrators, though later evidence showed that the fire was not arson.

At one point, Pelli said, there was even talk in the Yale Corporation of dissolving the school.

Starting in the ’70s, a series of deans each tried to set the school back on track, making slow progress in restoring its order and reputation, Stern explained.

After decades of trailing in the wake of rivals at Harvard, Princeton and Columbia, the Yale School of Architecture’s future seemed uncertain in 1998.

To add to the anxieties, critics said Stern’s personal portfolio of classicist tropes would send the school backward, rather than carrying it into the 21st century.

But as Stern has emphasized, then and now, the Yale School of Architecture is not his personal platform. Architects like Frank Gehry and Thom Mayne, whose architectural theories often clash with Stern’s, have been invited to teach at the school. Outside of the classroom, Blair Kamin ARC ’84, Pulitzer-winning architecture critic for the Chicago Tribune, pointed to the inclusion of Professor Emeritus Vincent Scully ’40 GRD ’49 — a vociferous critic of Eero Saarinen ARC ’34 — on panel discussions of a retrospective exhibition on Saarinen’s work in 2005, organized by the school to recognize the legacy of the famous architect.

“It is this kind of diversity of thought and approach that is really needed for 21st century architects to be successful,” Taylor said.

This sense of dialogue, among colleagues and rivals, has breathed new air into the school, resuscitating the sense of excitement Rudolph had established in the ’60s, Pritzker Prize-winning architect Robert Venturi said.

GREEN AND (LEED) GOLD

In 2007, as Stern was reaching the end of his second term, President Levin was in Switzerland delivering a speech on environmentalism. It was, more or less, a list of the sustainability commitments that the University had heard Levin express a few times by then, from their initial announcement in 2005 to their publication in a Newsweek article earlier in 2007.

Thinking back to the kickoff of Levin’s campaign, Stern said, smiling coyly, that it was a bit funny given Yale’s reputation at the time for “not exactly being green.”

“But we all sucked in our guts and tried our best to keep the president an honest man,” he added, his eyebrows rising in exclamation.

Among the efforts made by the School of Architecture, Stern added, is the LEED Gold-certified renovation of Rudolph Hall. The school also forged a joint-degree program with the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies in 2006 — an academic curriculum that awards students both a Master in Architecture and a Master in Environmental Management upon graduation.

But as Stern noted, the new program wasn’t just a response to the University’s new earthy agenda, but served also to bolster the environmental design classes at the school to prepare students for the new demands of architecture.

“Incorporating green building practices is crucial,” Kamin said. “To ignore it is to train dinosaurs. And why pay enormous amounts of money to come out as a dinosaur?”

Kamin graduated from the school with a Master in Environmental Design, a small program founded in the late 1960s before environmentalism was recognized as a pressing concern in architecture.

Associate Dean of the School of Architecture Peggy Deamer, who is now the acting chair of the MED curriculum said the program shows that Yale has had a long concern with the environment. But she was careful to differentiate the program from the new joint degree program; while the MED focuses on written research and criticism, culminating in an academic thesis, the joint degree encourages environmental design and construction, training architects to meet the demands of the field today.

But even with the school’s efforts to increase the presence of environmental design, Deamer said most students in the Master of Architecture program are dissociated from the MED program, adding that she wished the MED was better integrated into the school’s traditional curriculum.

“The MED program is unique,” Deamer said, reflecting on Yale’s appeal to prospective students as a green design school. “But I’d say the majority of the Master of Architecture students barely know it exists.”

And while Deamer said the new joint degree introduced under Stern has so far had great influence — “changing the character of the M.Arch curriculum” — there’s still a way to go.

Indeed, the green effort is still fresh at the school. Kamin joked that the annual alumni letter mailed to the school’s graduates was evidence enough of the room for progress in the school’s environmental aspirations.

“The dean still sends 10-page letters about what’s going on in the school,” Kamin said with a chuckle. “What’s wrong with e-mail?”

BREAKING THE GLASS AND CONCRETE CEILING

Over the past 12 years, it has become hard to imagine the voice of anyone else but Stern reverberating through the concrete halls of Rudolph Hall. But in 1998, after a year and a half of searching, University President Richard Levin and then-School of Architecture Dean Thomas Beeby ARC ’65 came up with a short list of three academics and architects to lead the school — a list that did not include Stern.

But at the time that was not the surprise. Rather, of the three candidates, the list included two women: UCLA professor Dana Cuff and Penn’s current dean, Taylor.

While Yale never got its female dean — “Not yet,” Stern noted — the selection did shine light on the cracks in Yale’s glass ceiling.

“I didn’t feel like I was on that list because of my gender and I don’t think I wasn’t given the position because of my gender either,” Cuff, who is currently the director of an urban design research center at UCLA, said in an interview Wednesday. “I don’t think that was a concern at Yale.”

But since then, the school’s administration has made a concerted effort to give tenure to female professors — sometimes forgiving their relative youthfulness — to close the gender divide, Deamer said.

Stern added that the school has made a push in the past several years to recruit diversity in both its student body and its faculty, with the number of female tenured professors now roughly equaling the number of their male counterparts.

Today, though the gender gap on the faculty has yet to close, eight of the 27 professors at the school are female. There are also three female visiting endowed chairs this year and 15 more female lecturers, critics and instructors on the school’s faculty. The school’s total faculty count is slightly over 100, putting the proportion of females in the school’s faculty at roughly 25 percent.

These numbers are a significant improvement on previous decades, when the faculty featured at most a handful of women, often in peripheral roles, according to former School of Architecture professor Denise Scott Brown.

But for Deamer, that’s only half of the problem: There is a more “subliminal” gender divide in the image of the successful architect projected by the school, which is and has been predominantly masculine, she said.

“You look at the lecture series. You look at who’s put forward when we have open houses for students, who gets awards in the school, who’s seen as a star, who they’re promoting as the hot architect,” Deamer said. “It tends to look singularly male.”

This image bias at the school is one that has left Yale with an older personality, Deamer and Cuff said — one referencing the male-dominated, “macho” world of architecture. Meanwhile, just a few weeks ago, Kazuyo Sejima of SANAA became only the second female winner of the Pritzker Prize, a not to the slowly increasing number of women holding top positions at major firms.

“I think it will take a while for our younger faculty and our younger women to reach the stage that has not been theirs for a long time,” Stern said.

Looking forward, Stern added that his primary goal is to raise funds for the school, which will help attract the best students — regardless of their financial backgrounds — in addition to the best professors.

“Architecture is not an easy profession: the pay is not at all proportionate to the time you have to put in,” he said. “The last thing we want is to disadvantage our students.

But despite the lengths still left to travel, it is hard to ignore the quantum leap the school made in the past decade. The paprika carpet has been cleaned, the school has been set on a new path, and, as Kamin said, Rudolph Hall is once again “energized.”

“Bob has more energy than most of us times 10,” Kamin said. “He’s like the Energizer bunny, except much better dressed.”

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