Beyond Buildings

 

Gwathmey and Rudolph at Yale

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Courtesy Aaron Betsky

 

I finally experienced the addition to Paul Rudolph’s 1963 Art & Architecture Building (now simply the Rudolph Building) at Yale University last week. From the photographs I had seen, I thought it was going to be bad. I did not realize how much of a cancerous pustule on the side of a beautifully articulated structure the building was going to be.First, I have to say that the 2008 addition, designed by the late Charles Gwathmey, seems to function. There are new lecture halls, classrooms, and offices, and— most importantly—the intimate spaces of the ground-floor library now finally have some breathing room.

 
Courtesy Arch Daily

Having said that, the building is appalling. I can only imagine that the façade and plan are this bad on purpose, so that the students can learn how not to design. The front separates itself from the Rudolph Building with a silo, and then develops into a collection of stucco- and metal-clad planes that balance on a mainly-glass base. The structure flails around in layers of rectangles that seem to have lost track of the script that Paul Rudolph wrote: four posts connected by cross-beams that support no less than 37 different levels, as the building rises to the equivalent of seven floors.

 

Standing in front of the new elevators—so much roomier than the cabins Rudolph squeezed into one of the piers—you experience a problem in the plans: How would one get out of the building in case of fire (or overwhelming disgust?) Against the clarity of the old building, you see the mush of the new. Instead of a pleasingtension between studio floors and support spaces, played out in structure and void, you see thin lines squiggling around amorphous blankness.

 
Courtesy Aaron Betsky

Meanwhile, Dean Robert A.M. Stern has overseen the cleaning and opening up of the Rudolph Building. The renovation is a blessing, restoring a building that was used hard and with intensity to a piling-up of one glorious space after the other. Here architecture students can learn what you can do with the most elemental building blocks of space, structure, and sequence. Only the lay-in acoustical-tile ceilings strike a false note.

 

Of all the famous American architects of the late 20th century, Charles Gwathmey produced the most mediocre structures. I cannot, in fact, think of a single good building he designed, beyond the collage he inserted into Princeton’s Whig Hall in 1972 and a few of the early houses. And even with these, the shapes he produced were much less comfortable than those his fellow New York Five Mdernist, Richard Meier—who originally had the commission for the addition at Yale—spun out. It is a shame that Gwathmey left his alma mater with a monument to a collection of bad designs.

 

There is a lesson here, beyond the fact that Rudolph created some great buildings and Gwathmey, one of his students, did not. The Rudolph Building is difficult. Until Stern wisely relieved it of some of its functions, the building was always cramped. It leaked and forced you to walk, sit, and gather in uncomfortable ways. You could hurt yourself if you rubbed the hammered concrete structure the wrong way, and you still can. It was so bad, it either burned out because of its flaws or was lit on fire by students in 1969. (Has anyone noted the confluence of circumstances between Whig Hall and the Art & Architecture Building, I wonder?)

 

The Gwathmey building is, as far as I can tell, none of those things. It is nice and functional and no doubt a lot cheaper on an inflation-adjusted, per-square-foot basis. When I visited, students were sprawled around the new spaces, reading or answering emails. (I guess libraries these days are places to network in social space, not just pick up fellow students in real, beautifully designed environments). Hardly anybody was looking up—as I kept doing while I was supposed to be concentrating on student work I was jurying—at the flying bridges and the Gothic rise of the Rudolph Building. Good buildings can be difficult, expensive, and hard to understand. They also made me, as a student at that school decades ago, believe that you could create something worthwhile with the elements of architecture.

 

 
 

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About the Blogger

Aaron Betsky

thumbnail image Aaron Betsky is the director of the Cincinnati Art Museum, and in 2008 he was director of the 11th Venice International Architecture Biennale. Trained as an architect at Yale, he has published more than a dozen books on art, architecture, and design and teaches and lectures about design around the world. Aaron worked for Frank O. Gehry and Associates and Hodgetts & Fung Design Associates as a designer, taught for many years at the Southern California Institute of Architecture, and between 1995 and 2001 was curator of architecture and design at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. From 2001 to 2006 he was director of the Netherlands Architecture Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands.