Menacing tower seeks facelift

yin_KBT-2
Photo by Sharon Yin.

Looming and austere, the 14-story Kline Biology Tower — Yale’s tallest building — rises up from between Sachem and Edwards streets on Science Hill. Those trekking to class cannot fail to notice the overbearing structure, designed by modern architect Philip Johnson in 1965.

Though University planners meant for the tower to foster collaboration between science faculty and students, KBT’s “cold” design has impeded this sense of community, Yale spokesman Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 said in a December interview.

This academic year, Yale has made strides to make the building more user-friendly. Last fall, administrators opened KBT Cafe on the building’s first floor. Today marks another step in this initiative: the open house for the Center for Science and Social Science Information in the basement of KBT will present what Yale administrators have called an “information commons” between the Social Science Library, StatLab and Kline Science Library.

The complex marks a new home for both the social science library and StatLab, and administrators hope CSSSI could become the model for other integrated academic support units on campus, Deputy Provost Lloyd Suttle said in an email to the News.

“Together, CSSSI and KBT Cafe provide a much-needed social and intellectual space on Science Hill,” Suttle said.

But first, the center must overcome the challenges posed by KBT’s intimidating design.

‘STRENGTH AND AGGRESSION’

Because of the building’s design, people did not initially regard KBT, which houses the Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology Department, as a comfortable space in which to gather.

Carter Wiseman ’68, a School of Architecture professor and modern architecture critic who was an undergraduate when KBT was built, said KBT seemed so impersonal he could not imagine anyone conceived it as a community space.

“It’s part of a family of buildings that have very hard materials, little grass, few windows — a symbolic statement of excluding people and telling them they’re not welcome,” he said.

This architectural “family” — common during the late 1950s and early ’60s – resulted from architects’ heavy reliance on models, rather than gut instinct about a structure’s emotional effect. This group of buildings includes Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges, the architecture school’s Rudolph Hall, and the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Wiseman said. He added that their features convey strength and aggression rather than warmth and welcome.

“It is really imposing from the outside,” Chris Landry ’14 said of KBT.

The building seems more impersonal because it “could be anywhere,” Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen ARC ’94, School of Architecture professor and expert on modern architecture, said.

The building’s tall, narrow frame has also limited professors’ ability to collaborate with their colleagues. The building’s verticality makes interaction among those located on different floors challenging, Suttle said. For example, few people used the two dining rooms originally on the building’s top floor because KBT’s elevators could not handle the additional traffic.

Although Wiseman said that architects have since turned away from these “hostile” designs in favor of more user-friendly features, knocking down the building is unrealistic. Instead, Yale needed to work with the resources it had.

“You’re not going to tear down Kline or scrap whole buildings, so you have to retrofit them to make them more user-friendly,” he said.

MCDB chair Douglas Kankel added that he believes it is important to more thoroughly integrate Science Hill into the general life of Yale college, since, as Ecology and Evolutionary Biology Director of Undergraduate Studies Jeffrey Powell explained, Science Hill has always been considered a “satellite to main campus.”

MANAGING THE MENACE

Library administrators said they hope the opening of CSSSI will finally establish the KBT building as a space in which students and faculty will congregate.

“There has never been a shortage of space for students and faculty to get together for agreed-upon meetings” Kankel said. “What has usually been lacking is a reason for undergraduates to come to Science Hill outside the bounds of academic necessity and the standard times for classes.”

Previously the social science library and StatLab were housed at 140 Prospect St., which was demolished to make way for the two new residential colleges, said CSSSI director Jill Parchuck. After considering the frequency of interdisciplinary work on campus, administrators decided to merge the social science resources with the science library in the basement of KBT, Parchuck explained. Still, while 12 of 15 science majors interviewed said they will spend more time outside of class on Science Hill because of CSSSI, only three of 12 social science majors said the same.

Before the libraries could make the move, University Librarian Susan Gibbons said that the space was in “desperate need” of renovation. Though CSSSI is housed in the same space that the Kline Science Library once occupied, the location previously had fewer study seats and research librarians and no classroom or on-site technology support. After tearing down and repositioning walls, administrators designed the new space “to improve efficiency and quality of patron and staff experience,” Parchuck said.

Though the location is centrally located in terms of Science Hill, KBT is far enough to need a special attraction for people to make the trek, said Themba Flowers, manager of social science research services. With a 24-hour study facility, group study spaces, concentrated science and social science expertise, and a statlab classroom, CSSSI’s features will draw students to the location, Flowers added.

“It’s like one-stop shopping,” he said.

This change, though in part a result of the new colleges, tackles problems the building faced in encouraging community. Administrators pointed to KBT Café’s success as an example of their hopes for the future of Science Hill: Suttle said it serves as many as 450 lunches on some days, more than any residential college dining hall. Along with expanded resources, Gibbons said that food and drink are allowed in CSSSI in order to create an environment that supports collaboration and conversations.

“I think the combination of the KBT Cafe and CSSSI will turn KBT into a very popular destination for students, much like the combination of the Bass Library and Thane Café,” Gibbons said, adding that the library’s proximity to the cafe will give the building the communal sense it was supposed to have.

KBT café’s hours may be the only thing standing in way of the building’s original goals. Currently the café closes at 3 p.m., but Flowers said he hopes these hours will change since CSSSI will be open 24 hours.

Amanda Patrick, director of library development and communications, said library administrators have planned to host around 400 guests at the open house today.

Comments

  • Mikelawyr2

    My dad (may he rest in peace) was on the construction crew that built KBT, so I’m proud of it.

  • dmelakada

    It may be current fashion among architecture critics to talk about hard materials and aggressive buildings, but those comments do not do justice to KBT. As the article notes, it was fundamentally flawed because it is vertical, rather than horizontal, and thus does not facilitate the kind of collaboration that makes science research buildings work well. But it is a beautiful building, or at least beautiful sculpture. Those of us who were undergraduates when it was built were very proud of KBT and not intimidated by its then-fashionable materials. Fashions change.

  • Branford73

    The late J.P. Trinkaus (d. 2003), biology prof and Master of Branford, hated the building. He called it “stacks of pennies”.