In Conversation: Surry Schlabs
YSoA Professor, Received a B.A., M.Arch, and a PhD from Yale University.
LP: Do excuse the language, but you are a triple Yalie, correct? Would you care to sum up your student years in Rudolph Hall for us? What are the most striking differences between the building as it was back then and the space we last inhabited together in March?
SS: When I was an undergraduate here, it was still the art and architecture building and the School of Art occupied the fourth and fifth floors, as well as a good chunk of the basement. Architecture was relegated, to the sixth and seventh floors. The studios were quite packed. And undergraduates were not in the building. We occupied the basement of the Fence Club, which is one of the old fraternity or society houses back over by the School of Drama back behind Wolf’s Head, 220 York Street. Fred Koetter was dean.
During those days the undergraduate program was more or less separate from the school. We shared faculty with the school and there was a small group of very dedicated faculty who believed very much in supporting the undergraduate program: Kent Bloomer, Alan Plattus, Sophia Gruzdys, to mention a few. For the most part we were generally excluded from the life of the school. On more than one occasion, some of my undergraduate colleagues and I were kicked out of school lectures because they were filling up and we weren’t students in the school. It created some tension, which was only amplified when some of us arrived back at the School of Architecture as graduate students a couple of years later, and the same figures who had kicked us out of lectures were still in positions of authority.
We really had our own kind of scene over at the Fence Club, which was the way we liked it. We were left alone, and we did whatever the hell we wanted to do in that building. Nobody was watching us, which was kind of cool. But at the same time, we’d look up and see the lights on the sixth floor at night in the School of Architecture. It gave us something to aspire to. Loria hadn’t been built yet. So the School of Architecture really loomed over the Yale Daily News building. There was a little apartment building and a former little restaurant building between the Yale Daily News and what is now Rudolph and the Art and Architecture Building. I only went over there when I had to or for a couple of lectures, where we had to claw our way in, and occasionally for an Art School open studios event.
The fourth and fifth floors were kind of carved up into this rabbit warren of individual studio spaces, which, on one hand, totally ruined the greatest space in what is now the School of Architecture. On the other hand, there was this culture of working in, on and with the building, with graffiti in all the bathrooms and art students installing things in the elevators. I remember one morning I walked into the elevator and it was a full-on shower, with water on the floor and a toothbrush in the corner, you had to move a curtain to go in. It was a lot of fun. The building bears traces of that kind of work and experience. There are still spots where they weren’t able to scrape the enamel paint off the floor. Or even where the architects – I believe – spray painted the five or ten-foot markers along the big concrete beam on the side of the seventh floor, as a visual system of measurement. These things were sort of expected.
That did change under Bob though. The School of Art was still there, under the early years of Bob’s deanship. But very quickly thereafter, in 2000, I believe the Art School moved out into the building that is the old JCC and Deborah’s project; it underwent its first Stern-era renovation then. Rudolph Hall still didn’t have the red carpet back, still didn’t have the drop ceiling, it still had operable windows. It was still exceedingly uncomfortable in both summer and winter, but pretty nice in the fall and in the spring.
After a year in California, I came back to Yale for architecture school. In part it was sort of a homecoming, because I was coming back to Yale and New Haven, and I was really excited to be here. It was a very exciting place to be at the time. On the other hand, I had never really spent any time in the building so it was kind of new to me. They had ripped out all of the art student’s studios on the fourth and fifth floors and kind of restored that space. The catwalk was still missing, that wasn’t put in until the renovation in 2008. A lot of other things were missing. We occupied this sort of middle zone. You couldn’t really spray paint the building, there was less graffiti. They were really cracking down on that kind of thing. There was still a first-year initiation party in the school held in the sixth floor pit. It was a well-loved and well-worked space; Less graffiti, but still casting plaster and painting on the floors. It supported that kind of work in a way that it wouldn’t later.
I graduated from architecture school in 2003 and I worked for Alan Plattus at the Yale Urban Design Workshop for a few years and Gray Organschi Architecture for a few more. I had a kid, came back to school. By this point, Loria had been built – the art history department had moved in. The building had undergone its most extensive renovation, had the new HVAC system put in, and the paprika carpet was put in.
By the time I returned for my PhD, there were no more parties in the school. There was certainly no graffiti, there were no operable windows, and definitely no spray painting or resin pouring on the studio floors, or anything like that. On one hand, the shop facilities were so much more extensive and so much more generous than they had been before. On the other hand, they became the only spaces where you could do this really kind of gritty work. I don’t know if that’s a bad thing or a good thing necessarily, but it was certainly a change.
MK: Which spaces, if any, have you come to think of as your own? We won’t steal them.
