The modular building has arrived. Or at least, Yale is helping it on its way.
In the long and proud history of cash-strapped and overcrowded schools, Yale’s newest building is an assemblage of modular trailers. On the other hand, it is also a sleek metal-clad modernist building that pushes the limits of its type.
Centerbrook Architects and Planners, LLC, worked creatively within the inherent constraints of modular buildings to create a unique and attractive addition to the campus. The designers proposed an exterior that belied the typical homeliness of modular structures. Liberated by a relatively minor project, Yale’s Corporation reined in its recent aversion to architectural risk. The result is not only a case study in modular design but also counterpoint to Yale’s recent architectural impotence.
Eight Prospect Place houses offices and classrooms for the Political Science Department. This building represents the first step in a five-year plan that will change the appearance of lower Prospect Street and reconfigure the Political Science and Sociology infrastructure. Through a series of logistical gymnastics, the Political Science Department will move into a new building across the street from its current home, the Sociology Department will move into Brewster Hall (currently occupied by Political Science), and a new Social Sciences Library will be constructed at 140 Prospect St. (across from Ingalls Rink). Eight Prospect Place is the stopgap measure that provides swing space during these maneuvers.
Yale conceived of 8 Prospect Place as a temporary structure, with a designed life expectancy of five to 10 years. A modular system provided a quick and economical solution to this short-term need. The building was factory-assembled and delivered to New Haven by truck. On-site construction took only six weeks. Transportation needs limit the size of any module to 12 feet wide and 13 feet high — any bigger and I-95 overpasses decapitate the building. The length of the units range from 30 to 60 feet.
Centerbrook Architects transformed the technological and material limitations of this building type into an advantage. The exterior combines random, semi-regular and normalized elements to make a facade that is more successful than the sum of its parts would suggest. Working within predetermined dimensions, the architects designed xqa building that is all about lines.
Height limitations dictated a low linear structure. The architects took this basic bar building and broke it into three pieces. The middle section steps back to create an entry court, as if Mansfield Street continues into the building, pushing it back from the edge of the site. The entry loosely aligns with the perpendicular axis of the street, a classical planning move that recalls the geometry of much of Yale’s campus. The other two wings of the building push right up to the street, reflecting the linear experience of travel in shimmering silver.
Corrugated steel, which covers the building, is the most obvious expression of the building’s linear theme. Undulations in the surface create lines of light and shadow that break up what would otherwise be a monotonous surface. While the corrugated metal has an aesthetic effect, it is also a necessity: the folds in the material provide strength. Contrary to what one might expect, the silver surface is not the true color of the metal — it’s paint. The choice of silver seems appropriate because it appears to be the natural finish of the steel. From a distance, the building is a finely crafted, machine-like enclosure.
The windows introduce an irregular aspect to the building’s linearity. Variations in window width are based loosely on a Fibonacci sequence and the sliding window layout softens the ruthless horizontality of the steel panels.
The careful assembly of the steel panels gives way to sloppy detailing at their bottom edge. The steel stops short of the ground and exposes the underlying wallboard. Six to 18 inches of unfinished and unsightly construction-grade sheetrock mediate between the corrugated steel and manicured grass. The lack of attention to detail here is a disappointment. This also reveals a potential wear concern — long-term exposure to moisture will deteriorate the wallboard.
The modular factory assembled the interior, and its bland palette of whites and grays reflect these roots. The use of birch-laminated bookcases and furniture is an exception; the light color of the wood lends a contemporary coolness to the space. The net effect is IKEA for staid academics.
Upon entering the building, one arrives in an open reception/lounge area. In this larger space the low ceiling — dictated by the modular dimensions — keeps the space from feeling airy. The more modest dimensions of the offices and classrooms mask the restricted height. Here, the window strips slide by interior partition walls as if they did not exist. This suggests a bit of a disconnect between the action on the outside and the normality on the inside.
The architects worked within the constraints of pre-fabricated construction to make a building that demonstrates the possibilities of modular design. This building represents a prime example of its own type. The context of Yale’s recent conservatism toward design magnifies this accomplishment. Rather than commission a work that poorly copies old building styles, Yale constructed an intelligently designed work of architecture. Let us hope that this signals a return of Yale to its traditional place as a patron of progressive and significant architecture.