Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Building (in) the Future @ Yale, Part 1

This past weekend, a symposium was held at the Yale School of Architecture exploring "how contemporary design practices are rethinking the design/construction process, especially as it relates to fabrication, detailing, and, ultimately, the organization of labor." Unfortunately, I couldn't attend, but my esteemed colleague Bob Yori was gracious enough to take notes and report back. His notes are so insightful and thorough, I will be posting them in several parts.

The symposium was held in the (in)famous Arts + Architecture building by Paul Rudolph, AKA Hastings Hall. The entire event was held in the building’s auditorium, located in the basement, where the ceilings are low and it’s not instantly navigable to the first-time visitor. Entry and exit logistics notwithstanding, I was struck by the auditorium’s intimacy and flexibility. The multi-level design of the seating is more akin to a concert hall than it was a standard auditorium. The central “parquet” seating area is flanked on either side by the “first tier” raised seating. This gives the room a wonderful adaptability to varying audience sizes. There could have been 50 fewer people in the room and it wouldn’t have felt any emptier.

Even though the seating arrangement is well-designed, there’s a comfort issue. A serious comfort issue. If you’ve ever sat in church pews for two and a half days straight, your body will feel how mine did by Sunday afternoon. The one good thing about these repurposed pews is that they were carpeted, which helped. A little. I don’t know where else the event could have been held in the building, but a three-day-long symposium was definitely not what Mr. Rudolph had in mind when he developed the space.

I remember learning in school that the students hated the corduroy concrete because it was so unfriendly and harsh. I didn’t find it to be the case, although, in the criticism’s defense, the concrete has had a while to age and smooth out. The finish is actually quite beautiful. Spotlights in the auditorium cascade down upon it and provide a wonderful interplay of light and shadow over the relief of the surface. James Timberlake also later pointed out that it’s a self-finishing surface, meaning you don’t have to paint it every several years. The finish also does a great deal to cut down on the amount of the reflected noise in the space. Coupled with the carpeted pews and floor, it was acoustically fantastic for me – I often have trouble understanding anything that’s bouncing off of multiple surfaces.

My final bit of building commentary is about the abundance of room afforded in the stair spaces. Rudolph seems to have classified the stairs as “served” rather than “service” spaces. Ample room is afforded for the stair landings to become a place of meeting and congregation, of discussion, and, in some cases, of leisure (there are seating areas in some locations). They are spacious enough to accommodate bike racks at the ground level, giving the students a sort of garage for their bikes. I certainly would have appreciated something like that when I was in school.


  1. Four years of my life were spent studying in Paul Rudolph's Art & Architecture Building, and I still have nothing but contempt for the place. Everything about it was harsh, gloomy, awkward, cramped and lifeless, from the lighting to the hammered concrete surfaces. It even smelled bad. Regardless of season, parts of the building were sweltering and others frigid. Acoustics resembled the catacombs. It was like the worst Soviet oddity imposed on historicist Yale, extolled only by those creatures of architectural fashion not condemned to use it.

    The A & A Building was a mistake made in the cultural confusion of the time. Today, it just seems like a derivative, screw-function advertisement for a wannabe genius. Its flaws are too ingrained ever to be corrected, regardless of any renovation. It should be replaced with a building which doesn't oppress whatever creative field it shelters. The two nearby art museums by a genuine genius, Louis Kahn, with their humane, elegantly proportioned and illuminated spaces, should set the standard.

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