The Best-Laid Plans

Yale’s Art and Architecture Building has been loved, hated, burned, partitioned, championed as a move away from the establishment, and decried as everything wrong with the establishment. This building toppled its creator from the top of the architectural universe and, now, may topple its renovator as well.

Paul Rudolph began designing the Yale Art and Architecture Building in 1958, the same year he turned forty and became the dean of the Yale School of Architecture. He’d received his degree a decade earlier from Harvard’s Graduate School of Design, where Walter Gropius taught him to design in the clean glass box of the International Style, then spreading across the country. Rudolph’s first drawings of the A&A showed a building just as open and squeaky clean.

But over the course of five planning stages, the drawings began to show something entirely new. Huge, concrete pillars dropped vertically into the structure. Thirty-seven interlocking levels spun out, slicing through the cavernous central space.

“It was championed when it was first built because it was a move away from the glass box,” says Yale School of Architecture Professor Alec Purves, a graduate student in architecture at Yale while the A&A was being constructed.

Rudolph’s behemoth could not be accomplished alone. He met his enabler in Charles Solomon, the creative executive vice president of Macomber Construction. To reach what Rudolph called “the inner guts of the concrete,” the company created sample after sample, hammering to expose the aggregate and create channels for staining. At first, the construction workers didn’t take to the new material. Battered concrete would be used elsewhere by Rudolph and others in coming years, but the A&A was its debut. The beating was labor-intensive and affronted any conventional notion of beauty. Eventually, though, the work became exciting. Workers began to bring their wives or girlfriends after hours to see. Rising out of the street corner was a rebellion in the making, a sinister response to old constraints: Brutalism.

Today, a new building is rising alongside it. Like the original, some have hailed it as a work of art; many others have condemned it as a sacrilege.

Rudolph and Solomon crafted a concrete titan. “It’s a strong architecture,” says Karsten Harries, a Yale philosophy professor who specializes in art and architecture. “I have an encyclopedia in German. Under Brutalism, they only illustrate one building…” Harries trails off. Rudolph’s.

As an icon of unfriendly architecture, the A&A seems to resist an addition, but Rudolph had envisioned one all along. According to the designer, all buildings, including his own, are forever unfinished. “One characteristic of the twentieth century is that nothing is ever completed, nothing is ever fixed,” he said. Buildings should always anticipate expansion, whether of the building itself or of other buildings around it. Architects leave clues within their buildings that invite continuation. Rudolph picked up on Louis Kahn’s and aligned the A&A with an axis of Kahn’s Art Gallery. He disparaged what he called “temples”—buildings conceived as self-contained units, without regard for the structures around them. One of his harshest criticisms of Mies van der Rohe, another propagator of the glass box, was that a building of his “may be eighty stories high, but, nevertheless, conceptually a temple.”

“Whether the A&A Building is incomplete or satisfying is for others to judge,” Rudolph asserted. Although he would rather have seen the structure expand southwest over Chapel and York Streets as a continuation of the pinwheel motion of the building’s upper floors, Rudolph placed the service core, which included the elevators, on the building’s other side to facilitate an expansion north. He left clues besides the pinwheel and the service core. “If the next architect is at all sensitive,” Rudolph said, “he will complete the courtyard, thereby adding immeasurably to the whole.”

Rudolph didn’t begin his career by designing buildings that begged to be challenged. He began with pretty, airy houses in Florida. But around the time Rudolph became the dean at Yale, his work grew heavier, more massive.

This shift is marked by Sarasota Senior High School. It is very Florida, very open, but it knows the weight of its walls. When the closest surface is twenty feet away, it gives the impression of towering over you. Most walls in Rudolph’s Florida houses intended to be immaterial, like cloth panels, to let in the breeze, or transparent, like glass, to let in the palm trees. Rudolph’s school, like his houses, allows the wind, but floats gigantic forms above and around the airway. Its wide steps lead up to an expansive entrance surrounded by huge planes. The A&A lets almost nothing in. From outside, the straight vertical walls seem to stretch limitlessly skyward. An invitingly wide set of stairs, similar to those inSarasota, leads to not an open entrance but a clump of stored bicycles. The seeming dead end is punctured by a non-descript door to its right. Through it, there is another wide staircase, this one with obscenely low ceilings. Two feet shallower and they would nick passing skulls. The dank, gloomy stairwell is punctuated by openings to each successive floor. Orange sofas are carved out of random nooks on the landings. They chuckle as visitors dodge the sharp edges on the turns. The walls are jagged and stained, with sharp knobby ridges reaching outwards, waiting to grab at any loose piece of clothing or skin.

Emerging from the stairwell at the seventh floor, one enters a gigantic drafting room filled with harried students and light.

The room evokes Sarasota. The conflicting gravity and expansiveness of the space made one feel the walls despite their distance. The Sarasota walls seem harmless enough, but these are rough, alien, monolith, different altogether.