SS: I have a real soft spot for the front stair. I think it really exemplifies the kind of dynamism of the building as a whole. I think it’s the space where Rudolph, and others for that matter, took the most care, which is ironic maybe since it’s sort of a fire stair now. When I was in architecture school, it was actually the main entrance to the building, Loria wasn’t there. That little door from the stair that exits on the first floor, which is “exit only” now, was the door that everybody used, people just slipped in. There were only two elevators, where the laser cutter rooms are now. They were notoriously slow and cranky and unpredictable. So you often found yourself using the stairs even to go from seven or six down to the basement.
Another thing I love about this stair is that moment where Rudolph cast a nautilus shell into the wall. There are other kinds of objects cast into the wall, and the various plaster casts he took from the Art Gallery. Given that it’s mostly a fire exit now, it may seem ironic or inappropriate, but it’s where the building’s identity as a teaching instrument is most apparent. Thinking about this building, on this campus of Neo-Gothic buildings clad in limestone, it really speaks of the character of concrete as a former liquid now made solid; a kind of crystallization of geological time in the present. I also like the quality of the air in the stair, it’s cold, it’s crisp, it smells like concrete. Right? It smells like time. I think the rest of the building has largely lost that character because the HVAC system is so complex and efficient and weird. In the wintertime, it’s really cold and it’s a little damp, but for that, it smells like it should and it feels like it should when you’re in a ruinous concrete behemoth.
MK: When Luka and I were writing the issue prompt, I sent him a twelve-minute recorded recount of a nightmare. I registered this dream inside Rudolph Hall, but the only space that was recognizable was that staircase. It was the way I got around in the dream.
LP: I also have a really special relationship with the stair, and take my dinner there sometimes. I remember my entire first semester I would always eat on the mezzanine level between fifth and sixth, and there was someone practicing their singing every single day for about half an hour around the same time on some other floor.
SS: Was it a Whiffenpoof?
LP: No, no, it sounded like traditional Chinese singing, I think. The resonance always felt perfect for those kinds of moments
SS: It used to be even weirder. There used to be a bathroom or two off the stair. And the MEDs had an office on what is now the sixth floor landing. Just above the sixth floor, there’s a window from the stair into the foyer outside the sixth floor studio entrance. That used to be a door. And behind that door was an office, which I believe was the bathroom for the seventh floor penthouse. In any case, there was a shower in there. It was a windowless room where the MEDs were granted some little bit of real estate. In some ways they were privileged because they could bathe after an all nighter.
LP: Were there any people, students, professors, anyone at all, who might have taken you on a walk around Rudolph Hall, a sort of Virgil figure with whom you feel your understanding of the building irreversibly changed?
SS: I have known Alec Purves a really long time. Alec was my first semester studio critic in architecture school, which is great. He’s a Yalie through and through. He always spoke very generously of the building. I taught for Bob Stern in my second year in architecture school, he loves the building differently, I think, than I do. I appreciate the residue and traces of human and inhabitation and creation in the building, Bob, I think, aspired to return it to a kind of ideal state, and keep it there. Which is fine.
I also TA’d for Vincent Scully a couple of times. While Vince was not a great lover of the building originally, and for much of his life. Later on, he acquired a soft spot for it, it grew on him. Listening to Scully talk about the building’s relationship to the other museums and the Arts district on Chapel Street in general, I always found it very touching, perhaps because I knew he didn’t particularly like the building for a long time. He used to give this lecture on Yale and talked about how the arts started at Street Hall in the 1860s, how that’s one type of Gothic architecture. And then the Swartwout Building was built in the 1920s, and connected to Street Hall via the bridge across High Street. And then the Kahn gallery was built in, ‘53-’54, and steps out just a little bit further. Rudolph’s building really kind of completes this progression of the history of the arts on Chapel Street. More than that, it sits at the edge of the original nine squares in New Haven despite being so different from everything around it, looking at the building up Chapel Street.
I used to live on Chapel Street and Wooster Square. Marching up Chapel Street, you’d see this kind of tower, a sort of totem in the distance. It wouldn’t be until you got closer that you realized it wasn’t the front of the building that you were looking at – it was actually the back of the building. Because Chapel Street turns at York, it juts out into the axis of Chapel Street in a way which is really affecting. I think Rudolph was a lot more sensitive to the urbanistic character of the building that he’s given credit for. And I think the building actually works at an urban scale better than most people imagine or notice. I guess, getting back to your question, I have Vincent Scully to thank for that reading.
MK: Do you think you would have been a different architect without having worked in Rudolph Hall?
