HERRMANN: Neo-gothic: seriously?

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Photo by Annelisa Leinbach.

I remember when I first came to visit Yale as a baby prefrosh at Bulldog Days and got the chance to explore the stacks and its many wonders. I remember that I had begun to feel the “it” factor, that strange sensation that occurs when you realize you’re where you’re meant to be. And it was amplified in Sterling.

The library stood as a testament to Yale’s commitment to collecting centuries’ worth of knowledge and providing it to students in a dynamic, all-encompassing learning environment. I was so moved by all that I encountered; it reaffirmed that Yale was truly the place for me. Later learning that the structure I was so enchanted by was actually built in 1924 took off some of that magic appeal. It was like the moment you discover that Santa Claus isn’t real. Acid was poured down the sides to make the building seem more worn: It isn’t actually centuries old — it’s an impostor! And so, the question arises as to what the continuance of Gothic revival architecture means in terms of community and modernity on Yale’s campus.

As any pep-in-step enthusiastic tour guide will tell you, the residential college system — the heart of the undergraduate experience — is based on similar systems at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. Both of those universities have buildings constructed as early as the 13th century, when the Gothic movement represented the height of modernity. Fast-forward about six centuries later when neo-Gothic was first introduced at Yale through the construction of Dwight Hall in 1864. With the renovation of Old Campus in the early 20th century, many of the Georgian brick buildings were replaced with the now familiar flying buttresses, rose windows and towers. Collegiate Gothic was slowly but surely seeping into the architectural fabric of Yale’s campus.

The plan for the two new residential colleges unveiled in 2009 continues a now century-and-a-half-old tradition of Gothic architecture at Yale. It’s one thing to be emulating Gothic architecture in the early- to mid-20th century when the Gothic Revival movement was still going strong. But doesn’t it seem a little odd, a little contrived maybe, to be building yet another set of Gothic colleges in 2013? Robert Stern, dean of Yale’s School of Architecture and the architect of the new residential colleges, explained that Gothic style is “central to [Yale’s] DNA.” But isn’t innovation also central to Yale’s DNA? Shouldn’t we be at the forefront of developing a more modern aesthetic?

Designing a campus doesn’t require total consistency. Those of us who do make it all the way up Science Hill are greeted with Gothic at Sloane Physics Lab, but does that mean that the colleges we pass along the way need to mimic this antiquated style? Architecture is about taking things into context. Yale as a whole has an abundance of Gothic buildings, but Prospect Street is also home to the Malone Center, the Center for Engineering Innovation and Design, Kroon Hall and Ingalls Rink. All of these structures surrounding the new residential colleges incorporate contemporary needs with an understanding of technological advancements. Curved steel frames, bold glass façades, shuttered windowpanes and a draping concrete frame: These buildings remind us of the architectural beauty possible through innovation. So why, then, are we letting our residential college system be stifled by custom and be steeped in tradition instead of creating something new?

Morse and Stiles, built in 1962, are admittedly considered the oddballs of the residential colleges. Indeed, architect Eero Saarinen said he was exploring “unchartered waters” with their design. So now, Yale has decided to return to charted territory with the new residential colleges. Think of the message this return to tradition conveys: We tried an experiment in design, but it didn’t quite work out. Why can’t we continue with more modernist structures? I want something that alludes to the traditional but also incorporates the contemporary and reflects what it means to be a student in the current generation.

After talking to fellow students, I realize half of them say it doesn’t really matter what the new colleges will look like because, realistically, we’re not the ones that are going to be on campus when they are unveiled. But their design should matter to all of us, if only for the legacy these buildings will create. Do we really want to be known as the college that couldn’t come up with something new?

Maybe the concern is that the new residential colleges, because they are so far away, should mimic the architecture of most of Yale’s buildings to ensure they reflect a sense of community with the rest of our school. But I don’t believe that this sentiment and an attempt at modernity should be mutually exclusive. We can create a new legacy of design — there is no need to mimic the styles of the past. I think we should use these new colleges as a canvas of opportunity.

Lucia Herrmann is a sophomore in Silliman College. Contact her at lucia.herrmann@yale.edu.

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