On Howe Street, the principal axis of the off-campus community, Yale’s new Sculpture Building attempts a new site layout and tries to fit into the existing neighborhood, in the process succeeding at neither.
Home for one year to the School of Architecture while the Art and Architecture Building on York Street is being renovated, the Sculpture Building, designed by Philadelphia architects KieranTimberlake Associates, is actually three separate facilities — a gallery, a parking deck and a main studio building. It sits on an oddly shaped lot, squeezed between bungalows on Edgewood Avenue, apartment complexes on Park Street and offices and restaurants on Howe Street. For now, the studio building is mercilessly overcrowded, with faculty using the first floor of the parking deck as a temporary annex and the junior architecture majors ghettoized to an underground no-window storage room. Sculptors will take ownership of the space next year, but the building’s inherent architectural flaws will remain.
The architects meant this building to stand out from the rest of the University, to which its street-front parking deck and gallery space attest. Unlike the enclosed courtyards of the residential colleges and the main quads, the Sculpture Building was constructed to integrate with the neighborhood around it. On Edgewood Avenue, the wood-paneled gallery fits well into the street-scape, mirroring the houses next door, both in terms of scale and material. The garage, which faces Howe Street, is of the same height as the buildings across the way and will reinforce Howe’s status as a commercial corridor by providing retail space.
In theory, the architects made a good decision in imitating the scale, shape and function of the existing streets; after all, town-gown relations have been strained in the past by the University’s overreaching influence. The problem, however, is that the most lively and potentially community-oriented part of the Sculpture Building — the main studio — is hidden behind the parking garage and sitting in the middle of the block. Why the brightly lit studios weren’t placed on the street is incomprehensible, though the architects claim that the building is a “mid-block lantern.” Indeed, given art students’ predilection for working all night, the building will shine into the wee hours. And the layout choice is more convenient for drivers. But for the majority of students who walk or bike to class, the hassle of squeezing around the huge deck to make it to the studios outweighs these considerations.
Placing the studio mid-block is a departure from Yale’s traditional enclosed courtyards. The structure is itself surrounded by green space and pathways that connect it to the surrounding streets. Unfortunately, the lot is too small for this structure, which would look more appropriate in an office park surrounded by a uniform sea of asphalt. The landscaping ultimately makes those who stand in front of the studios on the northeast side feel as if they’re encroaching on the backyards of the houses on Edgewood — because they are. On the southeast and southwest sides of the building, there’s no landscaping at all; what’s offered is a view of the unadorned backside of the parking garage and a few surface lots.
In addition, the corridors leading out from the Sculpture Building are isolated, providing access to none of the buildings that face them. Something similar to the Library Walk between High and York Streets or the Af-Am corridor between York and Park — both of which function as secondary entrances to the buildings around them — would have been more appropriate. Or the buildings could have been arranged around a central space — a concept we have seen executed repeatedly and effectively all over campus. Branford and Saybrook’s courtyards work so well because their users have a defined, plotted-out space and feel a sense of security.
The presence of numerous blue phones and a “Yale Community Waiting Station” (in other words, the place where students fearful of their surroundings will wait for the Minibus) illustrate that the complex’s form fails to provide a protective feeling. Police must compensate; the oft-heard rhetoric that our city is unsafe is reinforced here. The already more-than-adequate lighting on Howe Street is blown completely out of proportion by the line of florescent bulbs that make the area in front of the building light up like the Fourth of July. Yale’s administrators, sensing that the building’s openness will invite crime, are overreacting.
To make matters worse, the parking garage is paneled with gun-metal gray sheets of aluminum that are designed to hide the concrete deck behind, but they fail to do so and in the process subtract color from the street-scape. The retail areas are painted with the same soulless, drab tone. The consequence — a repetitive, aesthetically uninspiring facade — is more a suburban office building than the street-front of a complex of art studios. This building may have been designed to fit into the neighborhood, but in execution, it smacks of institutional interference.
The structure’s plan, which makes little sense on the site, is similarly convoluted inside. Perhaps the worst example is the massive, miserably slow elevator, whose inconvenient location, hundreds of feet away from the entrance, makes it difficult for the handicapped to move around and is all but pointless other than allowing for the transport of automobile-sized models. Studio spaces, where not sheathed in glass, are covered with white panels that nonsensically evoke Japanese tearooms, and columns are placed inconveniently, not against the walls as in most buildings, but instead two feet away, minimizing useful interior space.
The lobby is far too small for an edifice of this size. The claustrophobic lobby occupies a pittance of space compared to the magnificent four-story entrance to Louis Kahn’s similarly sized British Art Center.
The staircase — because it is a required fire stair — is separated with doorways on each floor from the studios. The result is that a student working on the fourth floor must pass through five doors to get to his or her space.
With the addition of another fire stair, the Sculpture Building could have featured a grand stairwell, connected to an open four-story lobby. This central element would have acted as the primary space for social interaction in the building. In the Art & Architecture Building, students on one floor were able to see those on others, and the result was a building that — though packed with students — somehow escaped feeling tight. The same cannot be said here.
Overall, the building is a disappointment inside and out. While there are some highlights — the beautifully lit fire stair on the south side of the building and the wood cladding on the gallery space come to mind — the site plan and general interior layout were poorly conceived. Yale had two choices in the construction of this building: It could have taken the easy route and replicated the courtyards of the older section of campus, or it could have built a striking statement on this side of town. Nowhere here is the thoughtful integration of Arnold Hall on Elm Street or the exciting form of Eero Saarinen’s “Whale” on Prospect Street. Instead, the Sculpture Building seems less suited to Yale’s campus than to an anonymous suburban office park.