What was your first experience of Yale?
Robert A.M. Stern, FAIA: I studied architecture, graduating in 1965. A. Whitney Griswold was the president, and Yale had embarked on a policy of building modern, highly iconic buildings: For example, the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill—Gordon Bunshaft, in particular—and the Art and Architecture building by Paul Rudolph, which I got to be a student in for two years. The building that kicked off that campaign was Louis Kahn’s art gallery. Most relevant to this project, I watched the construction of the first residential colleges since World War II, the Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges by Eero Saarinen. They were quite controversial—he was derided as doing a stage set for Hamlet—but I think it was a sincere and largely successful attempt to make something new that fit into what was there before.
How much of your project was influenced by the legacy of James Gamble Rogers, who designed several of the residential colleges at Yale?
We were very influenced by Rogers. Rogers didn’t only do Gothic buildings. Some of the residential colleges were in the Georgian style, but his major palette was Gothic. It was not only used for the residential colleges, beginning with his Memorial Quadrangle and Harkness Memorial Tower which opened in 1921, but also on nonresidential buildings on the campus like the Sterling Memorial Library. Gothic was the DNA of the campus, in my view, and I was able to persuade the officers in the university that that was the way to go. It wasn’t hard. We studied Rogers’ palette in exhaustive detail, its balance between different materials and wall and window, its proportions and roof pitches. There are many reasons for this, my total admiration for what Rogers accomplished not the least of them. The new colleges are relatively remote from the central campus, separated by a large, impenetrable—that is until you die—cemetery, and a long walk which was rather bleak. Beyond our site is the science campus with Gothic-style buildings going back to the early 20th century. Undergraduates often groaned about having to climb to Science Hill, so it seemed even more compelling that these two new colleges adopt the Gothic vocabulary to integrate with the sciences at one end and the central campus of a few blocks away.
What were the goals of the project?
The functional goals were to accommodate 900 students with support facilities ranging from dining halls, to Head of College houses, to the first covered off-street loading-dock facility at Yale—because the buzz, buzz, buzz of garbage trucks and deliveries were driving people crazy. One whole side of our project faces a neighborhood, and we had to be respectful. So it ranged from soup to nuts. As far as the design, I wanted to combine all the best features of the other colleges, especially as they had been, the new and old in those colleges had been blended in the renovations of the late 1990s and 2000s. I won’t say I was given carte blanche—no architect is ever given carte blanche— but the university, I would say, trusted that I had my head screwed on correctly and that I could really pull this off. And I don’t think we disappointed them. So often, there is a perception that we just can’t build like this anymore.
What systems did you use?
The building is hybrid construction using reinforced concrete and steel framing on the upper parts where it was more appropriate, but the idea was one that we’ve used many times in the last 15 years, which was to have precast panel walls. It’s super high quality and an incredibly modern way of building. Having detail features in the factory, assembling them off site, and bringing them to the site in a systematic way eliminated the chaos that you find in construction sites. It went very smoothly, though I am not the best source for discussing that. I don’t want to disillusion readers of ARCHITECT, but I am not the field guy. But in my view, the reason people say you can’t do something like that anymore is that they don’t want to do something like that anymore. They’ve convinced themselves that if a building looks a certain way, they get into modernist heaven. I’m not interested in modernist heaven—I’m not even certain I’m interested in heaven—but in any case, I want to go to architect’s heaven, not on the basis of one style or another, but on the basis of an appropriate solution to a particular problem in a particular place.
Each courtyard, dining hall, and common room has its own ornamental theme. How did you determine these?
Well, in order to design them, we had to study Rogers, and we also studied Gothic architecture. You learn things by looking, and we looked, and we sketched, and we measured things that architects have done for thousands of years. Somehow, many have lost interest in contemporary practice, but we’re still hanging on to tradition. We took this on as a labor of love, a pleasure of looking and using an existing vocabulary in a fresh way. After all, I’m talking to you in English. Neither of us invented English. We don’t speak English exactly as they did in medieval times, but we could understand them and they might be able to understand us.
The masons had a hand in a Robert Stern–themed ornament, the “Bob-goyle.” What was your reaction?
I was flattered, I have to say. Graham Wyatt, one of my partners, who was very much involved with the project, worked with the masons specifically, to make it look more like me. I think it could have looked a tad more. I’m much more handsome, but we’ll leave that for the future to decide. I had said, early on, when Rogers had designed the Memorial Quadrangle, his bust was there and there’s a plaque tribute to him, and I said, “Well, I wouldn’t be unhappy if I had a little tribute at the end of this process if people thought well enough of me.” I suppose I did drop a not-too-subtle hint. But that was to the Yale officers, and this was from the contractors.
How did you decide where to deploy the different types of materials—natural, precast?
We tried to deploy the more-refined materials like limestone, the more-precious if you will, where people could appreciate them better, certainly where they could put their hands on them. But a precast lintel on the third floor over a dormitory window, a bedroom window, you can’t really tell that it isn’t limestone. That’s a strategy that Rogers used, and I did a lot of work for the Walt Disney Co. in the 1980s, and the rule there was where a guest could touch something, it had to be real, genuine material. Up in the air, we could use, shall we say, synthetic materials, to save cost.
This is a huge project, but everything feels incredibly human-scaled. How did you balance that?
I think it has to do with the vocabulary of the buildings, the details, the fact that there are multiple entryways, so you don’t have gigantic walls in the courtyards, unpenetrated. The fact that you have a vocabulary of materials that takes the light in an interesting way. I mean, if you do the building with a wall of glass, as other universities have done for residential buildings—I can think of one, but I will not mention it—it’s completely abstract and there’s no sense of scale. Built into the vocabulary here, like any rich vocabulary, spoken or architectural, there are all the scalar elements. The scale also comes from the intricate plan of small and big courtyards, which was not as easy to achieve as you might think, especially in the Benjamin Franklin College because the sides are triangular. But we used the triangle as a stimulus for making interesting spaces, not as an obstacle to it.
Is there anything you would have changed?
I’m not the kind of person who thinks that each project I do is perfect. I have done a few clunkers here and there. I won’t tell you what they are—I won’t tell anyone. But I think this is a very successful project and I’m very proud of it. I feel that what I, my colleagues here, and the university set out to do, we accomplished.
Yale has a storied architectural legacy. Besides your legacy as dean, what are you leaving the school with the addition of these two residential colleges?
I think I’m leaving a legacy that I had good enough sense to climb on the shoulders of what went before, and to add to the legacy, not to go off in a new tangent.
For more images and full project credits for the Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges, visit ARCHITECT's Project Gallery.