Watch Out, New Haven

Creative CommonsFun fact: There are two small U.S. cities that have an extreme affinity for modernist architecture. One is our dear New Haven.

The other is Columbus, Indiana. And it’s giving New Haven a run for its modern title. This is how.

During the second half of the 20th century, Yale’s architecture school joined forces with Mayor Richard “Dick” Lee, who was fond of scorched earth urban renewal. Lee never saw a grant from the department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) he didn’t like: When Yale built Louis Kahn’s Art Gallery in the early 1950s, a tide of modernism rose in a little New England city, spurred on by the Yale Architecture School. Successive modernist and post modernist architects from Paul Rudolph, to Charles Moore, to Cesar Pelli all built what they taught and brought in teachers who did the same.

Kahn, Eero Saarinen, Marcel Breuer, Kevin Roche and many others made “statement” buildings all about a little city – so many that the New Haven Preservation Trust created a website which will eventually have 100 exemplars of modern architectural beauty.

But New Haven isn’t alone. There is a parallel universe to this city’s architectural novelty: Columbus, Indiana.

Instead of a rampaging urban renewalist mayor or an ivy league pivot to a new age, Columbus had a diesel engine manufacturer, the Cummins Engine, who had a patron leader in Irwin Miller. Miller was a mod champion: he saw Saarinen build a church there in 1942 and then used the architect to build his home in the 1950s. After that, he helped create a foundation that donates the architect’s fees for public building design. These architects have included Cesar Pelli, Skidmore Owings and Merrill, Robert Venturi & Denise Scott Brown, Kevin Roche – quite akin to New Haven’s list of architectural contributors.

Now, the two cities have agreed to use DOCOMOMO—the international celebrator of modernism—to create a modernist smackdown. Watch your newsfeed, this website and the New Haven Preservation Trust for how and when this mod madness will happen!

To hear more, click on or download the audio above.

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posted by: Commontater on October 14, 2016  7:37am

Nice article, but you missed a critical connection linking Columbus, New Haven, and Irwin Miller: YALE. As noted in Miller’s obituary in The New York Times of 8/19/2004, “Mr. Miller became interested in modern design as an undergraduate at Yale.” Miller (Yale Class of 1931) later served as a member of the Yale Corporation, (its governing board of directors). Architect Eero Saarinen, whom you mention, received his Fine Arts degree (in Architecture) from Yale in 1934. While someone may wish to investigate whether Miller and Saarinen had contact with each other from their early adult years at Yale, it seems quite likely that the teaching of architecture at Yale in the late 1920s and 1930s was the nucleus for what is described as occurring in New Haven and Columbus in later decades.

posted by: duo dickinson on October 14, 2016  8:19am

THANKS! all input is great!

posted by: Renewhavener on October 14, 2016  10:30am

@Duo, “Yale’s architecture school joined forces with Mayor Richard “Dick” Lee, who was fond of scorched earth urban renewal.”

Scorched earth?  Duo, really?  As a critic’s instrument this hyperbole would seemed to have worked, because I am reacting to its sensation.  But it bothers me because though I generally appreciate your commentary on maters aesthetic, spatial and architectural, this is just nakedly populist, and frankly a little unoriginal.

Cannot conceive of Dick Lee as anything close a modernist Stalinist, and am disappointed that the pendulum has swung so far in damning the man.  He was more successful at doing what he set out to do than any other who tried.  Regardless of how we view his output in hindsight (thank you Allan Appel for the well timed irony ) Lee’s results stand in stark contrast against the present gridlock we witness politically at the both the national level and locally with respect to projects of all sorts being delayed or cancelled.  Think that era and that man deserve more objectivity, if not more respect.

Separately, to the primary thrust of your piece, have no doubts that New Haven wins this.  Judging only on the gravitas of the patrons: Irwin Miller vs Yale.  Though Mr. Miller was himself a Yalie, this is no contest.

posted by: Jonathan Hopkins on October 14, 2016  12:12pm

Have you checked out Francesca Russello Ammon’s “Bulldozer: Demolition and Clearance of the Postwar Landscape” (Yale University Press, 2016)? In light of what that book reveals about the connection between mid-century wartime efforts and their translation to postwar domestic redevelopment, the term “scorched earth” is perhaps not so misused.

I agree with your point that nuance belongs in any discussion of urban renewal. I also tend to agree with Doug Rae on this matter. Dick Lee’s efforts represent immense political guile that resulted in transformative change in the city during an era when prospects for New Haven were declining rapidly. As Rae and many others have pointed out, however, the national effort did not turn things around for cities, and may have actually enabled and accelerated decline. Vincent Scully’s critiques of the planning and design of the era are also useful - namely that the planners were using unproven models and had no idea what they were doing, which in some ways led to much of the regulations and approval processes that now frustrate you. Without mid-century planners and politicians charging blindly into the dark with unprecedented funding and power, would regulations be so onerous today? Is that not part of their legacy as well?

posted by: duo dickinson on October 14, 2016  1:10pm

All these comments are exactly why I do these pieces: New Haven is wonderful, rich polyglot of Hostoric, Old, New and Modern - so the takes on those dynamically counterposed realities in such a small package make thoughtful comments like these thought provoking:

“Scorched Earth” is not always a bath thing: truly hazardous realities, or simply bad ideas are not sacred in the name of preservation. I was one of the (very) few architects who saw the virtues of demo-ing the Coliseum: Although I saw the compelling arguments that good Friend Pat Pinnell made that parts of its megastructure could be elegantly repurposed. I was also very disappointed that Seeley Mudd Library was wiped off the map despite its embodied energy.

I think there could be a great book made that connects a lack of imagination to BOTH xerographically replicating what has existed AND clear-cutting without care: New Haven’s rich stew shows the value in following neither of those easy answers…

posted by: budgeteer on October 15, 2016  7:12am

The Millers who were so good to architecture in Columbus also enabled the Institute for Sacred Music to move to Yale.  Thanks to their endowment, and to Yale’s fine stewardship, the ISM is now able to branch out into other sacred arts.  The Millers’ philanthropy was civic-minded and visionary.

posted by: Renewhavener on October 17, 2016  11:51am

@JH, Am not familiar with that book, but may take it out on your recommendation.

“Without mid-century planners and politicians charging blindly into the dark with unprecedented funding and power, would regulations be so onerous today? Is that not part of their legacy as well?”

Perhaps, but that has gone too far.  Am tired of us seeing development only through the lens of social justice.  Sometimes a building is just a building.  We need more of them of all types.  To live in, to work in, to make and store things in.  Too often the entitlement process mutates into a means for the ostensibly aggrieved to exact revenge, seek restitution or simply obstruct.

Holding up Yale’s science project over parking, when no impacts exist.  Holding up Salvatore’s project over some exaggerated pretense. Holding up two jobs because PMC legally can. Holding up boat storage because we don’t understand jurisdictions.  Holding up the Union Station Garage because it holds cars?! Holding up the Corsair project over a veggie garden:

It’s madness.

Maybe our present context is the political yin to the mid-century’s yang, but in no discussion do we hear how much good is lost or deferred due to this insanity. Meanwhile, firms like GE leave and others sold and bribed to stay.

Moreover, others, including Duo, have lamented about why today’s buildings don’t look better than they do. Part of this is as a result of how much money must go into impressing approval bodies and overcoming community objection on the front end.  Might we not all benefit aesthetically if the process were less of a lift.

Am not arguing for a total absence of regulation.

Am arguing for more keen awareness of how this regulation limits us.