Tradition for Sale

With their new architecture, universities all too often abdicate leadership in promoting artistic innovation as they pander to plutocratic donors.

Benjamin Franklin College, Yale University.
Benjamin Franklin College, Yale University. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

With the 2016 refurbishing of the Beinecke Rare Book Library, Gordon Bunshaft’s translucent marble reliquary built in 1963, Yale completed a decade-long program of renovating the university’s collection of mid-20th century architectural masterpieces. Also last year the Yale Center for British Art — Louis Kahn’s last building, which opened in 1977 — completed its renovation, with the original finishes beautifully restored and state-of-the-art new building systems. Preceding years saw the rollout of similarly significant renovations, including the Art Gallery (Louis Kahn, 1953); Ingalls Hockey Rink (Eero Saarinen, 1958); Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges (Saarinen, 1962); and the Art & Architecture Building (Paul Rudolph, 1963; renamed Rudolph Hall in 2010). These restoration projects, all impressively well executed, are testament not only to the university’s stewardship of its architectural heritage but also to its role as a powerful patron of progressive modern architecture in the middle of the last century. 1 Yale was, in those years, an institution with the confidence to promote contemporary architecture as the proper expression of its own progressive ideals and the means to equip it for the future.

How glaring, then, is the contrast with Yale’s most recent architectural production. I speak of the two new residential colleges that have just been completed near the heart of campus; a superblock of neo-Gothic fantasy designed by Robert A. M. Stern Architects. The decision, made in 2008, to increase the number of residential colleges from twelve to fourteen in order to expand undergraduate enrollment committed the university to its most expensive and symbolically freighted construction project in the last half century. This massive undertaking was justified as a forward-looking imperative to prepare Yale for the globalized future. But why then would the university choose to revert to an archaic, centuries-old visual language? Clearly Yale’s resolve to address the challenges of modern times no longer extends to its architectural patronage.

As it embraces a globalized future, why would the university revert to an archaic, centuries-old visual language?

To be sure, Yale has commissioned some fine buildings of stimulating contemporary design in recent years, but these have all been lesser facilities on the campus periphery. 2 When it came to the Big Project — the new residential colleges — the university went to Robert A. M. Stern, then dean of the architecture school, who could be relied upon to deliver a building in the Old Yale tradition. Robert A.M. Stern Architects, or RAMSA, has indisputably done that, with a masterful recall of the style of the original residential colleges created by James Gamble Rogers in the early 1930s — which themselves, with their picturesque Gothic revival and neo-Georgian garb, were sham; self-conscious evocations of the campuses of Oxford and Cambridge.

Branford College, Yale University. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

To my earlier question as to why the university would pursue this course, the easy and obvious response is that the traditionalist architecture of the old colleges has become essential to Yale’s identity, so to reproduce that ambiance would seem a logical goal. And a residential college is different from a classroom or administrative building. It’s more fundamental to the undergraduate experience; it molds his (exclusively, up until 1969) or her emotional relationship to the school. But even so, does this justify a wholesale lapse into historicism when faced with the challenge — the opportunity — to create two new colleges?

Clearly that is not what university president A. Whitney Griswold thought in 1958. When the decision was made, back then, to add two colleges to the original ten — then only a quarter-century old — it would have been easy to build more of the same. James Gamble Rogers’s firm was still extant (as Rogers & Butler) and practitioners of Collegiate Gothic still walked the earth, turning out projects for countless prep schools and churches. But Yale chose to go modern and to hire Eero Saarinen, then at the height of his creative powers (and whose Ingalls Rink had just opened to acclaim). Saarinen was charged with reimagining the residential college for the new era, and he rose to the challenge magnificently.

Admittedly, acceptance of Morse and Stiles Colleges was fitful. I’ll confess that when I entered Yale as a freshman in 1969 I was pleased to be assigned to Branford — arguably the most beautiful of Rogers’s Gothic quadrangles — and not to one of the “new” residences. After taking Vincent Scully’s course in modern architecture and learning of Saarinen’s importance, I felt somewhat guilty about my bias — but I’d wanted the “authentic” Yale experience. I wonder if the students moving into the new complex — named Benjamin Franklin College and Pauli Murray College — this fall might feel similarly equivocal about being assigned to the “new” colleges — or will RAMSA’s historicist magic do its trick?

