Kemper: Neglecting the past we’ve built

Kemper Fi

There is something uniquely unfortunate about ugly buildings.

Ugly art can be avoided, ugly sculptures can be provocative, and ugly music can be turned off, but there is a recurring tyranny in the sheer unavoidable presence of a building that makes me cringe when I meander past DUH or get lost and find myself at University Towers. But at least those cases offer a silver lining: their cracks, stains, and strains of age forecast their inevitable demolition and a chance for redemption.

It is, then, something doubly unfortunate to see a new ugly building in the works: the new School of Management.

But first, what constitutes ugly? I would point to another building in the works: the Royal Mecca Clock Tower. Destined to rank among the world’s tallest buildings and standing in plain sight of worshippers in the Grand Mosque, its aesthetic failings are so egregious as to be almost criminal.

It is morally ugly: slated to be filled with high-end retail, high-priced hotel rooms, and higher priced condos, it mocks the piety of the worshippers below.

It is ugly in that which it replaces. A wall of soulless glass and steel will blot out mountain vistas.

But most of all, it is contextually ugly.

There exists a compelling case — concerning beauty at least — that context does not matter. In a TED talk involving a wicked fast illustrator and Pleistocene landscapes, Denis Dutton advances a Darwinian argument that some things are beautiful to anyone anywhere because they are well made — because they represent a certain level of craftsmanship, ability and by extension, evolutionary reproductive potential.

I buy that — it is aesthetically pleasing to behold something done well. However, with architecture I think you necessarily do so much more.

I like to think of art and culture as that upon which we choose to use resources, as opposed to that upon which we must use resources. Strictly defined, I think of architectural design (as opposed to engineering) as the realm of discretion as opposed to necessity. Once the walls attain a proper thickness, the heating stays near a bearable level, and we can trust the structure to provide us with the shelter we seek, architecture is what we do with our additional resources. As such, it constitutes pure culture — and insofar as culture can be a measure of a society’s or an individual’s values, principles and mores — architecture, too, must reflect upon that society or individual.

Thus Churchill pronounced that men make buildings and then buildings shape men. We codify that which we value into buildings in order to preserve, protect and perpetuate our culture.

So the Royal Mecca Clock Tower became contextually ugly when its architects decided to make the top resemble the “Big Ben” tower next to the British Houses of Parliament. The original tower was actually designed by Augustus Welby Northmore Pugin, an English architect of French extraction who worked in the time of the romantic revival in the early 19th century. Pugin argued passionately for the resurrection of gothic architecture and with it the Catholic Church. I am no Muslim, but my simple desire for coherence takes a staggering hit to imagine an inflated copy of Pugin’s handiwork looming over the Kaaba.

While it may be fortunate, then, that my religious proclivities bar me the occasion to go to Mecca, unfortunately, I do imagine — even after graduation — that I will have to walk down Whitney Avenue at least a few more times in my life.

When James Gamble Rogers designed the memorial quad (Branford and Saybrook colleges), he was not concerned with designing a building appropriate for the 20th century. He wanted to build a structure that would stand athwart history, not just evoking but capturing the forms of Oxford and Cambridge to provide an enclave in which the academically inclined could stand apart from the mad rush of society and internalize some skills, values and friendships that they could continue to cherish upon their departure.

In stark contrast, the contoured rectangle that will emerge from the hole at the end of Sachem Street evokes the forms of the mundane office flash-boxes that litter the highways of American suburbia. While it gives lip service to the collegiate ideal by including a courtyard and some other features, the uncreative combination of steel and glass promises to create something enduringly boring, absent of the texture, detail, and cultural allusions that could instill the structure with some sense of gravitas and longevity.

A year ago the architect Norman Foster argued on this page that he was creating a “home for the School of Management that will allow it to reinvent business education for the future.” Yale’s mission will always involve the future, but it should be wary of neglecting the rich architectural fabric of its campus to define a building by a particular conception of the future that could very well change within five years but that, at $189 million, should last for at least 100.

Buildings that ignore their past rarely have much of a future.

Nicolas Kemper is a senior in Pierson College.

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