Though I recognize that Robert Stern is a talented and accomplished architect, I was rather disappointed after reading about President Levin’s decision to entrust the design of Yale’s newest residential colleges to an architect better known for luxury than innovation. Rather than reinvigorate the University — as the construction of these colleges is intended to do — I am afraid that Stern’s traditionalist style will only further extend the self-congratulatory complacency that already plagues so many of Yale’s students. New, stimulating architecture would move students to progressive debate and learning; recreating the past only encourages students to sit around idly applauding themselves for being accepted into the Ivy League.
President Levin has argued that a traditional style will “maximize the connections” between the new and old residential colleges, but Stern’s academic residences are all endless slabs of bricks and monotonous windows — perhaps even less interesting than Swing Space. Stern’s “modern traditionalist” designs, which are equally uninspiring at Columbia, Dartmouth, Harvard and Penn, will not give the new residential colleges any specific sense of belonging.
Yale’s new colleges should be uniquely Yale, rather than the Collegiate Georgian of every East Coast university. The new colleges should stand out as important pieces of architecture while still relating to the university, and the city, around them.
Though difficult, this is certainly not an impossible feat; one must only look at Bunshaft’s Beinecke Library in relation to Woolsey Hall or Kahn’s Center for British Art in its Chapel Street neighborhood as examples of successful imaginative architecture at Yale.
I also take issue with President Levin’s allegation that the maverick architecture of Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges has somehow “backfired.”
If Morse and Stiles suffered from anything, it was a shortage of budget and a lack of direction in a time of a rapidly changing student body. Certainly colleges built with $700 million will be much more accommodating than those built for $7 million, regardless of their architectural style. Making the new colleges pared-down copies of Timothy Dwight or Pierson colleges will only perpetuate the idea that Morse and Stiles were “mistakes” and add to the stigma already heaped upon them by the residents of Yale’s more derivative colleges.
From last week’s News’ View and Nathan Harden’s column “Stern offers elegance over absurdity” (9/8), however, it seems that Yale students are more concerned with tradition than with progress, more interested in indulgence than inspiration.
A return to the architecture of yore only signals a longing for the Yale of the 1930s: a finishing school for the wealthy, white, Protestant sons of Hotchkiss and Taft — two prep schools now adorned with Stern’s dormitories. Rather than look to the future or acknowledge Yale’s great strides in science and technology (not to mention social justice), these students and administrators would have the newest colleges firmly stuck in a past before coeducation and integration, when life was easy for the Sons of Eli.
President Levin should have conducted an international competition for the design of the new residential colleges just as he did for the School of Management. So, as there is doubtless no turning back now, I call upon the Yale community to encourage Robert Stern not to forsake imagination in the name of tradition. Yale’s residential-college system will forever be indebted to creativity. The new colleges should not be wood-and-marble-encrusted luxury suites, but should speak to Yale’s place at the forefront of modern academia.
We cannot depend on the architecture of the past to revitalize the university of the future.