Benjamin Franklin College, with view of Bass Tower, Yale University.
Benjamin Franklin College, with view of Bass Tower, Yale University. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

Benjamin Franklin College, Yale University.
Benjamin Franklin College, Yale University. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

Pauli Murray College, Yale University.
Pauli Murray College, Yale University. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

Dining hall, Pauli Murray College, Yale University.
Dining hall, Pauli Murray College, Yale University. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

Fireplace in the dining hall of Franklin College, with a line from Cole Porter, Yale College, Class of 1913.
Fireplace in the dining hall of Franklin College, with a line from Cole Porter, Yale College, Class of 1913. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

They may well be convinced. The week before students were to start moving into the dorms, I toured the buildings during an open house for members of the Yale community. My first impression was amazement at how dead-on was the evocation of tradition. The flow and proportions of the courtyards; the materials and decorative details; brick, limestone, slate, leaded glass — all were put together with extraordinary skill to create an astonishing simulacrum. The comments I overheard expressed wonderment that this level of traditional craftsmanship is even achievable in the 21st century. Well, it is, if you have enough money to spend.

The new colleges are extremely well done — but the good execution of a bad idea only makes it more pernicious.

The wood-paneled interiors of the lounges and libraries, with the non-functioning fireplaces, chandeliers, and overstuffed furniture, reminded me of a posh boutique hotel or private club. Amid the mannered historicism, the only notes of postmodern irony that I detected were in some of the figural stone ornament and in the quotations carved into the wood of the two high-vaulted dining halls; words not of any Enlightenment philosopher but lyrics by Cole Porter. To me there was something a bit creepy about walking around in this pseudo-Gothic confabulation, with its admixture of classical interiors, all so brand spanking new. It’s like a movie set; a clean, idealized version of the Ivy League. Of course, I imagine that in 1932 my beloved Branford College probably seemed equally nouveau and phony. There is no denying that Franklin and Murray Colleges are extremely well done; sophisticated compositions, expertly planned, and built to the highest standards —but the good execution of a bad idea only makes it more pernicious.

Ezra Stiles College, Yale University.
Ezra Stiles College, Yale University. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

Morse College, Yale University.
Morse College, Yale University. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

Meanwhile, I understand that Saarinen’s Morse and Stiles are now much loved by their residents. At 55 years and counting, the buildings have accrued an historical patina of their own, augmented by contemporary appreciation for mid-century modernism. 3 A few years ago these colleges underwent a splendid renovation by the firm Kieran Timberlake, which deftly enhanced the original architecture while installing new amenities that are among the best on campus. Saarinen’s original, monastic bedrooms were reconfigured into larger suites, while new activity spaces — theater, fitness rooms, dance studio, digital media center, art studio — were created in space excavated underneath courtyards and lawns and illuminated by skylights and light courts. The new interventions integrate beautifully with Saarinen’s geometries and materiality. 4

Bob Stern is the unrivaled court architect for the One Percent, a master at conjuring Old Money ambiance.

It’s widely assumed that the commission to design the new colleges was a reward for Robert Stern’s years of service as dean of the architecture school (and a great dean, in my opinion). As an engaged alumnus and attentive to such matters, I do not recall any open search for an architect for the major new buildings — the selection just happened. 5 This commission could be considered a capstone to Stern’s half-century-long career, and no doubt was deeply meaningful to him. But did he really merit it? Or need it? Robert A. M. Stern Architects is one of the most successful architectural practices in the United States. The firm’s portfolio is packed with lavish corporate headquarters, big university buildings, baronial residences and, most recently, conspicuous condominium towers for billionaires. Bob Stern is the unrivaled court architect for the One Percent; a master at conjuring Old Money ambiance. For certain, in selecting him as architect for the new colleges, Yale was playing to its donor base, and to RAMSA’s natural clientele.

Entryway at Franklin and Murray Colleges, Yale University.
Entryway at Franklin and Murray Colleges, Yale University. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

And deep-pocketed donors were needed. With a reported construction budget of approximately $500 million (that comes to about $650,000 per student housed), Yale’s new colleges eclipse in cost pretty much all contemporaneous construction projects on American campuses. While I understand and endorse the long-term value of investing in high-quality construction — for buildings that are expected to last a century or more — it’s obvious that the elaborate stone ornament and fancy metalwork helped loft the buildings’ price tag to the stratosphere. But RAMSA’s retrograde design is precisely calibrated to trigger nostalgia among wealthy alumni and to ease open their checkbooks. Indeed, the project attracted the largest gift in the university’s history, a donation of $250 million from Charles B. Johnson, class of 1954. As a thank-you to Johnson, one of the colleges was named after his avowed role model and object of memorabilia collecting, Benjamin Franklin — a figure with scant connection to Yale beyond an honorary degree conferred in colonial times. (In contrast, the other college was named after the civil rights activist and gay African American alumna Pauli Murray.) 6

At the ground-breaking ceremony on April 16, 2013, then university president Richard Levin said that Stern “was the obvious and overwhelming choice … to create colleges that reflect the best of Yale tradition.” Well, it depresses me to think that the powers at Yale should interpret “the best of Yale tradition” to entail the replication of nearly century-old building forms, which were ersatz to begin with. Yale University has another tradition, now sadly in retreat, of taking risks with its architectural patronage. In selecting Louis Kahn to design the Art Gallery, in the early ’50s, the university gave a respected but somewhat obscure Philadelphia architect his first major commission and launched him on the most productive period of his extraordinary career.

