Robert A.M. Stern Architects Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges for Yale University
Aaron Betsky One of Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges' many (similar) courtyards.

There is nothing wrong with copying history, you just need a good reason and have to do it well. Robert A.M. Stern, the reigning Prince of Corporate Classicism, had a rationale to make the first new colleges Yale University built in half a century Neo-Gothic: Neither he, a graduate of the Yale School of Architecture, nor the client, nor the donors, nor (I imagine) the future student inhabitants could imagine anything else. Yale is Neo-Gothic; that is its image and its “unique selling point.” Its core campus, though containing many modes and types, is dominated by the style. We might all dream of what a truly innovative architect—say, Yale’s own faculty member and assistant dean Mark Foster Gage, who has his own take on history, or (now) establishment experimenters such as Diller, Scofidio + Renfro or Tod Williams Billie Tsien Architects | Partners—might have done. Truth be told, it was inevitable that Dean Bob (he ran the School of Architecture for 17 years until retiring in 2016) would get the job and turn to Neo-Gothic.

Why should we even care? Because few architects get the chance to spend what some say is two-thirds of a billion dollars (though Stern's office says it was much less) on making dormitories that, because of Yale’s stature, will stand as models for such facilities around the country and even the world. We should also care because that amount of money and attention means that this should be the chance neo-classicists have craved for in order to prove their case—even if current technologies and construction methods make it difficult to do any historical style correctly, seeing as those are dependent on many more details and were developed for different materials than what are currently in the mainstream.

So, how has Stern done? Pretty well, all things considered. My judgment on this does not, however, mean that I either buy that it was the right thing to do or that the results are wholly successful.

Robert A.M. Stern Architects Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges for Yale University
Aaron Betsky

Before we go any further, it’s time for full disclosure. I am a graduate of Yale, both undergraduate and graduate, and my first book was about the architect of most of its campus, James Gamble Rogers. I also count Stern as a friend, though one who has, while supporting me, also taken every chance he could to point out the errors of my ways—and I mean all my ways.

When Stern’s designs for the new Yale colleges were first published in 2011, I told the Yale Alumni Magazine that it looked to me like this was going to be one of the best examples of channeling the work of a dead architect we would ever see. The architect in question is of course that self-same James Gamble Rogers, who in addition to designing most of Yale’s Neo-Gothic and Neo-Georgian buildings, was an integral part of the conceptualizing and planning of the whole residential college system. During the 1920s and 1930s, Rogers’ office was one of the most well-oiled machines for producing historicizing architecture this country has ever seen, and what he built at Yale has a complexity and sensitivity to scale that few other designers have achieved in any style.

Stern has an equally purring machine at his disposal, and he obviously put it to work on this project. The picturesque towers picked out in stone, arches blending through layers of stone into the wall, corners and gables accented with just the right amount of detail, framing of pedestrian walks, and creation of dining halls and common rooms that have just the right combination of grandeur and convivial informality is perfect.

Robert A.M. Stern Architects Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges for Yale University
Aaron Betsky Front tower

What the Benjamin Franklin and Pauli Murray Colleges miss is all the ways Rogers was able to build up his colleges from the smallest detail and courtyard to a whole that confront the city around it. You see the problem as you approach them coming down Prospect Street, which they face: The front tower rises up the street over six stories, where it looks towards nothing in particular, while the wings behind it drop two floors to humble little bars that creep towards the rear. The courtyards, which Stern based on an analysis of all of Rogers’ places of gathering, are the originals rethought by committee and value engineered: They’re all more or less the same scale, which is right in the middle of the big and the small courtyards Rogers alternated between with such skill.

Robert A.M. Stern Architects Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges for Yale University
Aaron Betsky The "Bobgoyle" that RAMSA's contractors added to the project to honor Bob Stern.

Compromises continue at every turn, from the axial approaches and lack of twists in the buildup of entryways, to the repetitive nature of the gable and window details, all the way to the sheer lack of carved detail that so enlivens Rogers’ colleges. (Although Stern did allow contractors to add a carved gargoyle of himself). I have no doubt these decisions came out of the necessity to make the whole affordable, as even $750 million doesn’t go very far these days. That would also be the reason that the trim disappears inside as soon as you leave the public areas, where white ceilings, canned lights, and cheaper finishes soon make you sigh with the recognition that you are in an institution, even if it is an Ivy League one. As my friend and classmate Paul Richard Foote, who accompanied me on the tour, said: “My … it does get awfully bland soon, doesn’t it?”

Robert A.M. Stern Architects Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges for Yale University
Aaron Betsky A dining hall from the outside.
Robert A.M. Stern Architects Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges for Yale University
Aaron Betsky A dining hall from the inside.

The one thing that seems to make no immediate sense is the presence of elements that were lifted wholesale from the work of (if I am correct) Inigo Jones, John Vanbrugh, and Edwin Lutyens. In truth, these come as a breath of fresh air, striking a note of importation or surprise in what otherwise might be a dull brick pattern.

And there—in the humble brick—lies the ultimate rub. This should never have been a Neo-Gothic college. It should have been a Neo-Georgian one. James Gamble Rogers was smart enough to employ that style when the context was jumbled and needed some repetitive and calm order, as this one does. Rogers also knew it was cheaper to build in that manner, as Neo-Georgian is a style that calls for the use of brick and wood rather stone, slate, and leaded windows. He used the style for several colleges at Yale.

Robert A.M. Stern Architects Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges for Yale University
Aaron Betsky
Robert A.M. Stern Architects Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges for Yale University
Aaron Betsky

Stern does extend a trick that Rogers used on his Neo-Gothic structures of filling in the walls, especially on rear façades, with brick, but here you find yourself faced with almost nothing but brick, with only a few stone details to give some variety and edge to the walls. The result is that you can just see the money being saved and the way in which stone both denotes and accepts age disappearing into a vague memory salvaged by a few dentils and finials.

The Franklin and Murray Colleges prove that you cannot build Neo-Gothic at the scale the style requires unless you are willing to spend the kind of money the rich lavish only on themselves. Even then, I doubt whether as skillful a machine as Robert A.M. Stern Architects could have pulled it off.

Now, imagine, if you will, all the money that was spent—but this time using elements and forms that are affordable in this day and age—to create the kind of sensitivity to building a community bit by bit into a whole the way James Gamble Rogers did. Rogers found cheap ways to achieve an effect, and broke many rules in the process. And he was vilified then—but later adored—for it. Maybe in another 50 years, Yale (or another Ivy League university as daring and bold as that institution was in the 1920s and 1930s) will do so again. For now, we are condemned to relive the past, as so much architecture is, as a pale pastiche of itself.

Robert A.M. Stern Architects Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges for Yale University
Aaron Betsky

Update: This story has been edited to remove reference to work done on the project by Patrick Pinnell and the characterization thereof.

For more coverage of the Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges at Yale University, click here.

And for Katie Gerfen's interview with Stern about the project, click here.