Neo-Gothic Wonderlands: Undergraduate Responses

Coordinator: EDWARD WANG (B.A. Arch ’16)

Contributors: AMRA SARIC (Trumbull College, ‘17),
KATHERINE WYATT (Davenport College, ‘17),
SHEAU YUN LIM (Ezra Stiles College, ’18),
OLIVER PRESTON (Jonathan Edwards College, ‘16),
CAROLINE SYDNEY (Silliman College, ’16)

Paprika! asked those who know the residential colleges best, undergraduates, to share their thoughts on living and learning in Yale’s neo-Gothic wonderland. Collected below are responses from a diverse group of students — sophomores to seniors, majoring in environmental studies to architecture. Coordinated by Edward Wang.

The cinematic quality of Yale’s campus always confused and unsettled me. After all, I come from a city of socialist housing blocks — the whole neo-Gothic endeavor felt […] luxuriously indulgent in a way that hadn’t been afforded in any society I’d been a part of thus far. Over the course of freshman and sophomore year, I drifted more in the direction of the non-Gothic parts of campus, finding familiar comfort in the brutalist, concrete mass of Rudolph Hall, and often escaping entirely away from campus to more conventionally residential parts of New Haven, for a breath of what simply felt more like normal life rather than constructed fantasy. I moved off campus after sophomore year, exchanging gargoyles, oak tables and leather sofas for a brick building filled with IKEA and salvaged antique furniture, no fireplace in sight. I have since spent very little time in the residential colleges or the Sterling Library, going mostly when I decide I’m in the mood for pretend play. For a few hours I let myself be convinced I’m a monastic scholar, devoted to academia, sophia, lux et veritas, before returning diagonally across the campus to pet some bush-hammered concrete and glue pieces of wood together, producing structures as unreal as the places I had just come from.
— Amra Saric.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, the choice to design the new colleges as a modern interpretation of the original Gothic colleges is a smart one because it creates a sense of visual cohesion across campus […] The nature of the residential college system at Yale is unique and if dramatic departures rom the Gothic style are to occur, I don’t believe the colleges are the best space for that experimentation. Morse and Stiles Colleges are visually and historically compelling, but imagine a campus full of pairs of stylistically disparate buildings. You would begin to lose a sense of the residential colleges as a unique and united collection of spaces organized around similar values. In a way, Yale College has become “the ten colleges plus Morse and Stiles” — not in the sense that they are devalued, but that they seem separated […] I would wager that our subconscious experience of visual variation may be a starting place. To be sure, architectural innovation is also key for visual and  socio-cultural reasons but this innovation does not necessarily need to be externally apparent. The new colleges are vastly technologically superior to their older counterparts, simply because they are newer and were crafted with environmental sustainability as a priority. If Yale wants to experiment with new architectural styles, I would look to Kroon Hall as a model of success. It is a modern building, aesthetically interesting and functionally comfortable, but one that can be permitted to stand alone only because it is not a residential college. It is distinct in its identity. The colleges, on the other hand, are 14 individual but aligned bodies, and their visual appearance is critical to establishing a cohesive student experience.
— Katherine Wyatt.

The tie to an older system of residential colleges is itself a contradiction: if there was one defining style of Yale’s architecture, it would be eclecticism, the lack of any specific style. No doubt, the neo-Gothic was attractive, but so was the strangeness of Saarinen’s colleges, and the futurism of the School of Management. I see a missed opportunity with the two new colleges to put forth something more original. Morse and Stiles, regardless of opinions on its aesthetics, are defining pieces of campus architecture and have imbued both communities with their own spirit and culture.
— Sheau Yun Lim.

The other day an email informed me that MY PACKAGE HAD ARRIVED at the receiving office on Prospect, so I had the rare occasion to walk up Science Hill. I’d sort of forgotten about the new colleges, so I was surprised to see how far along they are. By “far along” I mean something more like “upright” or “having any ontological status to speak of.” The […] cinderblock walls and steel frames not completely covered by tarpaulin give only vague suggestions of gables and dormers and eaves. As I passed, it struck me as deeply counterintuitive that in the coming months, such spare structures would be heaped with slabs and bricks, slate roofing, gargoyles, and all the other arch and wacky accoutrements of the gothic style.

Actually, construction has already started in on some of that. Namely, the chimneys have gone up. Chimneys! That’s so weird to me. In one place you can see quite clearly that the flues are just adhered to the roof, that below them there’s only empty space — no hearths or anything. Maybe I’m wrong and the fireplaces will come later, but even if they do, we can be sure they won’t be functional. I understand the thought — chimneys signify hearths which signify […] family and warmth and the heart. We’re after hominess, here, after all. “Welcome Home!” says nearly every video made by Yale Admissions ever. Strange to think, though, that if we’re looking for a welcoming architecture, we’ve chosen one that was meant to inspire, in the late-medieval churchgoer, something closer to abject terror. That’s overstating it, but I think there truly is some confusion here between what is home-y and what is just around, that is, what is well worn and historically in-step. The other thing about fireplaces in dorm rooms is that they force us to imagine a time when people actually used them, which reminds us in turn that we live in spaces through which many other bodies have passed. Tradition! Maybe that kind of thought was a comfort once, but now I’m not so sure — especially considering that it was a very particular kind of person kindling those fires. We should stay awake to the possibility that such histories, which the new colleges want very badly to quote, are at best alienating to many of our classmates, painful at worst.
— Oliver Preston.

When I got into Yale, a dear family friend gave me Vincent Scully’s Yale in New Haven: Architecture and Urbanism. Sweatshirts and varsity sweaters are more typical “getting into Yale” gifts […] but this gift was different, because it made Yale into a place for me […] It forced me to think about the insular architecture of Yale before I occupied it. I thought about gates and courtyards. When I moved into Silliman and looked out from my bay window, onto essentially a lawn, I was a little disappointed. Now, Yale is planting two new residential colleges […] Their exteriors resist the notion Yale has changed since the 30s, and this bores and terrifies me.”
— Caroline Sydney.