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How should we live (at college)?

Yale University’s dependence on neo-gothic architecture underestimates its students’ adaptability

Pauli Murray College and Benjamin Franklin College, Yale University, New Haven Connecticut, 2017
Peter Aaron/OTTO for Robert A.M. Stern Architects

Stand at the end of the walkway between Yale University’s two new residential colleges, and you will see what looks like an illustration for a bedtime story. Lines of lampposts and young trees soften the red brick and stone facades, punctuated by the occasional gable. At the far end, a Gothic bell tower, with four layers of round arches, reaches into the sky, while a street-level line of arched windows beckons you down the walk. The tower’s base is obscured by another building, making it look farther away than it really is, and creating an illusion that Yale might extend just as far in that direction.

It’s lively, it’s hierarchical, it’s picturesque. It could be the opening frame of any “college” movie. It could have been designed any time in the last 100 years. How you feel about that last statement will condition your reaction to Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges, fraternal twins housing almost 500 students each, on a 6.7-acre site just to the north of Grove Street Cemetery in New Haven.

But seriously, in 2017, will only neo-Gothic do? The walk, and the residential colleges flanking it, felt to me like a strenuous effort to sell Yale to an audience that was already in the bag.

Pauli Murray College and Benjamin Franklin College, Yale University, New Haven Connecticut, 2017
Peter Aaron/OTTO for Robert A.M. Stern Architects

The colleges, designed by Robert A. Stern Architects (Melissa DelVecchio was the design partner), were intended as a kind of time travel. I graduated from Yale in 1994, and I could not remember what occupied the triangular block during my time, so undistinguished were its contents, but I do remember the deep sigh of having classes nearby “up Science Hill.” In order to shrink that distance psychologically, the university asked the architects to make more of what it had down below: James Gamble Rogers’s ten colleges of the 1930s, in a mix of Gothic, Renaissance and Georgian styles. Rogers loved a visual trick to create coherence, akin to that of the tower. My own college, Pierson, is red brick Georgian on the inside, but it has a grey neo-Gothic wrapper on Elm Street to match its neighbors across the road.

On a recent visit, as I toured the colleges, ducking in and out of courtyards and vaulted tunnels, I felt respect for the thoroughness of the pastiche. Franklin is roughly triangular, with one big rectangular and two small wedge-shaped courtyards within. Murray, named for the civil and women’s rights activist, is more regular, with three courtyards enfilade. The bricks, the slate roofs, the gates, the lawns: all very charming. The small courtyards are quaint; the giant courtyards, camera-ready for graduation.

The long facade of Franklin College, as it meets Prospect Street, fronted by a tower with a checkerboard of flushwork, its length subdivided by arched gateways barred to the public by decorative iron gates foliated with Connecticut flora. Roofs and bays and even a Renaissance palazzo-like front break up what could be the Gothic wallpaper.

The architects at RAMSA learned their lessons well, and have employed every possible means to make the new colleges as charming as the old. No one could argue that they are being assigned second-best. Given a few years, and a little grime, most people may not even realize these are from 2017.

Vintage view of Phelps’ Hall and Lyceum, Yale College, New Haven, Connecticut.
Lake County Discovery Museum/Getty Images

The illusion dispels once you go indoors, and the conflict between the twentieth and twenty-first centuries begins to sap the energy from the rooms. The problem is scale, mostly. These residential colleges—what other universities might call “dorms,” but with the addition of on-site faculty housing, dining and recreation facilities, and generous courtyards—were built to accommodate a 15 percent increase in Yale’s undergraduate student body. Because the freshman dormitories on Old Campus can’t be expanded, the freshman of these colleges will live with the upperclassmen, meaning every facility needs to be sized for 450 students. That’s larger than all but the largest of Yale’s existing colleges, which were built in a simpler time—socially and mechanically.

So the public rooms at the Head of College’s house, where s/he might hold a lecture or a dinner, are sized for a 400-strong buffet line to march through the pantry. The hallways and doorways are wider so that all of the rooms and gender-neutral bathrooms are accessible. The architects, working to combine Yale’s preferred room configuration— suites of singles and doubles off a common room—with contemporary fire regulations had to create long hallways, which the old colleges’ design studiously avoid.

Student rooms were fine: three times the size of my freshman dorm room, with a vestigial chair rail and elaborately paneled doors, the world outside seen through leaded glass. The intimacy and delicacy of the tight neo-Gothic spaces (which could also be dark and uncomfortable) was gone. In its place, I often felt like I was at the hotel next to a university, which apes its style as a branding exercise.