Though Rudolph’s building was supposed to satisfy both the artists and the architects, he was given very few restrictions. At the inauguration of his Art and Architecture Building in 1963, the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner prophesized that the building would fail. A work of architecture should be a product of both function and art, he argued, and if it fails in one, it should be dismissed.

Many consider the A&A an example of what happens when an architect’s pride goes unchecked. As dean of the School of Architecture, Rudolph was his own client. The University footed the bill. Yale’s president at the time, A. Whitney Griswold, enthusiastically funded modern architecture. Ingalls Rink, Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, the Beinecke, the Art Gallery, Kline Biology Tower, Greeley Forestry Laboratory, and Rudolph’s own Married Student Housing all rose up under Griswold. He gave Rudolph free rein over the A&A.

Despite consultations with the painting and sculpture faculty, Rudolph only pleased the architects. He relegated the painters to tiny studios on the seventh floor and the sculptors to rooms in the basement. At the time, abstract expressionism was sweeping the department. The artists wanted larger and larger canvases, but the A&A’s elevators and stairwell kept the canvases to a certain size. Even the architects were unhappy, though they were given the best spaces. Some began to erect temporary barriers, partitioning the open space to shield themselves from the constant scrutiny of their peers.

In June of 1969, the A&A caught fire. The New Haven fire chief suspected arson. The blaze incinerated any evidence, but rumors flew. Many students then and now believe the arson was retaliation for the closing of the school’s city-planning department. Many believe that New Haventeenagers set the fire. Many blame disgruntled students, dissatisfied with Yale’s supposed indifference towards the arts and convinced that the unfriendly A&A embodied that sentiment.

After the fire, the sculptors picked up and moved out, decamping to a different building entirely. The painters and the architects switched places, the former immediately partitioning the fourth floor to make studios. Screens darkened the glass on the exterior of the building, and the glass sheets themselves were subdivided. Any beauty the building possessed in its light, open spaces was removed. Instead of a light-filled, if cavernous, void, the space inside became, as Purves recalls, “a dark hole.”

Charles Gwathmey is restoring the void—and filling a hole next door. He has undertaken the long-awaited renovation of the A&A and the addition of a new History of Art Building. The A&A’s restoration will adhere as closely to Rudolph’s finished plans as possible and undo years of partitioning and other alterations. Gwathmey studied at Yale under Rudolph during the A&A’s initial construction. Robert A.M. Stern, the current dean of the Yale School of Architecture and a former classmate of Gwathmey’s, insists that Gwathmey “is very respectful of the building.” Gwathmey credits Rudolph as a mentor, and has continually stressed that he wants the addition to be sensitive to the A&A—to “find the real ethic… and extend and enrich it.”

Unlike Rudolph, who had only to obey himself, Gwathmey must submit to the School ofArchitecture, the History of Art Department, the Arts Library, and the President’s office. He has to consider cost, usage, building codes, and other restrictions. The fate of fellow architect Richard Meier warned Gwathmey of the consequences of overshooting the project’s limits. Meier had planned a light, glassy addition that echoed the void between the two rising verticals in the A&A by placing a third to the north. The center atrium, though, required that the office space, and the classrooms, be smashed up against one side of the building. The Meier scheme was too tall, and, ultimately, too expensive.

Rudolph incensed colleagues by moving slowly and repeatedly changing his design. After losing time with Meier, the University imposed a tight schedule on Gwathmey. By his own account, Gwathmeydesigned the addition in three weeks.

Although Rudolph failed many of the A&A’s users, perhaps because of the tremendous freedom he was given, the building fulfilled its educational function under the architect’s definition. He built the A&A to inspire, and to withstand, radical shifts in opinion. The pendulum swings even among deans of Yale’s School of Architecture, from Charles Moore, Rudolph’s successor, who thought that the A&A exemplified where modernism went wrong, to Stern, obsessed with its restoration.

Rudolph didn’t care if somebody liked his building. He described it as a “sounding board” or a “signpost.” “At its best, it stirs us from our complacency,” says History of Art Professor Sandy Isenstadt. A student should react to the A&A. “The worst fate from my viewpoint would be indifference,” Rudolph said.

“Designing, with Rudolph, was more like puzzle-solving,” Purves says. Rudolph pieced together the A&A based on his ideas about architectural education. The drafting rooms were multilevel, based on Rudolph’s idea that the younger students should know what the older students were doing. “You looked down,” he explained. The jury was placed right in the middle of the exhibition space on the second floor. Purves readily admits that assuming the painters would oblige this philosophy was a big mistake. He says that the design may be too public even for the architects. “Too much like throwing people into the lion’s den,” he hazards. Architecture students call it “the pit.” Even the walls assaulted. “I have a number of bruised knuckles from reaching for doorways,” Purves says, holding out a pair of weathered hands.

With the new History of Art Building, Gwathmey treads a fine line between respecting and challenging Rudolph’s expression of power. Gwathmey must respond to Rudolph’s building, but at the same time, says Stern, “You don’t want the building to look like Sancho Panza tilting at a concrete windmill.”

