Back in the Day: Advocacy & Arson at Yale


Issue 01

Volume , Issue 01
September 4, 2014


Before dawn on June 14th, 1969, the fourth and fifth floors of the Yale Art and Architecture Building (A&A) burned. Widely believed to be the result of arson, the fire came two weeks after the firing of three members of the Art and Architecture School’s faculty. An apparent power struggle between students and faculty of the City Planning Department and university officials led to the department’s closure and the effective end of city planning at Yale. The events surrounding the fire reveal the way in which the competing interests of faculty, students and university officials led to a dramatic reorientation of our school’s curriculum. The effects have lasted nearly fifty years. Largely unknown to students today, the history and abrupt elimination of city planning has been supplanted by the notion that the Yale School of Architecture just focuses on buildings.

The Department of City Planning has largely faded into history for most architecture students, but the other legacy of the late ‘60s, the First Year Building Project, is now a flagship of the Yale School of Architecture. Rarely discussed in tandem, reform activities within the Departments of Planning and Architecture both reflected broader movements of the time: the struggle for civil rights, grass-roots organizing in face of sweeping urban renewal and a thorough critique of professional authority. Only one of the departments has lived to tell the tale.

Founded in 1949 as a program within the School of Architecture, the city planning program became The Department of City Planning in 1960. By the time of the fire in 1969, the department was in the third phase of its brief 19-year life. After a “technocratic/administrative” phase beginning in 1960 under orthodox planner and urban renewal proponent, Arthur Row, the more advocacy-inclined Christopher Tunnard was appointed in 1966. The department was moving into a period of reform, not unlike Architecture’s simultaneous transition from the leadership of Paul Rudolph to Charles Moore. Under Tunnard, the department began to support advocacy planning, in which the planner acts as a professional liaison working directly with communities offering expertise rather than prescribing dogmatic, top-down solutions.

During this transition, there was a climate in which new, student-initiated projects could grow. In “The Black Architect at Yale,” published in 1971, student Richard Dozier recounted how beginning in ‘68, the few black students in the Architecture and Planning Departments sought to address some of the common problems they faced at the school: lack of financial aid; poor housing; and, in the context of civil rights and an increased awareness within academia of a black experience, the meaning of a future job at a white-led architecture firm. They formed The Black Workshop. In addition to providing a forum for discussion and a support network, they carried out several architectural and planning projects in New Haven.

Reflecting on his work as student-director of the workshop from 1968-1969, Dozier wrote that the school should sponsor open-ended rather than “product-oriented” urban studies. In order to do meaningful work for a neighborhood, “architects need not always build a building.” Furthermore, “in some communities, building a building might be the worst option to take.” The workshop met with local residents to see what they actually needed. In response, they completed renovations, expansions of existing community buildings, and assessments of existing urban plans. For one project in nearby Dwight, a committee reevaluated a five-year-old planning document (done when the neighborhood was still majority white) and ruled that no new housing should be built until the local church was renovated and expanded. In the Hill neighborhood, the workshop helped rehabilitate eight existing brick row houses.

Yet, despite these careful interventions, New Haven remained an outstanding example of what Harvard’s Brian Goldstein called the “top-down” approach to urban renewal. In “Planning’s End? Urban Renewal in New Haven, the Yale School of Art and Architecture, and the Fall of the New Deal Spatial Order” Goldstein pointed out that this authoritarian style of planning associated with massive clearing of “slums” and large-scale renewal projects, was often prescribed by the university. Yale frequently worked directly with the City of New Haven. Students understood that this culture of top-down authority in planning began at Yale, quite literally. Goldstein went on to document how since the 1950s the university had acted as a principal partner and consultant in the city’s urban renewal efforts. For many students opposed to this authoritarian planning policy, it was not enough to partake in isolated interventions during their short time at Yale. They understood the role the university played churning out new professionals and simultaneously affecting policy. They wanted lasting, structural reform at Yale.