The fireplace in the dining hall at Franklin College.
Alexandra Lange

The dining hall at Franklin College feels enormous, its bulk broken down by side nooks, housed in little classically-fronted rooms that can each seat 20 to 25 students. The chairs, the moldings, the round window providing a view: Everything felt gigantic, puffed up to cover the baronial proportions of the room.

The dining hall was one of few places the architects were expressing some native personality—postmodernism rather than historicism—via the deep moldings around every opening, the flamboyant round lighting fixtures, the chairs with their own rows of arches on the backs.

Stern’s choice of a Cole Porter (Yale College 1913) quote above the non-working fireplace, “It was just one of those things,” seemed to be trying to express joie de vivre, but that was not what I felt. The room felt wrong, proportionally, functionally, spiritually. Wouldn’t it have been nice to have a female alum quoted above the fireplace at the first opportunity? Or someone more beloved by the classes of the 2010s? Why build a non-working fireplace at all, especially opposite a 21st-century working kitchen? Why build such an enormous room at all, another place for haunches to be speared, when co-eds today would rather eat a salad on the lawn? The disconnect between the look and the mechanics showed through the skin.

I do not believe that residential colleges built in 2017 should look like those built between the first two World Wars, in turn an Americanization of Gothic colleges built in England in the fifteenth century. Who taught me to believe this? Yale, where I was educated in the history of architecture in buildings designed for the university by Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph. In the 1950s and 1960s, then-President A. Whitney Griswold hired the country’s leading modern architects to renew the campus, inserting new buildings cheek by jaw with the old, nevermind context. “I don’t need a master plan. I just need great architects,” Griswold reportedly said.

Yale’s postwar building boom, like that of many other universities, was partly funded by the G.I. Bill and the swelling ranks of undergraduate students. It was then that Yale added its first two “new” colleges to the ten built in the 1930s. Designed by Eero Saarinen, Morse and Stiles Colleges (completed 1962) follow the footprint of the ten created by James Gamble Rogers: a donut of rooms around an internal courtyard, a high-ceilinged dining hall, basement social spaces, a green center, ceremonial gates. Abstract cast-concrete projections, shaped like rocks and fists, punctuate the corners and mark the entrances.

Masonry on the Corner of Stiles College Building.
GE Kidder Smith/Getty Images

Decades of student dislike for Saarinen’s design, styled as a sort of picturesque pre-ruin, prompted Yale’s turn to historicism. The new colleges, farther from the symbolic center of campus, would be organized around the suites, dining halls and courtyards seen as the essential Yale undergraduate experience. So far, so good. But not just the program should be the same: They should not also differentiate themselves by style. They would seem closer, the thinking went, by virtue of their architecture. They would achieve “parity.”

This definition of parity reminds me of a widely-circulated cartoon illustrated the difference between equity and equality, symbolized by small, medium, and large children trying to see over a fence. Equality is giving every child, regardless of height, the same box to stand on. Equity is giving each child the number of boxes she requires to see over the fence.

Equality is wanting your new college to be so much like the old that the new air-conditioning will only be turned on for summer school students. Equity is challenging the architects who graduated from your architecture school to design a new college with the intimacy, richness and craftsmanship of the old—without leaded glass and pointed arches. That’s the challenge Griswold offered Saarinen and, even if the performance is not entirely convincing, we are better educated for it. Today’s Yale has underestimated its students.

Saarinen wrote, in 1953, “On existing campuses, there is the challenge of building proud buildings of our own time that are in harmony with the outdoor space and with the existing buildings of other times.” Saarinen went to Oxford and paced every college court; he chose concrete walls, with exposed stone aggregate, “because there simply are no more masons,” his wife, critic Aline Saarinen explained to the New Yorker at the opening. “The buildings will make fine, sturdy ruins.”

Despite their dramatic difference in style from Stern’s colleges, Morse and Stiles are also a mannered performance of collegiate-ness: Saarinen took his cues from medieval traditions and made them new, but there remains a disquieting scenography to the whole beige ensemble. A picturesque walk, like the winding corso in an Italian hill town, also divides Morse from Stiles and allows the public through passage to the neo-Gothic Payne Whitney gym. I remember the dining hall as feeling fit for the kind of king’s banquet at which haunches are eaten with a two-pronged fork. And yet we ate chicken patties and too many ice cream cones.

