Yale’s two new residential colleges are all about juxtapositions — of near and far, of science and humanities, of new and old, and of traditional and modern.
Several Yale presidents are said to have quipped that the prophecy carved into the lintel of Grove Street Cemetery — “The dead shall be raised” — would eventually come to pass, if and when Yale needed the land. Yale dashed hopes for those awaiting the messianic glory of that moment by selecting to build Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray colleges just beyond the weathered headstones.
While the preservation of this inconvenient necropolis of old Yale created a physical disruption, it also allowed for innovation.
“We’ve rewritten the map of Yale in relationship to the city as a whole,” lead architect Robert A.M. Stern ARC ’65 said. “Normally Yale was always thought of as a long, skinny, thin axis along Prospect Street and then College Street, all the way down to the medical school. Now there is a more circumferential circulation pattern that’s evolving. That’s great. We’re proud that the colleges are really key to that evolution.”
In keeping with the campus’ new shape, the architects placed Bass Tower, the newly anointed younger sibling to Harkness, in a perfect line with York Street. The architects intend for the visual connection to minimize the perception of distance.
Beyond navigating the spatial gaps of campus, the new colleges also move along temporal ones. Just like the other 12 colleges — even Ezra Stiles and Morse — the new colleges’ architectural style tells a story that predates any physical space on campus. On top of their flashy newness lie the heavy stones of history and memory.
In some cases, the mark of history is actually embedded in the glaze on the windows. The dining halls have panes with images of the plans of campus through the years as well as school buildings that have long since been replaced.
This history helps the new colleges fit conveniently into the common Yalie’s image of a residential college. Their brick and limestone, graduated slate roofs, gothic towers, wrought iron gates and welcoming courtyards give a sense of place to words like “bright college years” and a “society of friends.” Patrick Pinnell, the designer in charge of the more than 470 stone carvings that adorn the colleges, selected those phrases among others to serve as a backdrop to the new communities. Some of these adornments are familiar images and ideas, some a source of deep mystery.
“Something I love about a lot of the details is that they’re actually kind of mysterious,” said Tina Lu, the head of Pauli Murray College. “I actually really like the mystery of it. The way it’s going to be imprinted visually without necessarily having meaning attached to it until, maybe, later — or even never.”
Lu pointed out one archway in Pauli Murray that features a conductor’s hand signals, something she never would have known if not for one of her student’s comments.
Some carvings have more obvious meanings than others: The carving of a Yale Banner with the year ’54 pays homage to the donor class that made much of the project possible. Pinnell and his team even included a carved image of the architect himself complete with characteristic glasses.
“I like the carvings over the archways in the frosh courtyard,” Head of Benjamin Franklin Charles Bailyn said. “There are angels on the arch leading toward Prospect Street, and the dragon-and-phoenix and yin-yang on the arch opposite, and I like the juxtaposition of east and west that this gives.”
Robert A.M. Stern Architects, the lead designers for both new colleges, thought of everything: from wheelchair-accessibility in every entryway to hooks built into the ground for the Commencement and Reunion tents. The sleek features of the dining halls’ soft serve machines remind visitors that the colleges are built for the future.
These features, though glamorous, are not meant to overwhelm. The colleges are fully equipped with air-chilling mechanisms in every room, but no dorm rooms will have air conditioning during the school year in order to balance the scales of fairness. During summer months, however, visitors to Yale will enjoy the charms of neo-Gothic in cool 21st-century rooms.
The colleges, a set of fraternal twins, balance their separate identities with their shared ones, even in the details. Both colleges contain oak millwork, but in Pauli Murray the wood has a dark stain to match its green tilework, whereas in Benjamin Franklin the stain is honey-colored to go with its tawny tiling. Both have Cole Porter, class of 1913, quotes etched into their common spaces, but they play differently to the casual passerby.
When former Yale University President Richard Levin GRD ’74 decided to move forward with the new colleges, his first step was to figure out how to design them as both fresh and fitting to Yale’s historic campus. The then-dean of the School of Architecture, Stern, seemed the perfect choice of architect for this 500,000-square-foot undertaking. His reputation for blending buildings to match their surroundings served the University’s goal well.
Though many may view the new colleges’ traditional neo-Gothic architecture as a rejection of Morse and Ezra Stiles’ “peanut brittle,” Stern is less willing to capitulate on this point. He noted that Eero Saarinen’s ARC ’64 1961 contributions to residential life at Yale actually do exist within the architectural framework established by Henry Austin’s Dwight Hall in the 1846 and cemented by James Gamble Rogers’ eight colleges in the 1930s. Morse and Ezra Stiles, with their towers and courtyards, are part of the same conversation as Rogers’ eight colleges and Stern’s two new ones.
The little parallelisms and the differences of the twin colleges will encourage a friendly rivalry between the two communities, according to Stern. The two fellows’ lounges and their terraces face each other and facilitate conversation between what will soon be colleges with their own traditions, chants, songs and styles.
Contact Flora Lipsky at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Correction, Sept. 5: A previous version of this story misspelled the names of Grove Street Cemetery and Patrick Pinnell. It also incorrectly referred to Robert A.M. Stern Architects as Robert A.M. Stern’s Architects.