Yale’s two new residential colleges will be made of brick and limestone, crowned by towers, framed around courtyards, built around entryways and surrounded by moats, said their architect, School of Architecture Dean Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65.

And if that sounds familiar, that is the point.

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Stern has said before that the new colleges will “look like Yale colleges.” But at a Saybrook College Master’s Tea on Wednesday, he elaborated on the features that make the existing colleges work and how those traits will appear in the new colleges.

On a nippy late autumn afternoon, Stern offered a winter-wear metaphor to explain his approach to designing Yale’s 13th and 14th residential colleges.

“We want to make sure we are planning these colleges not like a glove — so tightly fit that if you suddenly have a growth of a carbuncle that you can’t get into them — but mittens,” he said. “Mittens are great.”

He shared guiding principles and vision, if not all the details some students were hoping for. Stern stressed that plans are only preliminary for the colleges, which are not scheduled to break ground until 2011 and will not open until 2013.

“I wish I could reach into my back pocket here and roll out a complete design and show you what we’re doing, but we’re not anywhere at that stage in the process,” he said. “Hundreds of eyes have to look at anything we do step by step.”

Stern said the new colleges would be built from brick and stone, but he was less definitive about their style. Brick does not automatically mean Georgian, he said, nor does stone necessitate neo-Gothic. Many of Yale’s neo-Gothic buildings, such as Jonathan Edwards College and the Hall of Graduate Studies, have extensive brick facades.

The future of undergraduate life at Yale through its largest expansion in over four decades clearly intrigued many students: Stern’s talk, though barely advertised, was packed. Stern said he was interested to hear their thoughts about what the new colleges should be, but he cautioned that they would all graduate before the colleges open.

“We welcome all your suggestions, but the reality is architecture takes a long time and often people who are part of the programming process are not going to reap the rewards,” he said.

Part of the problem with the colleges built in Yale College’s last expansion, Morse and Ezra Stiles, was that the University was “very dutiful” about asking what students wanted, Stern said. At the time, that was single rooms, which have since been considered a major failing of those colleges. Stern said he is sensitive to enduring discomfort with Morse and Stiles and hopes to learn from their shortcomings.

The significance of the event’s host, outgoing Saybrook Master Mary Miller, was not lost on Stern, who referred to the next dean of Yale College as his “client.” Planning for the new residential colleges is sure to top Miller’s priorities when she assumes the deanship in December.

Miller said the design of the colleges hinges on “the idea of what it means to live someplace and to live in a place to which you become attached.” She continued, “There is nothing more exciting, nothing more challenging, to think of how Yale goes forward and, ideally, gets it just right.”

Stern said he and his team have been scrupulously studying the existing colleges to discern their function on the Yale campus.

“How is it I was assigned to this college arbitrarily and I didn’t know one college from another, and now I’m passionate about my college?” Stern posed.

Part of the answer, he said, is entryways. And it’s crucial that the new colleges have them. But modern building codes conflict with that layout, he said, which is why almost all dormitories at other schools are built around corridors. Yale found some leniency for the renovations but building from scratch is much harder, he said.

Another major obstacle is location, Stern said. The colleges will be on the triangular lot behind the Grove Street Cemetery. The existing streets in the plot will be removed and Prospect Place will be turned into a pedestrian plaza bisecting the north and south sides, probably with a college on each side, he said.

“I know many of you feel it’s somewhere between Mongolia and Kazakhstan,” he joked.

But Stern assured “skyline features would make the college seem less far away.”

“So when you are a member of college 13 or 14,” he said, “someone says where do you live, you can proudly point to that tower, and it won’t look like it’s in Mongolia.”

Stern suggested enhancing the walkway along Prospect Street — adding more lighting and a café in the bottom of the Becton Center — to psychologically reduce the distance.

Connecting both sides of the cemetery is part of a vision among Stern and other University planners to redefine the central campus. The new colleges are only one of many projects at the lower end of Science Hill, including new classrooms, an undergraduate theater and a new library.

Miller asked the question on many people’s minds: whether the economic crisis will have any effect on the college’s budget, which has been estimated at as much as $600 million.

Stern said, based on his meeting with top University officers Wednesday morning, that the new colleges will not be compromised.

Lee West ’10 said Stern clarified what he could about the new colleges and showed that he was thinking seriously about the remaining questions.

“I’m glad to see it’s being planned so meticulously,” West said.

Stern was announced as the architect of the colleges in September.