For every college town that is idyllic, another is fraught with town/gown tension. Yale University’s complicated relationship with New Haven has, for decades, been a textbook example of the latter. In recent years, however, the university has spent considerable resources sprucing up its surroundings and seems to acknowledge that in the ever-competitive sport of attracting top faculty and students, as New Haven goes, so goes Yale. Still, at an institution as traditionbound as Yale, habits are slow to change.
Such was the environment in which Philadelphiabased KieranTimberlake Associates found themselves when they were asked to design a new building for the School of Art’s sculpture students. (The building first served as swing space for the School of Architecture while Paul Rudolph’s Art and Architecture Building was being restoredandexpanded by Gwathmey Siegel & Associates.) The Sculpture Building, which also includes a detached gallery and a public parking garage, is the latest and last planned piece of the university’s arts district, which extends from Old Campus into the Dwight Street neighborhood, and includes Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery and Yale Center for British Art, the A&A Building, the Yale Theatre Department, the Yale Cabaret, the Yale Repertory Theatre, and Deborah Berke’s thoughtful renovation and addition for the School of Art.
Though the arts district is scattered over several blocks and well-integrated into the fabric of the city, the campus as a whole is largely characterized by James Gamble Rogers’ Collegiate Gothic and Georgian Revival residential colleges. These enclosed, self-contained courtyard buildings famously offer students intimate and highly atmospheric environments in which to study, dine, and live, creating a small-college feeling within a large university. With housing, dining, small libraries, and other communal spaces, these super-dorms provide undergraduates, and some graduate students, with everything they need on a day-to-day basis. With their high walls, locked gates, and inward-looking plans, however, they offer little to the street or the New Haven community.
In a lecture at the School of Architecture in 2006, the architects explained that they wanted to orient the building toward campus so that students using the building would be integrated into campus life (Yale and KieranTimberlake declined to speak to AN for this article, citing the building’s formal reopening for sculpture students in the fall). Located in the center of the block bounded by Park, Chapel, and Howe streets and Edgewood Avenue, the site has frontage on Howe and Edgewood, with finger-like paths reaching to Chapel and Park. They argued that by creating a series of paths behind the buildings on the street and carving out a courtyard from the backyards of the Yale-owned houses and apartment buildings, they were reinterpreting the university’s signature enclosed academic courtyards.
The Sculpture Building complex’s most successful piece is the gallery building on Edgewood Avenue, which sits comfortably on the short residential block. Clad in handsome wood sheathing, the contemporary building harmonizes with its neighbors, which range from Greek Revival houses and weighty piles of Victorian masonry to nondescript four-story apartment buildings from the 1920s and ‘30s. Behind the gallery building, there is a pleasant, shaded courtyard framed by the studio building and the rear of the surrounding houses and apartment buildings. The architects preserved a massive oak tree, which is reflected in the studio building’s crystalline curtain wall. While this space generates a well-liked and well-used outdoor space for students, again, it comes at some cost to the city’s public realm. The architects and the university decided to place the studio building behind the gallery building, with its main entrance facing a path toward quiet Edgewood Avenue, pushing the parking garage onto Howe Street, a far busier residential and commercial corridor. This effectively hides the studio building from public view.
Though the parking garage does have ground floor retail spaces, currently used as offices for Yale Security and as temporary classrooms and offices for the architecture school, the structure is conventional, thinly disguised with drab matte gray panels that do little to enliven the building. (New Haven is home to a number of remarkable parking structures, such as Paul Rudolph’s Temple Street parking garage, so this structure suffers even by comparison to local examples.) The message seems clear enough: Students deserve tastefully detailed, modern architecture with tranquil outdoor spaces, while the city only deserves ordinary construction that fulfills basic requirements.
The studio building itself suffers from its location on the site. One side faces the rear of the gallery building and the large oak, while the other overlooks the asphalt parking lots of the low-rise commercial buildings that line the corner of Chapel and Howe streets. The latter side is shaded in a dark brown metal bris soleil, which will help mitigate some of the full sun exposure. The studio building joins the parking garage somewhat awkwardly with an inset, covered area that serves as the building’s rather unimpressive entrance.
This year, Yale’s sculpture complex ably fulfilled the needs of its primary users, the architecture students,and demonstrated KieranTimberlake’s ability to carve amiable enclaves out of marginal spaces. And yet these strengths also illustrate how aloof the university seems to have been toward the city, not in terms of dollars spent— for the parking garage no doubt fulfills a public need—but symbolically.