Years ago Yale had the confidence to take risks with its architectural patronage.

Likewise, the hiring of Paul Rudolph — like Stern, dean of architecture, but with a relatively young office — to design the Art & Architecture Building would propel his practice to a new level of achievement and influence. Simply put, Kahn and Rudolph were risky choices, requiring nerve, conviction, and vision. It is worth pointing out that in those same years the university was not only choosing to abandon its historicist architecture; it was also working actively, if belatedly, to renounce the quotas that had long limited the enrollment of diverse groups — Jews, African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos — and beginning the deliberations that would lead to coeducation. In this light, the new mid-century buildings can be seen as highly visible symbols of a new and more egalitarian era. The selection of RAMSA for these latest buildings represents an entirely different attitude; a far more cautious position, one that forsakes the former commitment to daring patronage and fetishizes a narrowly defined “tradition.”

I have expended many words on my alma mater, but in fact Yale is just one recent and particularly conspicuous example of timorous patronage on the part of our universities. They’re just not as brave or forward-thinking as they once were.

In 1950, Harvard constructed the Graduate Center, designed by The Architects Collaborative. Walter Gropius, on the architecture faculty and also the head of TAC, had argued forcefully for modernism in America, and the new building marked the debut of the International Style on a major U.S. campus. 7 Later that decade Harvard made news by hiring Le Corbusier to design its new arts facility, the Carpenter Center — a modernist masterpiece and the Swiss-French architect’s only built work in North America. (The commission came at the urging of Josep Lluis Sert, dean of the Graduate School of Design.) But at Harvard, as elsewhere, that level of cultural ambition for its architectural portfolio seemed gradually to vanish. The Gropius buildings came perilously close to demolition in the early 2000s as the university expanded its law school. While that crime was averted 8, the school did erect a trio of new buildings by —  who else? — Robert A. M. Stern; heavy-handed masonry structures that slight TAC’s elegant designs and mimic the Romanesque arches of H. H. Richardson’s nearby Austin Hall, ca. 1883. And when Harvard decided in 2012 to expand the Fogg Museum, next to Corbu’s Carpenter Center, the university enlisted the overused go-to museum architect Renzo Piano, who produced a work of surpassing blandness which was, I imagine, an easy sell to donors for its mannerly predictability.

Likewise, Washington University in St. Louis has proudly announced the completion of a campaign to fill in gaps in its Danforth Campus — designed by Cope and Stewardson at the turn of the 20th century — with new buildings “in accordance with Danforth Campus’s Collegiate Gothic style.” Laboratories, classrooms, an expanded athletic facility — all are fitted out with the latest technology and have attained LEED certification, yet are contrived to look as if they’d been constructed during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt. But the donors are happy. One is quoted expressing his satisfaction that the building will “assure the traditional architectural continuity of the campus.” 9

Laboratories and classrooms are fitted out with the latest technology, yet are contrived to look as if they’d been built during the administration of Theodore Roosevelt.

I could go on with other examples of campuses on which recent building has been, if not overtly revivalist, merely neutral and inoffensive, exalting dubious notions of context and “tradition” over innovation or artistic ambition. Major universities like Yale, Harvard, and Washington University wield tremendous cultural influence, and projects like the new Yale colleges set an example. They provide intellectual cover for campus planners and university administrations to go retrograde, in base calculation of what might please potential donors. How else to explain the ludicrous new 1.25-million-square-foot residential campus at the University of Southern California, a 15-acre superblock of five-story steel-framed buildings, all clad with prefabricated panels of Gothic style masonry? A clock tower dominates the complex like an emaciated Big Ben, and the underground parking garage is entered through a monumental Gothic arch. (The architects are Harley Ellis Devereaux.) To be sure, the site plan looks reasonable and I’ve no doubt that the dormitories and amenity spaces (including a Tudor style dining hall) are highly serviceable. But still: Gothic architecture? In Los Angeles? In 2017? With no evident irony, USC president C. L. Max Nikias declared that “the looks of the University Village give us 1,000 years of history we don’t have.” 10 This is pure set design, which by its very name — “Academic Village” — belongs down the road at Disneyland.

