Emulation & Invention in Yale’s Residential Colleges

GIDEON SHAPIRO, Post-Doctoral Associate, Digital Humanities Lab

Yale’s campus architecture oozes history, but it is a history whose foundations are borrowed and invented. The university long ago discovered that picturing the past could serve as a strategy for shaping its future. As Dean Robert A.M. Stern writes in his 2010 book, On Campus: Architecture, Identity, and Community, James Gamble Rogers’ Harkness Memorial Quadrangle (1917) was deliberately conceived in emulation of those at Oxford and Cambridge… Yale’s expansion of the 1930s enabled it to reinvent its own history in steel, brick, and stone.” This reinvented history helped Yale to strengthen its institutional identity and to redefine its relationship with the urban fabric of New Haven. According to Stern, Rogers “used architecture to provide Yale with a kind of WASP version of Roots, with each important event in Yale’s history, and each important teacher and graduate, memorialized in stone.”

The two new residential colleges currently under construction on the wedge-shaped site bordered by Prospect Street, Sachem Street, and the Farmington Canal Trail, scheduled to open in 2017, further extend the long-running play of emulation and invention. Stern and his office, Robert A.M. Stern Architects (RAMSA), decided to demolish older campus buildings on the site in order to create a cohesive ensemble that could hold its own vis-à-vis Harkness, Trumbull, or Morse. “The new colleges will take their place on Yale’s skyline with a variety of dramatically modeled towers,” Stern wrote in 2010. No doubt Stern draws inspiration from historic context and seeks to practice what he calls, “contextualism.” It is worth noting, however, that context is defined, not given. To define context is a value-laden act of selection, not a neutral act of documentation. In the case of the new residential colleges, Stern defined context not with regard to the buildings scattered around the site, such as the now-demolished Hammond Hall and Mudd Library, but rather with regard to the residential colleges situated a few blocks to the south.

Context can be as malleable as history. Architects are not simply faced with the question, “To be or not to be” (in context), but rather with the complex problem of which aspects of which context(s) offer the most useful or meaningful framework for engagement. While Eero Saarinen, in designing Morse and Stiles Colleges in the 1960s, took a cue from Rogers’ massing but not his Gothic styling, Stern has chosen to give the new colleges Gothic styling as well as the familiar massing. It is telling that Stern prefers the term “Gothic” to the “neo-Gothic” used by many historians to describe modern stylistic revivals. By omitting the prefix “neo,” Stern implies the interchangeability of historical styles; perhaps the whole history of architecture could be said to consist of an endless series of emulations and reinventions, without clear ties to time or place. But isn’t there some danger of falling into pastiche? Rogers himself already ventured down this path in designing the colleges and academic buildings at Yale between the two World Wars. By the 1930s, critics lambasted the seemingly retrograde, anti-modern character of the colleges and Sterling Memorial Library. If the Gothic seems out of place in 2016, it was already far-fetched in the time of Raymond Hood, Frank Lloyd Wright, and the growing corps of modern architects on both sides of the Atlantic. Walter Gropius, after all, had invoked the Gothic as a model for collaborative building and craftwork, certainly not as a stylistic model for design. Yale’s seemingly conservative embrace of the Gothic did not ultimately prove detrimental to the university’s image or popularity. As more residential colleges were added to Yale’s campus in the middle decades of the twentieth century, their styles varied from Gothic to neo-colonial Georgian and modern, but their unifying qualities lay in their massing, program distribution, and walled courtyards. The residential college enclaves became the building blocks of Yale’s decentralized urbanism—“a big place made up of many small places,” as Stern has called it.

Rogers’ seemingly eclectic design approach turned out to be a “pragmatic” one, according to historian Aaron Betsky, author of James Gamble Rogers and the Architecture of Pragmatism (1994). Rogers, a gentleman-architect who cultivated friendly relationships with his would-be clients, employed three architectural strategies that make his colleges much more than just wishful appeals to Oxbridge prestige, as Betsky explains: one, the “pavilionization of major program elements and the reliance on open space or courtyards”; two, a departure from the strictures of Beaux-Arts Academic Classicism; and three, the technique of “picturing” through visual and experiential composition, rather than abstract geometries. The result, in Betsky’s words, were “buildings that wore their traditions lightly, not as a corpus of set rules, but as the accretion of the experience of the ages… that could be relived every day through experience.”

Rogers’ version of Gothic was not a rigorous historical revival, but a rather vague and somewhat opportunistic appeal to history. It spoke not of any specific Gothic legacy but instead of Yale’s self-presentation as a genteel bastion of learning and society. Elitism was an important part of this architecture, Betsky writes, but so was “an attempt to discipline modernization by using existing styles and structures.” Rogers succeeded in accommodating both the structural rationalism of steel-frame construction and the desire for a more idiosyncratic sense of space and movement. Recalling his own experience as an undergraduate at Yale in the late 1970s, Betsky writes, “I absorbed this architecture’s practical lessons — its choreography of spaces, its collaged compositions, its sensitivity to light and weather, at the same time as I leaned the rules of etiquette, the modes of expression, and the workings of the Old Boy Network.” This distinctive character of Rogers’ architecture is thus rooted in something more profound than its vaguely Gothic styling.

It remains to be seen how the new residential colleges will ultimately fit into this tradition, but RAMSA’s published drawings suggest that they accept the basic premise of Rogers’ approach. The threatened stigma of pastiche has more or less faded. Emulation and invention lie at the foundation of Yale’s modern architectural tradition. More important than the specificity of Gothic styling is the spatial continuity of cloistered enclaves scattered throughout the grid of public streets.