To achieve this, planning students and faculty sought to democratize the decision-making process in their department. They established an independent governing body, the City Planning Forum. In the wake of the civil rights movement in the United States, (blacks had only recently begun to study at the) the Forum sought to bring greater diversity to the department. They agreed that ten of the twenty students in their department should be black or Hispanic. A New York Times article from May 28, 1969 described how students and faculty were unable to obtain formal admissions approval. Frustrated with the lack of support from the administration, the Forum acted anyway and sent the letters of admission.

The repercussions were almost immediate. On May 27th, 1969, Kingman Brewster Jr., President of Yale University, fired Christopher Tunnard, Chairman of the City Planning Department and Louis S. DeLuca, Assistant Dean of the School of Art and Architecture. Planning Professor Harry Wexler was told his contract would not be renewed. The students admitted by the Forum were written and encouraged not to come to Yale, as the City Planning Department would likely be eliminated.

While the school has undergone multiple transformations in the past decades, this fundamental fact remains true today: Yale is unique for its architecture-only approach. This begins with the First Year Building Project. A true rite of passage, the Building Project developed at the time of the row within the City Planning Department, in response to similar desires to make architecture more tangible to students and responsive to the economic and social injustice so glaring at the time.

According to The Yale Building Project: The First 40 Years it began in 1966, when three architecture students in the class of 1969 began doing volunteer work in Jackson County, Kentucky. One returned the following year to design and building a house for a local miner. Following their classmates’ example, students in the class of 1970 founded Group Nine. That fall they travelled to Knox County and began working with local community organizers. With the support of the Dean, the effort led to a school-sanctioned project. For the rest of the academic year students worked preparing a site plan for twenty homes being relocated for the construction of a dam. Like the Black Workshop, these was a student led endeavor.

A challenge to Beaux Arts tradition, students proposed projects they could actually build themselves. What is more, they received encouragement and support from the school when Dean Moore made another student-initiated project in New Zion, Kentucky the studio project for the spring of 1967. With the assistance of Kent Bloomer, the Dean integrated the project into a rapidly changing curriculum at Yale.

Significantly, the project served as a way to channel the students’ frustrations with and responses to the charged socio-political climate of the late ‘60s. Unlike the advocacy work undertaken by the now forgotten planning students, the Building Project was absorbed into the curriculum at Yale and quickly became a one-project-per-year operation.

The initiatives led by planners and architects such as The Black Workshop and Group Nine are a thing of the past. Perhaps the direct challenge to authority posed by the admissions debacle was merely a pretext for removing the increasingly radical planning department, but by the end of the decade they were no longer a problem and the Building Project provided the primary school-approved outlet for community architecture. Nevertheless, one cannot help but wonder what were to have happened if the building project returned to New Haven to collaborate organically with community-minded planners.

The First Year Building Project is now one of the distinguishing aspects of the Yale M. Arch I degree. It was responsible for an impressive mix of outdoor pavilions and community building throughout New England in the ‘70s and ‘80s. In 1989, the project returned to New Haven to build a two-family house for Habitat for Humanity. The project has completed one house per year in the New Haven area ever since.

If we flash forward to this year’s building project, the now-forgotten calls for community architecture, advocacy, and direct student collaboration with the New Haven community seem as salient as ever. Now in its forty-sixth year, the 2014 Building Project is a “micro-house” in the nearby West River neighborhood.

This past spring as the end of the design phase of the Building Project neared, a moment of reckoning occurred for me. During a pinup an anonymous critic proclaimed that the house is for “people like you”; in other words, Yale students (the new urban elites). While the house is being built for a non-profit developer in partnership with a private investor keen on reusing our “cool” design, it’s unclear if this design will affect anything beyond the block on which it landed. Regardless of who goes on to buy this new home, all contact with the West River neighborhood was effectively delegated to the non-profit developer and we students were “free” to focus on a design we could only hope would (or would not) be for people like us.

What would happen if students had to work with local community members in New Haven instead of simply working from a design prompt? Could the experience of hearing a community’s needs and aspirations be as memorable and educational as swinging a hammer? Faced with the concerns of the people who would be most affected by our projects, we students might actually stop, ask some serious questions, and consider the social, economic and political implications of our buildings.

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Volume , Issue 01
September 4, 2014