There’s a massive hole at the corner of Prospect and Sachem streets that you’ve probably noticed. There’s also a slice of building, a mock-up, that looks suspiciously like a residential college about half a mile down the Farmington Canal Trail. It’s a nice-looking structure, with orangey-red brick and yellow sandstone to match; it looks like what would be born after the Hall of Graduate Studies mated with Branford College. Some deft Internet investigation confirms that this offspring will one day soon fill the giant hole on Sachem Street.
I’m trying to come to grips with the decision to construct the new residential colleges in Gothic style. Robert A.M. Stern, the dean of the School of Architecture and the architect behind the design of the new colleges, declined to be interviewed for this article. But when I sat down with Alec Purves, a veteran professor in the School of Architecture, he offered a plausible explanation: a new Gothic building refers not to the cathedrals and monasteries of Europe, “true Gothic,” but to Yale itself. In fact, it’s not quite correct to describe our buildings as Gothic. They would more readily be called “collegiate Gothic,” or for my purposes, “Yale Gothic.” It’s evident to me that Yale Gothic architecture is part of the brand of the undergraduate areas of campus, the (nearly) unified aesthetic of the existing colleges is part of the package of a Yale undergraduate education, and it is a savvy and sensible move to offer more of a tried-and true product. I wonder, though, how integral the Yale Gothic style is to that same experience in a daily sense.
Here’s why I think this matters: a university is a generative and preservative power. It casts around itself a protective field, its auspice. This auspice arises from a complex combination of factors — personnel, money, regard, material, care, reputation and activity are all necessary for a building to stay standing and relevant. Behind this auspice, buildings are constructed and are for the most part both maintained in a physical sense and kept out of the real estate market. The university is one such power when it functions well, yet it also butts up against other such powers, negotiating and competing with them. Island and peninsular cities demonstrate this best: consider San Francisco or Manhattan, each spanning geographically small territory but hosting any number of moneyed and interested organizations, each casting auspices of their own. Charitable organizations, theaters, independent libraries, businesses large and small, schools, clubs, and governments all can generate the dynamis or human power, to keep a building or complex of buildings habitable. These organizations not only create and maintain their structures, they use them to make complex, nonverbal statements about authority, tradition, and importance. If you like, it’s comparable to the practice of extending the vote only to landowners: physical territory, and the control of physical territory, legitimizes and reifies an organization and its principles. Cutting the other way, a building occupied by a powerful organization draws a certain durability from that organization, and is elevated above mere real estate. It is in far less danger of being bought, leveled and replaced with a Jamba Juice.
Yale’s situation, though, is different. No organization in New Haven, possibly in all of Connecticut, possesses an auspice as large, well-financed or powerful as Yale. This not only means that the buildings on the Yale campus can fulfill different ends than the city as a whole, but also that the campus comes to set the architectural tone for the city itself. Unlike, say, Columbia, which must contend with the strength of comparable auspices in Manhattan, Yale is able to acquire land and construct buildings with relative ease. Yale has the rare luxury of not necessarily needing to tear down a building in order to build its replacement.
I don’t mean to make the usual critique of Yale Gothic here. The critic Dwight Macdonald was already lampooning Yale’s Gothic buildings in 1957, calling them “more relentlessly Gothic than Chartres [the textbook Gothic cathedral], whose builders didn’t even know they were Gothic and so missed many chances for quaint effects.” And there’s the usual wisecracking on the introductory tours about bricks being artificially aged in the mud of Long Island Sound, and the ridiculousness of going to that much trouble for old-looking brick. And there’s the old joke where a modernist titan like Le Corbusier or Mies van der Rohe says he’d like best to live at the top of Harkness Tower, so he wouldn’t have to look at it. But I think these jabs are slightly misguided. Yes, it’s goofy and inauthentic to build a Disney-scale Chartres out of faux-aged bricks; there is a way in which this can’t help but be objectionable, in an eye-rolling kind of a way. Whatever it is in us that seeks realness in art and buildings causes us to recoil once we learn that the bricks are artificially aged and the decoration is too dense. I imagine it’s the same part of us that would recoil upon learning that a painting we admired was in fact a forgery. But the Yale Gothic campus complicates this sensation by being a forgery of intense, scrupulous sincerity, a forgery with nearly a century of history of its own. In some sense it is transforming, with the passage of time, from imitation to original. And so we treat the campus with a peculiar mix of derision, humor and affection: “Hey, it’s a fake, but it’s our fake and it’s not going anywhere.” For the most part we let it lie.
