Irony In Yale’s New Colleges

Duo Dickinson PhotoThe biggest construction project in New Haven has segued from the new Pearl Harbor Bridge to the new Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges at Yale.

Huge yellow cranes hover above almost five acres of rigorously scheduled construction. The end goal: Two dormitories to house 800 new bodies and their ancillary social, educational, and gastronomic activities.

Together, they cost around $600,000,000, and average about $1,000 per square foot of construction—which equals out to about $750,000 per bed.

Why so pricey?

High cost is the reality when you build the nicest stuff at the fastest pace. Especially when you’re trying to build a 21st century version of a old building—1920s Collegiate Gothic—that replicates another old building—19th century Gothic Revival— that’s based on a medieval model of Oxford and Cambridge University.

In fact, there’s really one way to do it quickly, and Yale is doing it. You offsite prefab everything using technology that robotically cuts limestone, brick and millwork, preassembles pieces and parts in other places and then transports them to the structure that locks them into place via steel and concrete frames. In architectural language, that’s referred to as a process guided by CNC, or computer numerical control.

Yes—whole chimney tops are set by those yellow cranes, entire facade bits being dropped from above creating multiple towers, all while hundreds of workers scurry about in mass coordination, working to finish in time for the fall matriculation of 2017.

It’s ironic to have high-tech simulation of antiquity. Before the Industrial Revolution, masonry stacked things atop each other, each bit imposing its gravitational load upon the bits beneath it, each piggyback riding on the shoulders of its supporting cast.

Here, visual clues of antiquity are craned in in pieces and panels, top down, anti-gravitationally defying all preconceived notions of how things like this were built. A vestige of the past, Harkness Tower has architectural historians marvel that James Gable Rogers could design its slender elegance with no steel frame, using classic bearing wall construction where everything you see is both skin and structure. As the new colleges go up, that world is literally stood upon its head, in contradistinction to its applied Gothic sensibility.

Gothic architecture was aspirational - it used extreme care in construction to go tall, reach up, and launch toward God with fervent hope. In that fast-evolving construction lot on Prospect Street, armatures receive hanging draperies of decorative skin, simulated the stolid strength of the mason’s structural stoutness.

The ivory tower has begat a limestone icon from the top down—in proudly unapologetic allusion, imitation and fully forced fitting in.

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posted by: 1644 on October 5, 2016  6:56am

Nothing really new here.  As a child, I imagined that knights in armor had once inhabited Payne Whitney Gymnasium, only to be told by my father that no, the buildings were not that old, and in fact were larger steel frame just sheathed in stone.  Still, stonemasons and other artisans were given a great deal of license in creating their decorations (including many stained glass windows).

posted by: duo dickinson on October 5, 2016  7:37am

Edit of edited text: BOTH colleges, together, cost $600M,

posted by: wendy1 on October 5, 2016  11:49am

Ironic that a school that touts Singapore, China, and hi-tech builds a replica of it’s old buildings which are replicas of gothic.  I agree that this was a better solution than letting loose any of it’s people from the School of Architecture, a dismal disappointment/failure.

Instead of stuffing 800 more kids into their classes, these building could easily house all of the city’s homeless and a medical clinic with social work offices.  Yale has not yet hired the large staff required to clean and maintain this 5 acre “town”.  Students are already competing with one another for the popular courses…add to that 800 more students.  Will Yale Corp. actually hire one or two thousand more people to cover this enlargement of their school…knowing their opinion of overhead, I doubt it.

posted by: newhaven55 on October 5, 2016  2:21pm

Was the construction contract awarded after a competitive bid? What do we know about the construction company?  Does it receive many Yale contracts?