“The History of Art Department wanted to have an identity and presence. They didn’t want to have just an anonymous building,” explains Thomas Levering, the Gwathmey Siegel associate partner working on the project.

School of Architecture Professor Alan Plattus understands Gwathmey’s dilemma. “It’s an extremely serious building in the sense that it tries to relate to the [A&A], yet have its own identity.”

The addition also must span the gap between a giant, the A&A, and a Lilliputian, the delicate, Gothic building that houses the Yale Daily News. “How do you place a building between these two unequal neighbors?” Harries asks. In the models for the addition, a diagonal exterior wall juts out from the corner of the smaller building. The monumental new structure eats the Yale Daily News. “The whole thing reminds of some sad fairy tale, especially as the tower grows taller and dwarfs the BritonHadden Memorial Building,” says YDN Editor-in-Chief Andrew Mangino.

The fairy tale is widely read. If Rudolph’s building imposes an atmosphere of surveillance on his students, Gwathmey is being watched, not only by his clients from above, but also by a generation of students from below.

Gwathmey is defacing the A&A, ruining the excitement of it, says Yonah Freemark, a senior architecture major. The materials, including bright zinc, glass, and aluminum, will make the addition outshine the A&A, he says. “It’s too flashy.” Other students agree with him.

“A lot of people say it looks like candy,” says Alexander Sassaroli, another undergraduate architecture major, annoyed by the addition’s myriad materials and shapes. “He was just going to the buffet beside him and picking what he liked.”

Despite complaints, Gwathmey believes the structure succeeds in referencing the original building. Its gargantuan mass flows from the A&A. The Great Hall, which spans the basement and first and second floors, echoes the A&A’s large, multi-floor voids. The limestone subtly references the concrete. The center void between the two vertical towers of the A&A is duplicated and turned inside out by a large block extending out of the addition. The addition’s diagonals and curves, on the other hand, are meant as a counterpoint to Rudolph’s right angles.

“So how did you decide what to counterpoint in Rudolph’s building and what to take more directly from it?” I asked Gwathmey.

He laughed. “I don’t think it works that way. I think that there was a clear planning obligation.” Unlike the undergraduates, he’s had to fulfill his obligation to various Yale departments on a tight timetable.

But Freemark says those obligations were part of the problem. “Buildings should not be designed on the fly. What the fuck!? Who can build a building in three weeks?”

As Levering walks through the interlocking levels of the A&A and the new History of Art Building from bottom to top, he explains how the rear tower element holds the new interconnecting fire stair, restrooms, and service elevator, how the second floor looks up into the third and down into the library, and how the “monumental stair” of the addition ascends through the larger space. The addition is user-friendly, I thought. It seems like a great place to attend class.

The new entrance lies just to the side of the old one. It’s a bit more open and welcoming than the original entrance. “Was it meant to be?”

“I would say, probably, yeah,” Levering answered.

Gwathmey’s building is a synthesis of the many different voices whispering in his ear, an answer to the set of clues he had to collect from Rudolph’s building, from the surrounding streetscape, and from the various departments. As Isenstadt says, “He juggles a lot, and appears to put them together well.”

Kahn and Rudolph were always concerned with how their buildings would look as ruins. Kahn, Purvesexplains, had trouble with roofs because his favorite buildings were ruins. Rudolph’s A&A has always had the stony, monumental aura of a ruin, whether burned out or gussied up. Gwathmey’s building isn’t a ruin. It is functional, usable. Detractors complain about its form, but nobody doubts that it will work.

Rudolph’s building, on the other hand, is difficult. It has never worked. It is building as sculpture. Students learn to love it—or don’t.

The buildings embody one of the oldest debates in the history of architecture. The A&A errs on the side of form. The addition errs on the side of
function.

The A&A, for all of the serious posturing in its concrete façade, has a sense of humor. Rudolph thought buildings should. It laughs at the academics trying to find the library, and it laughs with the students after they understand its insides. It had a good laugh at the painters and sculptors before it threw them out. It laughs at anybody who equated aesthetics to beauty. It laughs at generations of Yale undergraduates who just don’t understand. It laughs at its maker, dethroned from the U.S. architectural establishment. It may very well laugh at its renovator.

The stairwell is meant to be a little confusing the first time. At the complaint that a stranger can get completely lost inside, Rudolph yelled, “But it’s not a public building!” Students, only students, were supposed to learn what Rudolph called “the purposely secret, labyrinth-like circulation system.”

Over time, when one walks up that dank stairwell, it feels like visiting an old friend.

The new building will function better in a traditional sense. When students enter the History of Art building in the fall, exposed aggregate on the floors won’t trip them and battered concrete on the walls won’t bruise them. Education will take place easily inside it. But will it ever educate like the A&A? Aggravate? Inspire? Do what Rudolph felt a building should do?

Ali Seitz is a junior in Trumbull College.

Photo: Kevin Dickinson