Monday, March 8, 2010

Form Follows Function, or Geometry is Destiny

So I was toodling around the web the other day, as one does, when I came across an article from the Yale Daily News about the $150 million renovation of Morse College by KierenTimberlake, the award-winning, green-savvy Philadelphia-based architects who have done quite a lot of work for Old Blue. I have some very happy memories of Morse College (above) from my days as a grad student, and I was surprised that the building needed renovation, since it was only eight years old when I moved to New Haven. Alas, Morse is now 49, as is Ezra Stiles, its fraternal twin among Yale’s residential colleges. Most Yalies live in dorms with foundations laid in the ‘30s but with roots in Gothic, Renaissance, Tudor, and American Colonial vernaculars. Morse and Stiles, the only ones designed in a proto-modernist style, have always been heatedly controversial (note the use of the word “heatedly”—more on that later). 

For those who have never been to New Haven, here is a peek at classic Yale:

Morse College (named after Samuel Morse, Yale class of 1810, inventor and disgusting anti-immigrant, pro-slavery human being) was built by Finnish-born architect Eero Saarinen, most of whose work was done in the U.S. Eero, whose name is a favorite with crossword puzzle writers, is best known, perhaps, for the TWA terminal at JFK airport and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis. A sculptor with a Yale architecture graduate degree, he designed the two modern colleges with ‘60s individualism in mind: "Our primary effort,” he said at the time, “was to create an architecture which would recognize the individual as individual instead of an anonymous integer in a group." (Grammatical note: That “which” should be a “that.)

What this meant, in laymen’s terms, was a divergence from the right angle, a dastardly intersection of planes that shrieked of conformity.  Oh, Morse and Stiles do have right angles, of course: The walls meet the ceilings and floors in the time-honored 90-degree fashion; but they meet each other in a series of acutes and obtuses that made for spaces that fostered personal identity. Sadly, not having shared Saarinen’s peculiar aversion for the invisible grid, the furniture did not fit against the walls.

Avant-gardely, Saarinen nixed anything as mundane as radiators, installing hot water pipes in the concrete floors. This system failed in the 1980s. Big oops. Trust me, you don’t want to live in New Haven without heat. Now the Morsels, as they are called (a group whose alumni include a loathsome U.S. senator named Joseph Lieberman), got an ad hoc system, but not a good, efficient one, and KieranTimberlake do love their Platinum LEED certifications. Trouble is, ducting doesn’t come in random configurations. Ducting is rectangular in section, so the much-vaunted individualized angles of Morse’s interiors are now in the process of being squared (see Morse as a reconstruction site, above).

The work will be finished by August, just in time for next year’s crop of students, and for Saarinen’s 100th birthday (he was born on August 21, 1910, which happened to be the birthday of his father, Eliel Saarinen, also an architect and designer). Sadly, Eero died, at the age of 51 during an operation to remove a tumor from his brain. Given the variety, vitality, and volume of his work before most architects ever get a commission, that death represents a major loss to architecture, even if he didn’t always have the right angle on things.


If you happen to be going to New Haven between now and May, you can see the definitive “Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future” exhibition, a touring show that began in Helsinki in 2006 and reaches its final destination at Yale, through May 2, 2010, at both the Art Gallery and the School of Architecture, both conveniently located at the corner of York and Chapel streets (Note: The gallery is closed on Mondays; the School of Architecture is not open to the public on Sundays). A “catalog” of the show (by which they mean a coffee-table book with the same name as the show) was published by the Yale University Press and is available from all the usual sources.—ML

1 comment:

  1. My sister lived in New Haven for a time and I always enjoyed visiting expressly for the purpose of hanging out on the campus. The University Art Gallery and Center for British Art were my principle stops. I sensed there was more but these two stops generally filled me up. Thanks for this fascinating story.

    Hope to see you at Le Corbusier's Cave.