Students assigned to Morse and Stiles felt exiled from the Yale of the campus brochures, but more importantly, from the social structure embedded in the Rogers colleges. The small, single rooms Saarinen designed were supposed to remind their inhabitants of the quaintness of an inn, but their irregular shapes made furnishing difficult, and they weren’t arranged off shared living rooms as in the “suites” at other colleges. (In the older Yale colleges, the vertical entryway becomes a center of group identity, with communal bathrooms and living rooms located off the shared stairwell. Doorways are often propped open, creating a more fluid intermingling of public and private space. The long, alienating hallway of blank doors is thereby eliminated, an architectural pattern which students and administrators believe increases social cohesion.)

When Kieran Timberlake remodeled and expanded Morse and Stiles in 2011, they reworked the rooms to include those common rooms, as well as adding underground space for student activities and flattening the tiered courtyard to make outdoor recreation spaces for use and not just views. They added an outdoor dining deck, unique in the colleges, now the envy of the others precisely because it nods to the way we live now.

While he was working on Morse and Stiles—and this is a classic example of what drives some critics crazy about Saarinen—he designed a perfectly rectangular, perfectly modernist residential college at the University of Pennsylvania. No aggregate, nothing irregular, simply the manipulation of space and light. Hill Hall (1960), now known as Hill College House, has just undergone its own $80-million renovation, led by Mills + Schnoering Architects, who previously worked on Saarinen’s Gateway Arch in St. Louis. Like Yale, Penn has spent much of the last decade refreshing and adding on to its housing. Like Yale, the colleges pride themselves on their social life. But their chosen narrative is about architectural difference.

Hill College House exterior from northwest, showing landscaped moat and entry bridge.
Aislinn Weidele/Mills + Schnoering Architects

From the outside, Hill College House looks rather dowdy: its façade is made of the same slightly battered clinker brick that Louis Kahn used for the Exeter Library. The brick is patterned with long, narrow windows alternately oriented vertically and horizontally. At the roofline, a line of iron spikes curves outward, mirroring a curve of brick at the base. A planted moat, originally landscaped by Dan Kiley and now redone by OLIN Partnership, surrounds the building on four sides: the single front door is reached across a brick bridge. The female inhabitants—for this was Penn’s first purpose-built women’s college—would be safe from the male gaze within.

“If this does not bring romance back to co-education then nothing can,” wrote the editors of Architectural Forum. For despite the rectilinearity, Saarinen can’t resist scene-setting. Storm the moat and what you find within is a covered courtyard overlooked by open balconies and projecting lounges behind louvered mashrabiya-like screens. It’s the white counterpart to the black covered atrium that creates the central social moment at Bell Labs (1962), and serves the same purpose: the co-eds, like the scientists, need to be coaxed out of their private rooms and into the light. There was even a marble fountain at the center of it all, whose tinkling waters can be heard in the far reaches of the college.

When images of Hill’s restoration hit the web earlier this month, several former residents noted that they spent all their time outside their rooms, given their cell-like size. The architects of the renovation couldn’t change the room size, or move many walls at all—the building has both a poured concrete frame and bearing wall—so the strategy was a refresh, informed, as partner Meredith Arms Bzdak noted on a tour, by the question “What Would Saarinen Do?”

Hill College House Atrium detail with Club Lounge balcony at right.
Aislinn Weidele/Mills + Schnoering Architects

The building layout is simple, and the orientation diagram posted in the building’s entry marks each corner of the building with its own color, green, red, yellow and blue, sending you off down the long halls. Saarinen played out that color code with over 50 different interior designs for the building’s lounges and study spaces; the new interiors reduce the number but keep the cheerful palette. Stairwells, light fixtures, linoleum, bathroom tile, upholstery fabrics, all get bit by one color of the rainbow. Those bathrooms have also, in keeping with our times, been made gender-neutral; a new elevator and lift make every floor accessible, and 11 singles now meet ADA requirements.

The rooms remain punitively small, and I’m surprised Penn didn’t turn them all into singles. With a desk, a single bed and a closet lined up along each of the walls, roommates must coordinate getting dressed at different times. But there is indeed some compensation in the array of differently-sized social spaces, on your corridor, in your quadrant, and bracketing the ends of the interior atrium. There’s café-style seating on the quarry-tile main floor, and the dining hall will now be open for student groups at all hours. There’s no way to bring it to parity with BCJ’s New College House, completed last year just across the lawn, comparatively enormous but also generic. University Architect David Hollenberg said he thought this generation of students would fall for its “Mad Men” charm.

I appreciated his optimism, which reflects my own: that the social life supported by the residential college is more important than any old-school style. If four years at college teaches you anything, it should be to look beneath the surface. Yale’s new colleges, because they are based on long-held, and long-tested spatial ideas, will serve the university just fine. But they are a missed opportunity to let an architect figure out how to craft a Yale residential experience that feels like Rogers without leaded glass and banquet halls.


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