SS: Absolutely. No question. It’s a challenging building to be sure. I think from an architecture student standpoint, it’s challenging in the best possible way. Luka, Mari mentioned to me that one of the bases for this exploration of Rudolph is your interest in the building as an exercise in the Baroque…
LP: Yes, this ability to synthesize things that have nothing to do with each other. An ability to project an entire worldview in these astonishingly concrete forms.
SS: There’s also a way in which I think the building echoes or even exemplifies a Baroque tendency towards improvisation or improvisatory formal exploration. The building appears gridded, systematic, in a kind of modernist way. In fact, what makes it so interesting is all of the different ways it deviates from expectations: that back corner, the way every landing in the stair is different. It’s very much like Baroque music in that sense, right? There’s a kind of framework laid out which is only completed through performance, a sort of improvisatory approach to performance, it’s always a little bit different. Moving through the building is always a treat. On one hand, those big piers that anchor everything together give you a sense of orientation regardless of what floor you’re on. But every floor is different. So your relationship to those anchors varies. It’s always a little distinct, it’s always unique.
It defies expectations in other ways. From the outside, especially now that it has windows, it’s not just a shell. From the outside, it appears as this kind of hulking mass, so one expects it to be kind of dark and dreary. I will say that not every space is great; there are places in the building where its mass, its weight, its depth can’t be reconciled with the sort of experience you’ll need for light and air. But in the major spaces of the building, you stand in the middle of the fourth floor, and there is light in every direction. It’s always a treat to bring friends or family into the building who have never been inside before. Because, based on their impressions of it from the street, they are always pleasantly surprised at what they find, if not shocked. So yes, from the standpoint of an architecture student, the idea is that it is unexpected, that it surprises you, and defies expectations. I think these are important lessons for architects.
MK: What kind of architects do you think the building is shaping in its present regime of shifts and WFH culture?
SS: This is in progress. Even among architects, the building has gone back and forth in terms of whether people like it, whether they don’t, what it represents, what it doesn’t. It is, in some ways, something of a cipher in that sense. I don’t know how to really discuss the building in the context of our current circumstances. I am deeply saddened by the fact that I am working from my dining room instead of Rudolph Hall, but I think that sadness derives less from being in an awesome building than from just not being around people. I think education and teaching are communal and social experiences. I can handle zoom, all right. I feel like, with a small group, it’s easy enough to establish a rapport or relationship. But, teaching my first-year seminar, for the third time this year, and for the first time over zoom, it is very difficult to establish the kind of relationships that I think one needs in education via the computer screen. So one might say that, it just reinforces the importance of having a common space, spaces in which to gather.
I think that Rudolph Hall is, if not exceptional, at least very good in its provision of spaces where people can gather as a community. The entire school can gather more-or-less on the fourth and fifth floors. It happens from time to time. I’ll just say that this is in stark contrast to someplace like Gund Hall at Harvard, which is worse than you think it’s going to be once you enter into it. It’s a very difficult place to gather without feeling like you’re in a hallway. I think that we are missing that aspect of Rudolph, but we’re just really missing that aspect of learning, teaching, and studio. You work alongside your friends and colleagues, with your teachers. I really, really missed that. I don’t know if that has anything to do with our building specifically, though, I do think our building is pretty good in the number of spaces it provides for large groups to get together as a community.
MK: What was the lowest low of your time as a student here? When did the building make you feel worse? And how about the highest high?
SS: Probably when we got kicked out of the Philip Johnson or Rem Koolhaas lectures in undergrad. I already felt like enough of an outsider, had been invited by the Dean to start attending lectures, and had been invited by our studio faculty to come see Johnson, only to be turned away in front of crowds of graduate students and out-of-town visitors who were in line, and told that we didn’t belong there. We did make our way in, thanks to the efforts of our studio faculty, but that was a low. We came sort of ready to join the party, partake of the culture of the school, and were told we had to leave.
There are two times that felt like real highs. I forget which year it was, it may have been a Yale-Harvard weekend, so there were friends from college in town. It was an unseasonably warm November evening and a bunch of us went up to the penthouse roof, which used to be easily accessible via that small ladder, no guardrails or anything. I was there with friends and classmates from architecture school, old friends from college, and my girlfriend who’s now my wife. Thanksgiving break was starting, the football game was the next day, and there was a meteor shower. That was a really exceptional evening.
Another one was presenting my dissertation in 2017. It was in the third floor conference room, which I think is another one of the great spaces in the building. There were PhD colleagues. Faculty and friends. Deborah had just recently taken over as Dean, she was there. My wife Emily, who never comes back to the school, she doesn’t have as much of a soft spot for it as I do, she came out, we got a babysitter. My parents came up from DC, they had never been in the school at all. It was the one time my two very compartmentalized lives, my home life and extended family life, and my academic and scholarly life overlapped.