The School of Architecture alumnus desperately wanted to get in on the project to build two new residential colleges. He reached out to the University through intermediaries. His firm sent a portfolio to the University Planner’s office, pulling favors to get it to the top of the pile. An aide even e-mailed a reporter to ask for help in getting his name in the mix.
Yet as of a few weeks ago, she and her boss hadn’t heard a peep from the University. “We’re still waiting,” she said.
What the architect did not know, of course, was that Yale’s unresponsiveness was not an oversight, but rather a part of a deliberate, highly secretive selection process for handing out the University’s most significant architectural commission in a generation. The mantra: Don’t call us, we’ll call you.
The selection of School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 as the architect for the new colleges, which will be announced today, marks an important step in an decade-long expansion plan. And given what was at stake, the University treated the selection process as carefully as it did last week’s appointment of a new provost.
The selection of an architect was almost entirely based on discussions among members of the Yale Corporation, University President Richard Levin said Wednesday.
Interviews with Levin and other officials shed new light on what had until now been a top-secret process about which few outside of the Corporation and the University Planner’s office knew anything. The process was so secretive that the University did not even hold formal interviews for the commission.
The entire process began almost two years ago, when the University mapped out the selection process for the architects of the new colleges — which at that stage were still about 18 months away from Corporation authorization — and the new School of Management campus. For the SOM, the University decided to hold an international design competition and ultimately picked Lord Norman Foster ARC ’62. But for the colleges, administrators decided “we should be stressing function over design,” Levin said.
This past winter, Levin, University Planner Laura Cruickshank and the Corporation’s Buildings and Grounds Committee assembled a list of 12 to 15 potential candidates for the commission, all well-known to them. Corporation members reviewed dossiers filled with photographs of all the architects’ works, and at their meeting in April, they began to winnow down the list of possible candidates.
By late spring, the pool was just a handful of candidates. By that time, Levin had a very firm idea of whom he was looking for: someone who lived in New Haven or had worked previously on the Yale campus.
“I actually felt pretty strongly that we needed to have an architect who had intimate familiarity with the Yale campus,” he said. “While there were a number of names suggested to us of great architects worldwide, I just felt … we needed an insider.”
In a usual architect search, Levin said, the University might formally interview three to five architects and have them make their best case for the job at stake; in the case of the colleges, however, administrators did not want to indicate who was under serious consideration.
So Levin met with what he called “a small number of people,” not giving them the chance to lobby for the job, but asking for their advice on what the design would require.
“It was clear after that set of conversations,” Levin said of selecting Stern.
Over the summer, the University and Stern’s firm, Robert A.M. Stern Architects, worked out the legalese of the commission. The secrecy held. Even some senior administrators usually privy to the most sensitive University decisions said as recently as last month they had no idea who was under consideration for the project.
Levin acknowledged there will be some criticism for the Corporation’s choice of the traditionalist Stern, just as he himself was reviled when he appointed Stern as dean, disregarding the suggestions of his search committee, a decade ago.
“Let’s remember how that worked out,” Levin said.
Contact Thomas Kaplan at firstname.lastname@example.org