I am one of the lucky ones: I will make it out of Yale in 2005 having never lived in Swing Space. It isn’t that I’d miss Silliman’s dining hall terribly, or that I’d be shattered when I could no longer rent out Silliflicks or hit up my buttery, much as I love them. Only that, even when compared to Silliman’s unimpressive stone side, Swing Space is an architectural mess.
Is it any wonder that when Berkeley students moved into the new residence hall in 1998, they christened it Boyd Hall — as in “Boy’d we get screwed”? The building’s architects, Herbert S. Newman and Partners, know something about bad housing: their office is sadly stranded behind Toad’s on the way to Morse and Stiles. But Swing Space’s mediocrity can hardly be justified by this alone. Its antiseptic, infinite hallways have all the charm of a newfangled prison, and its courtyard manages to be stunningly unwelcoming despite the building’s horseshoe shape — it is less of an embrace than a chokehold. And who had the idea to build a temporary building out of brick and steel? One imagines that Swing Space will be around for years to come, and more’s the pity.
Richard Levin has been president of Yale for 10 years now, and not a single building constructed during his tenure has been worthy of the University’s campus. The best, I suppose, is Deborah Berke’s reinvention of the Jewish Community Center as the new art school and theatre; the worst, no contest, is Edward Barnes’ absolutely disastrous Luce Hall, a building so confused that even the front entrance feels like a side door. In between, we have seen such acceptable but not incredible works as the music library, the Bass Center on Science Hill, and of course the restoration of four colleges and Vanderbilt Hall.
To be fair, Levin has a tough act to follow. No doubt, he must feel upon him the shadow of Kingman Brewster, who rejected the Disney Gothic of his predecessors and hired the greatest architects of the 1960s and 1970s to modernize Yale. By the time Brewster retired in 1977, a school that had only two great modern buildings — the art gallery and the hockey rink — had become a veritable museum of Modern, post-Modern and postmodern architecture. Louis Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Philip Johnson, Gordon Bunshaft, Marcel Breuer and Charles Moore all had their chance to transform Yale’s campus, and even the least of their buildings is a landmark. (Yes, Brewster’s administration was responsible for Cross Campus Library, but then again, 1971 was a pretty bad year for all of us.)
No building of Brewster’s tenure is as famous — or perhaps notorious — as Paul Rudolph’s architecture school. I won’t pretend to be impartial here: it’s my favorite building on campus. But it’s in bad, bad shape, and it deserves to be restored to its former splendor. For a few years after its completion in 1963, it was acclaimed as the most important building in years, a masterpiece of the now-crashed-and-burned Brutalist movement, which emphasized rough concrete over the glass of the International Style. But the building has never recovered from the fire (accident? arson?) that gutted the building in 1969, nor has it weathered the even more damaging “restorations” that hastily and shoddily attempted to bring the A&A back to life.
I’ve heard students call the architecture school violent, and in a way it is. The bush-hammered concrete of the building’s striated walls will make you bleed if you rub up against it too suddenly. (And it’s not just on the exterior: often, when you browse the library on the ground floor, you suddenly find yourself confronted with one of these killer walls and step back in fear.) The ascent to the second-floor entrance is terrifyingly claustrophobic, and Rudolph bullies you with his exceedingly shallow stairs, forcing you to spend much more time walking up than necessary. Fittingly enough for a school designed by its dean, the A&A is forever teaching you, and not with particularly subtle lessons: on the fourth floor, there’s a diagram by Le Corbusier that Rudolph carved directly into a wall.
Yes, the architecture school has an attitude problem. But has anyone mentioned yet that it’s also the gayest building on campus? The A&A, for all its cruelty, is also riotous, frivolous and brilliantly camp — as was its architect. Some of the queerest elements of the building are gone: the fluffy vermilion carpet is faded, and the statue of Minerva that used to watch over the drafting tables has disappeared. But check out the Ionic capitals impaled on steel poles in the lecture hall, or the nautilus shells mischievously embedded in the concrete, and you’ll see Rudolph winking at you. While it’s not as flamboyant as some of his later works, such as the spaceship-like Burroughs Welcome headquarters in North Carolina, there’s an undeniable gay sensibility at the A&A that has, so far, been woefully neglected.
So maybe Larry Kramer can get President Levin to put a few million toward the restoration of the architecture to its former camp glory. Compared to what Yale has been building lately, it’d be money well spent.
Jason Farago is a junior in Silliman College.