“It is the right building in the right place saying that New Haven is very much alive.”
In March 1974, the now-defunct Architectural Forum magazine proclaimed the New Haven Coliseum as the culminating piece of the city’s revitalization, a physical realization of the optimism that rebuilt New Haven and made it a model for the nation.
Today, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. is pushing to demolish the Coliseum and, in the process, to refute profoundly the ideals that underlay its conception. In the shadow of its likely demise, we must not forget the lessons learned from the previous generation’s mad rush forward; we must recognize the value of urban legacy. A re-examination of the Coliseum should inform the city’s planned redevelopment of the site and its general attitude towards its collection of modern architecture.
Renowned architects Kevin Roche and John Dinkeloo designed the New Haven Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Completed in 1972, the $20 million building capped Mayor Richard Lee’s $96 million redevelopment of downtown New Haven, adding a 10,000-seat arena to a new shopping center (Chapel Square Mall) and a parking and roadway network.
As designed, the building included a small convention center. To the complex’s detriment, budget shortfalls forced the abandonment of this phase of the building. The convention hall would have bridged over Orange Street, reaching towards the city center and creating a grand promenade and entrance into the building.
A huge hovering steel parking structure defines the Coliseum. At the time, it represented a radical rethinking of an urban arena. Conventional parking solutions were not feasible for this project: surface parking would have covered six city blocks, below-grade parking was too expensive, and a surface garage supporting the arena would have raised the building’s entrance too far above the street.
Elevating the parking garage above the arena brilliantly resolved these concerns. Supported on 18 massive concrete columns, the garage lies 70 feet above the road and holds 2,400 cars in its 600-foot length. The ruthlessness of the garage is at once off-putting and enthralling. The pure utility of the structure combines with its massive scale to create a near-sublime presence. To walk under and around the building is, for many, an unpleasant experience. The building brutally demonstrates the technological infatuation of the architect and of the time.
Few buildings rival the Coliseum’s pure expression of the automobile-based ideology of 1960s city planning. Roche considered the garage a spiritual brother of the highway, a monument to the automobile born out of the need to park the automobile. In its consuming turn to the road, it lacks deference to human scale and the pedestrian condition.
A generation later, our radically altered understanding of the city is due in part to the failure of the ideology embodied in the coliseum. Today, urban planners understand and prioritize the social value of street life. This shift creates a dilemma when it comes into opposition with the built legacy of an earlier planning strategy.
“The city is not a curator of modern buildings,” said Karyn Kilvarg, New Haven city planning commissioner.
But the city’s collection of modern buildings remains a part of its history and has cultural value. The architect Rem Koolhaas has written that just when we learned the value of the historical city, it was irretrievably lost. Koolhaas was, of course, referring to just the type of city that was razed to make way for buildings like the Coliseum. Today, we should be wary of repeating history.
Cities are in a constant state of flux and find cultural meaning in buildings from different eras. The failing of urban renewal was its disregard for the historical fabric. In razing the Coliseum, we may be committing the same kind of transgression against the city.
To justify the destruction of the coliseum, the site must be redeveloped with a project that moves beyond a typical historicized development to energize downtown New Haven. Current plans for the site call for a mixture of tenants anchored by a relocated Long Wharf Theater. Apartments for sale and rent would extend the successful residential rehabitation of downtown in the Ninth Square. The third component calls for the construction of a small conference center, precisely the piece of program omitted from the Coliseum 30 years ago.
The characteristics of the 9.5-acre site itself will pose a challenge to designers of the new development. The site must negotiate between the intimacy of the Ninth Square’s brick sidewalks and the highway and train tracks that bound the site to the south and east. Reconciling this shift in scale will be central to the success of any new project.
The complexities of site and program demand an innovative architectural response. I fear that the city and its architect lack the vision to propose a solution that will help reassert New Haven as a viable small urban center. A development here must be complex and rich, a reflection of the vibrancy of the city.
An interesting option would be to maintain the parking garage — it is structurally independent — and infill the Long Wharf Theater and other uses beneath. Garage renovations could make the prospect of ascending those steep spiral ramps to the hulking steel structure a less frightening one. Maintaining the garage would preserve the building’s relationship to the adjacent highway as well its monumental significance.
Keeping the garage is a radical suggestion that will surely attract well-founded criticism. It nonetheless represents the type of inventive proposal that New Haven must pursue to make a lasting and substantial contribution to the city.
Given that economic conditions make retaining the Coliseum as is unlikely, the city has an opportunity to creatively redevelop the site for the betterment of downtown. Yet, there is no guarantee of success. We would be wise to consider the Coliseum’s import and shortcomings as we debate how to best continue New Haven’s downtown revitalization.