A plaque honoring the donor who gave $250 million to support construction the construction of Franklin and Murray Colleges. [Yale University/Michael Marsland]

How did we slide into this phase of regression in cultural investment, in which universities all too often abdicate leadership in promoting artistic excellence, supporting new talent, and seeking innovation with their architectural commissions? It is, of course, all about the money. Given steady reductions in state and federal support, academic and cultural institutions instead must rely on the patronage of that tiny portion of the population in whose hands the wealth of our society is increasingly concentrated. Too many institutions thus feel compelled to position their capital projects securely within the comfort zone of the plutocracy — hence the depressing reappearance, time and again, of the same short lists of bankable architectural firms that know how to please the donors; how to give them what they expect. It seems that architect selection processes are more often driven not by committees of experts or visionary campus leaders, but rather by development offices or, most egregiously, by the donors themselves. 11 How far we’ve drifted from Walter Gropius’s optimistic injunction: “If the college is to be the cultural breeding ground for the coming generation, its attitude should be creative, not imitative.”

In the end, the construction of Franklin and Murray Colleges to RAMSA’s neo-Gothic designs represents a monumental missed opportunity. I can’t help but wonder what bold statement Yale might have made had it engaged a design firm on an ascendant trajectory to reinvent the residential college for the 21st century, as Saarinen did in the middle of the 20th. What if the university had asked Kieran Timberlake, who have renovated not just the Saarinen buildings but two other residential colleges, and are fine designers at the vanguard of sustainability, to design a pair of colleges from scratch? Or what if it had held a design competition and, perhaps, selected two architects, one for each college? There is certainly no shortage of promising mid-career architects — including many Yale graduates — who could have risen to the challenge. It was within Yale’s power to construct an early 21st-century flagship worthy of its professed commitment to the future of global education — a place that embodied the advancement of new ideas — but that was evidently a risk the administration was loath to take. Which in turn raises the question: was the choice of Stern really so “safe”? In reproducing the forms of its past, Yale risks perpetuating an image it has long sought to shed, as a bastion of moneyed privilege, right down to the moats that distance the new colleges from the streets of New Haven.

  1. The renovation projects were directed by the following architects: Beinecke Rare Book Library: HBRA Architects with Newman Architect, 2016; Yale Center for British Art: Knight Architecture, 2016, following a preservation plan generated by Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee; Yale University Art Gallery: Ennead Architects, 2012; Ingalls Hockey Rink: Kevin Roche John Dinkeloo Associates (the successor firm to the Saarinen office), 2010; Morse and Stiles Colleges: Kieran Timberlake, 2009-2010; Rudolph Hall, Gwathmey Siegal & Associates, 2008.
  2. Notable new buildings include the University Health Center by Mack Scogin and Merrill Elam (2013); Kroon Hall for the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies by Hopkins Architects with Centerbrook (2010); and the Sculpture Building by Kieran Timberlake (2007).
  3. During my tour of the colleges I overheard a young alumna telling her companions that she had lived in Morse College, as her father had when those colleges were new. Comparing the furnishings in the Franklin common room to those in Morse, she said that she’d seen photographs from the ’60s showing the original Herman Miller furniture: “It was so cool; they should bring that back!”
  4. Stephen Kieran led a group of us on a tour of the newly renovated colleges during a reunion weekend. In the spirit of full disclosure: he and I were classmates at Yale and in graduate school at Penn.
  5. The process seemed reminiscent Stern’s appointment as dean, in 1998, which came after then-president Richard Levin rejected the recommendations of the architecture school’s search committee and appointed his own man, to general surprise and no little consternation.
  6. The politics of naming buildings are fraught. Shortly after the two new colleges were named, and after strenuous debate, the Yale Corporation stripped the name of the notorious white supremacist, John Calhoun, from one of the 1932 colleges and renamed it for Yale alumna Grace Hopper, a pioneering computer scientist and U.S. Navy rear admiral.
  7. I am not forgetting Mies van der Rohe’s complex for Illinois Institute of Technology — but IIT was, at the time, a trade school that could be expected to put up buildings that looked like factories.
  8. Benjamin Thompson’s 1969 Pound Hall was not so fortunate and was demolished for the RAMSA project.
  9. The quote is from George Bauer, one of the donors of a building for the new business school. It should be noted that Washington University has commissioned good contemporary designs for the “Danforth East” expansion of the campus.
  10. See Christopher Hawthorne, “Disneyland Meets Hogwarts at $700-Million USC Village,” Los Angeles Times, August 21, 2017.
  11. The influence of donors is hardly a new phenomenon. James Gamble Rogers was the favorite architect of the philanthropist Edward Harkness, and it was at Harkness’s insistence that Rogers did so much work at Yale and at other institutions that Harkness favored.
Belmont Freeman, “Tradition for Sale,” Places Journal, October 2017. Accessed 29 Sep 2023.

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