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Review - Book - The Yale Building Project

Joe Holyoak thinks this book does justice to an admirable Yale building tradition

The Yale Building Project: The First 40 Years. By Richard Hayes. Yale University Press, 2007. £35

Richard Hayes tells the story of an educational tradition: the annual project of the first year of the graduate programme at Yale School of Architecture. Teams of students design a building for a client, one design is selected, and the whole cohort constructs it.

The story illustrates a continuing divide in the culture of architectural education, between architecture as an intellectual idea and architecture as a social instrument. The Yale project was generated not merely as a vehicle for teaching building construction, but primarily as an expression of the belief that architecture is a socially useful art. This was the intention of the project’s creator, Charles Moore, who was appointed chairman at Yale in 1965. Perhaps few of Moore’s buildings, apart from Sea Ranch in California, will survive the test of time, but he was one of the most provocative thinkers in 20th-century American architecture, and is still influential as a writer and a teacher.

Like Robert Venturi, he saw the limitations of a reductivist Modernism, and promoted an architecture that understood both the Classical tradition and a homely American vernacular: one that could be both learned and vulgar; plywood, as well as travertine.

At Yale he succeeded Paul Rudolph, an arch-formalist, and immediately made changes. His ex-student, now Yale dean, Robert Stern, observes that under Moore the Yale programme ‘swung from an emphasis on shape elaboration towards a concern for the usefulness of architecture in relation to the problems of life in our less advantaged areas, in our cities, and in our backwater locales’.

Moore began the first building project in 1967. The project stemmed from his architectural and social concerns, but the time was also right politically. All over the western world, students were straining to find relevance for their studies beyond the walls of academia.

The initial projects were community buildings for the poor areas of Appalachia; the first (and best) being the New Zion Community Center in Kentucky. Displaying familiar Moore tropes (sharp-edged geometry, plain timber sheathing, eccentrically placed windows and clerestories), they formed the first of three phases of architecture in the project so far. These gave way to more modest pavilions and park shelters, and since 1989 the project has been building single houses in the poorer parts of New Haven, Connecticut (pictured right).

Hayes’ book documents each of the 40 projects in words and images, with much evidence of the profound effect they had on students’ later development. Moore himself said: ‘Of all the memories of Yale, the Building Project is the strongest, and for me, the one that I am most proud of.’ My one criticism of this fine book is that it says little on the practical (but vital) processes of obtaining funding and approvals. We only glean fragments of information between the lines.

Resume: Goodness lurks behind Yale’s Gothic architecture and snotty students

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