For the most part I think Yale Gothic has a certain charm, and is usually brought off well. It delivers the experience promised, at least in the still moments when you can stand in a courtyard rather than hustle through it. The critique I’m advancing is more difficult to make because of that fact; namely, that undergraduate life, even Yale undergraduate life, doesn’t particularly warrant Gothic surroundings. They let us transfer students attend the Christmas feast in Commons this year, the one where the holiday-attired dining hall staff emerge in a triumphal parade hoisting more glitzy meats than a thousand incoming freshmen could possibly hope to stomach. It struck a similar chord, the one that makes a person ask: “Isn’t this a little rich for me? For us? What could a person my age, even a thousand people my age, do that this food circus would seem called for?” This is more or less the sense I get when I walk through a Yale Gothic courtyard late at night and see a puddle of vomit on the flagstones. There’s a bizarre moment of dissonance. “What were they thinking, giving digs like this to college students?”
I can feel the spirit behind Sterling Memorial Library and the Law School, whose Gothic touches seem appropriate to the ideals the buildings represent. Knowledge and The Law, with capital letters, can wear a Gothic style with a straight face. It makes sense, on some level, to enshrine these concepts; Gothic structures, with their ingrained connotation of spirituality, seem appropriate. Dressing undergraduate life in the same style, though, is a little bizarre. In my more cynical moments, I think the concept that the residential colleges enshrine is “I Got Into Yale.” Our first years in the academy, I think, should be ones of humble exploration and experimentation, yet the places we’re expected to dwell send a message of “You did it!” instead of “You need to figure out how you’re going to do it.”
I sat down with Elihu Rubin, who teaches courses in political science and architecture that deal with the American city, and tried to get a grip on how the University works as an architectural locus. He pointed out that Beinecke Library, the YUAG, Rudolph Hall, the British Art Center, Ingalls Rink, and Morse and Ezra Stiles colleges, to name a few, belong to a two-decade span of Yale’s history between 1953 and 1974, a period when modernist architecture was shorthand for progress. Yale used this opportunity to partially reinvent itself: Yale’s modernist period was in some sense a physical declaration of the changing values of the University. The skins of these buildings don’t match one another the way that Yale Gothic buildings do, but they belong to a distinct ideological and spiritual moment. Further, unlike the Yale Gothic spread of campus, the modernist period of building at Yale could persist in dialogue primarily with itself. In 1962, as builders finished work on Morse and Stiles, the modernist movement had not been given a capstone, declared “over,” schematized.
Of course, that capstone has now been set. To build new colleges with a modernist rather than a Gothic palette would be to direct a potential future back to a defined past. It would be branding of a different look, but it would still be branding. I want to know what a questioning style looks like, a building or set of buildings that can refer to its past without necessarily confirming it. I have had the sense before of belonging to a common project, one that includes great chasms of difference between members, between visions of what is good.
The questioning style allows such differences to thrive; it is relentlessly opposed to stasis. It does not supply answers nor take sides. There is something of the workbench in it, something of the laboratory, of the stage, the battlefield, of the simple and orderly home. It does not pat you on the head for merely being there. It orbits at its center an empty space, not empty because it lacks content, empty because its statement is, “Here is where you do the thing. Whatever it is, make it worth this space. Deserve this chance.” Empty because it’s getting the hell out of the way of you, and everyone you share it with, and the crackling of human power that abides between you. Empty as the vacuum that surrounds the filament of a light bulb. At Yale we have the privilege of an inordinately powerful, oddly unchallenged auspice, an improbable abundance of resources and time. If this questioning style is possible anywhere, it’s here. To build another set of Yale Gothic colleges is to use our unlikely gifts to confirm that we have unlikely gifts.
I don’t mean to make this critique as an aesthetic resource. Or any kind of ethical authority. Or an authenticity-hound. Nor do I mean to make it as an outsider. The Yale I’m critiquing includes me, despite the fact that I’m a lefty agrarian with longish hair, unemployable as a consultant, who doesn’t play sports and isn’t from the East Coast and can’t do math above a high school level and transferred here eight months ago from a utopian-experimental community college. I’m not trying to level accusations or indictments or offer a vision of what the content of undergraduate life ought to be. I’m trying instead to have us focus our attention a little more on how we clothe ourselves in buildings, how those buildings radiate beyond their physical forms, and how we subject ourselves to a strange dissonance when we let our architecture substitute for the confirmation we create through action. To Yale, we hope, it is given that we will make new things, preserve the sense that we must continually prove ourselves, and persist in making demands even as we acknowledge past successes. When Yale builds, it is to its own credit and benefit to promote this.