The Yale School of Architecture is typically ahead of its peers, but somewhere between the school’s storied reputation and star-studded faculty lies a lagging link: Until just a decade ago, the school made almost no effort to collect and maintain the archives of famous architects and students.
These archives — collections of plans, sketches, notes and itineraries of architects — are one-of-a-kind collections that serve as essential tools of scholarship, and Yale’s late decision to collect has left it with a smaller archives collection than expected for a school of its caliber. The University already trails several rivals, such as Columbia and Harvard, which hold a number of high-profile collections that Yale passed up.
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“We have the world’s best architecture school and one of the world’s best libraries,” University President Richard Levin said of Yale’s acquired interest in acquiring archives. “It seemed natural that we’d be a repository for some of the greatest architects of our time.”
So since Yale started seriously collecting archives 10 years ago, the University has obtained a handful of major collections through its Department of Manuscripts and Archives, which consults with the School of Architecture. While the recently confirmed acquisition of architect Charles Gwathmey’s ARC ’62 archives was a major coup for Yale, School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 said there is little to be done about the archives that are already resting elsewhere.
If Yale is to acquire the materials of its celebrity visiting professors, such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, it faces yet another challenge: multimillion dollar price tags. Though the great majority of archives to date have been donated, a growing trend among architects is to try auctioning off collections. Yale currently has no funds set aside to purchase archives, meaning the University may end up losing out on upcoming acquisitions that would bring its archives to a competitive level.
“We’re going to need a savior angel,” Stern said, referring to a potential donor to fund the school’s collections. “Don’t look at me.”
When Dean Sakamoto ARC ’98, the director of exhibitions at the School of Architecture, was assembling an exhibition on architect Eero Saarinen ARC ’34 last spring, he said most of the work was already completed. By the time the exhibition reached Yale’s campus, it had already been shown in New York, Washington and Helsinki, among other locales.
But thanks to Yale’s own archives, Sakamoto was able to supplement the show with special materials not seen outside of New Haven.
As of 2002, Yale has been the repository for Saarinen’s extensive collection, large portions of which were pulled out from neglected storage spaces in Hamden, Conn. Though many of these documents — delicate drawings and sketches, notes and correspondences — weren’t allowed to travel outside the city, Sakamoto was allowed to use the original site plans and hand-drawn sketches in his exhibition at Yale. It was enough to merit a second review of the show by The New York Times, which had already covered the exhibition when it opened in the Museum of the City of New York.
“It’s amazing that we have this service available to us,” Sakamoto added. “It’s very luxurious.”
Indeed, these materials can become firsthand sources that shape semester-long architecture studios, as they did for School of Architecture Professor Mark Gage ARC ’01 last semester. They act as ready-made blueprints for renovators, as they did for Philadelphia-based architecture firm KieranTimberlake, which is currently completing the renovation of Ezra Stiles and Morse colleges. And, as was the case with the Saarinen show, the archives can also help to solidify the reputation of the School of Architecture as an authority on a particular architect or his particular style.
In this capacity, these archives are capable of significantly adding to Yale’s reputation, Stern said.
Among the handful of complete archives the University currently has in its possession are the Saarinen materials, the records of Stern and also the archives of former School of Architecture Dean Cesar Pelli. Just last week, the University also became the legal owner of the Gwathmey archives, which are due to be physically acquired by the end of the month. These materials — though not yet comparable to the dozens of collections at Columbia, Penn or Harvard — have already started to put Yale on the map as a repository for former Yalies and their professors, said Janet Parks and Mary Daniels, the architectural archivists at Columbia and Harvard, respectively.
At Columbia’s Avery Architectural & Fine Arts Library, the archivist a position has existed for at least four decades, and Parks has occupied the post since 1978. But she was quick to add that there is still room for Yale to catch up.
“The thing with modern architecture is that there’s just so much to collect,” Parks said. “We like to be competitive, but at the end of the day there’s just so much to collect and all of it has to be collected, so it’s good to know there are others who can take them.”
One archive that won’t end up in Yale’s collection, however, is that of Peter Eisenman, the renowned modernist architect who currently holds the post of the Charles Gwathmey Professor in Practice at the School of Architecture.
Eisenman, whose relationship with Yale developed in the 1960s, said he couldn’t afford to donate his archives. His materials were sold to the Canadian Center for Architecture for an undisclosed six-figure sum, he said.
But selling architectural drawings isn’t anything new. Architectural sales have been taking place as early as the ’70s, when Max Protetch, a New York art dealer, began collecting and selling architectural drawings in his Chelsea gallery, then called Max Protetch Gallery. Thinking back, Denise Scott Brown of the Pritzker Prize-winning firm Venturi Scott Brown remembered an exhibition Protetch had put on of her and her husband Robert Venturi’s work in the ’80s. The goal was to determine the worth of their archives, she said in an interview last week, although she and her husband ultimately decided not to sell their archives. Their materials are now with their alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania School of Design.
“We thought we were very lucky to be able to donate our materials,” Scott Brown said. “The donation of an archive means that the top drawings won’t be creamed out of the archives, but what about all of the details — all the correspondence about how the building was put together — that all stays together for scholarship.”
So far, no complete archive has been publicly sold, and Eisenman’s successful undisclosed sale remains an anomaly. Instead, the market for individual pieces remains strong.
For example, a single drawing from the archives of the renowned Philip Johnson, a rendering of the AT&T Building in New York, was sold to London’s Victoria & Albert Museum last spring for $70,000, which Johnson’s collaborator Raj Ahuja said was positive indicator for the market behind archives.
But for now, Yale is not participating in bidding wars. Levin said that until the University rebounds from the recession, Yale likely will not allocate more funds for archival acquisitions, regardless of whose hands sketched the drawings in question.
“I can’t even think of the last time we purchased a collection that cost more than $1,000,” said Christine Weideman, Director of the Department of Manuscripts and Archives..
The next archive to arrive at Yale is that of American architect and urban theorist Stanley Tigerman ARC ’61, who helped design the 1992 Chicago World’s Fair and London’s King’s Cross St. Pancras mixed-use rail station.