Monday, May 26, 2008

Competing for Attention

Yale School of Architecture Class of 2008, (c) J.FulltonYale's commencement ceremonies were today. Since we have a few friends graduating this semester from the Master of Architecture program at the Yale School of Architecture, Kim and I went to show our support. YSOA graduation usually takes placed in the 4th floor "pit" of the famous (or perhaps infamous, depending on your point of view) A+A building, a Brutalist structure designed by Paul Rudolph and completed in 1963.

This year, however, festivities were held in the sculpture courtyard of Louis Kahn's Yale Art Gallery, just across the street, as the A+A is currently being renovated and the Art History program is building an adjoining building immediately to the north of it. The renovation and addition to the A+A were designed by Charles Gwathmey of Gwathmey Siegel & Associates in New York City. The school has been under construction since the end of spring semester 2007, and construction will be completed this summer in time for students to return to the building for the fall semester 2008.

A+A building, (c) J.Fullton
I am quite excited about the renovation of Rudolph's building, which I grew to love during my three years there for school. But the addition...well...not so much. Despite the best intentions of the architect, Yale University, and the YSOA under the leadership of Dean Robert A.M. Stern, there have been a number of critical rumblings in the New Haven architectural community since the renovation and addition were announced several years ago.

I saw Charles Gwathemey speak about the addition just as the designs were made public. The beginning of his lecture, before he showed images of the design, was quite inspiring. He spoke about the great responsibility and challenge that was inherent in the design problem, as the site sits immediately adjacent to Rudolph's building and across the street from two Louis Kahn buildings--the Yale Art Gallery, which I mentioned before, and the Yale Center for British Art. These three nearby building are arguably some of New Haven's greatest architectural gems, as well as world-class buildings in their own right. The A+A addition is not world-class.

A+A building, (c) J.Fullton
The problem that is inherent in Gwathmey's design, I feel, is that it competes too much with Rudolph's original structure. This is not a general criticism of Gwathmey's work per se, as he is clearly a talented and successful designer who leads a well-known architectural practice. However, it is a strong criticism of his design solution in this situation. On the one hand, he speaks publicly about his respect for and deference to Rudolph and Kahn before him, while on the other, he presents a front-and-center design that is not good enough to supersede the A+A in architectural importance and too visually complex and formally gymnastic to defer to it.

A+A Building, (c) J.Fullton
Truthfully, though, I am less concerned about the jumble of forms that the Art History addition assembles along York Street than I am about the experience of Yale's future architecture students. One of the greatest aspects of having a design studio on the north side of the A+A, in addition to the great indirect northern light, were the incredible panoramic view of Yale's campus. Not that architecture students ever lose focus or have time to daydream, but if we did, the view out to so many Gothic towers and beautiful courtyards could certainly help get us past our designer's block! It is the loss of this spectacular view and this studio experience, which has unified generations of architecture students since the building first opened in 1963, that I find truly unfortunate.

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