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AJ Writing Prize Shortlist: Restoration of the Yale Art and Architecture Building by Dale Suttle

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November 9, 1963 was to be a joyous affair at the new Art and Architecture School at Yale. The star Dean of the school, Paul Rudolph had just completed a trendsetting new building. Two thousand people gathered at the school for dinner, tours and a presentation by the British architectural critic Nicolas Pevsner

After dinner and in good spirits, a select group of faculty and benefactors joined Pevsner in the new Hastings Hall auditorium framed by two Corinthian capitals seated on thin steel poles. But as the critic Pevsner spoke the mood began to sour. His address, rather than a christening turned into a critique. He condemned the new structure, declaring that form for form’s sake was wrong. Despite glowing reviews and awards throughout the architectural world, the building never quite recovered from that searing blow.

Forty-five years later, November 8, 2008, a similar crowd gathered between the columns for a second christening, this time of the newly renamed Paul Rudolph Hall and the addition of Jeffrey H. Loria Center for the History of Art and the Robert B. Haas Family Arts Library designed and renovated by former Rudolph student Charles Gwathmey of Gwathmey Seigel Architects.

This time the lecture by Timothy M. Rohan, associate professor of architectural history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, was positive, more a celebration of the restoration of an icon of 20th Century than a comment on the new construction. Gwathmey also spoke about the building, he described his goal to “Resurrect it to its original intention in reality through restoration, interpretive intervention including major environmental upgrading, window replacement, new mechanical and electrical distribution systems and significant concrete restoration, while simultaneously maintaining its spatial, structural and volumetric articulation and integrity.”

Save a few sunken gathering pits in the architecture studios, and the undersized elevators, the buildings original form was restored down to the fantastically bright orange carpet.

Despite the buildings relatively young age, the need for restoration was quite severe. A suspicious fire in the building in 1969 prompted the first modification and seemed to squelch any sacred feelings for Paul Rudolph’s monumental structure. In keeping with the tumultuous political times (student saw the building as a statement of authority by the University,) and in response to the inadequacies of the design, students continued to alter the building. They added partition walls for privacy and display of work, and covered windows with plywood to block out the intense southern sun that entered unabated by the cargo net curtains.

Almost as if prompted by Pevsner, the fashion of architecture radically shifted away from the brutalist style of Rudolph. Charles Moore, the dean who would follow Paul Rudolph and a father of Post-Modernist architecture, furthered the deconstruction of Rudolph’s open floor plan that the students had begun by adding permanent partitions between the students and studios. Moore’s additions came as distaste for the building reached a fever pitch, and seemed as much as a spite of Rudolph himself as a needed addition or repair to the building. In a true blow to the heart, Moore removed Rudolph’s concrete bridge that spanned the double height studio and replaced it with a standard floor slab, dividing the studio space in two.

While much of the criticism of the building was no doubt prompted by the sea-change in architectural thought, the building was certainly not without flaws. The 37 levels of the building over 7 main floors left much to be desired in terms of clear circulation. The intermediate levels were designed as curious meeting places for Art and Architecture students. The architectural historian Philip Nobel noted that “Rudolph’s emphatic, vertiginous, space-making and his tendency toward sculptural masses and labyrinthine passages ‘puts demands upon the individual user that not every psyche will be able to meet.’”

As of the year 2000, the Art program moved completely out of the building due to the inadequacy of the spaces designed for them. Rudolph clearly favored the architecture students giving the painting students small seventh-floor South facing studios, and placing the sculpture studios in the basement. Perhaps too much space was allotted to mingling and too little to work as the building was completely filled from the first day that all programs moved in. The building was described as “hopelessly inflexible” by Roberto De Alba a former student and author of a book on Paul Rudolph’s work.

It was not until the mid-eighties, around the buildings 25th anniversary that the tides began to turn again for the building. A group of students created a course for themselves to explore the restoration of landmark buildings. During the semester they studied Rudolph’s old drawings and even removed some of the partition wall additions. Dean Fred Koetter followed the students lead and pushed forward some restoration of the building. However, it was not until Dean Robert A. M. Stern came to the helm in 1999 that the project moved forward to the total renovation and addition that Gwathmey Seigel has recently completed.

The project is a missed opportunity. Gwathmey Siegel was hired to design effectively a new building next to the Art and Architecture building. However, perhaps due to both the architect and clients undying admiration for their former professor and dean, the project becomes simply about the existing building, one that even Dean Stern admitted a few years earlier would have been torn down if it had not cost so much to demolish. In what could be considered an attempt to restore the tarnished reputation of Paul Rudolph, as suggested by Witold Rybczynski in his article about the building renovation, the project became the restoration of a monument rather than a project for the betterment of the university and future students. Extensive amounts of money were spent to conserve idiosyncratic details of the building including replacement of recently upgraded windows because the mullions were not quite of the style that Rudolph intended. A top floor café, popular among the students that had been added in one of the previous alterations was restored to Rudolph’s unused apartment for visiting critics.

The renovation restored the double height open gallery on the first floor and removed partition walls and floor slabs between the fourth and fifth floor studios. With the removal of the partition walls, replacement of fluorescent lights with incandescent ones and the new windows, one can begin to see the warm open space that Rudolph had intended. In a move more commensurate with a forward thinking approach to restoration and renovation, Gwathmey does enclose one of Rudolph’s central courtyards to form the new reading room for the Library.

A green roof retains the feel of a courtyard to those looking down and domed skylights allow ample natural light to reach the floor below the triple height space. The space spans the gap between the lower floors of the new and old building and adds an enjoyable area for reading and contemplation.

In his largely successful renovation, Gwathmey cheats slightly by moving problems areas of Rudolph’s building such as the undersized elevators and the restrooms into the new building. But in doing so he relegates the new addition to a service space for the original. Further, by clarify the circulation and service spaces, he removes much of the quirkiness that Paul Rudolph intended with his “purposely secret circulation system.” The clarity becomes banality in the new building. The floor plans are simple double loaded corridors that lack any of the interest that Rudolph’s spaces do. In elevation the addition is timid and overly respectful to its predecessor.

Sitting to the north of Paul Rudolph’s building, the building is slightly smaller and not as sharp (it has a smooth stone and metal skin to Rudolph’s bush hammered concrete which was notorious for cutting cloth and skin.) Its volumetric articulations seem to consider but not quite match the protrusions of Paul Rudolph Hall.

Gwathmey’s addition to the Art and Architecture building as well as his statement to “Resurrect it to its original intention in reality through restoration…,” clearly state his position of how to deal with such a formidable structure. But the addition and renovation of Paul Rudolph Hall could have been dealt with in a number of ways, many of which would have been less timid than a mechanical and fenestral upgrade.

The fact that the design so closely mimics the existing forty-year old highly controversial building seems to be the greatest downfall to the new addition. The spaces are functional and there are moments of interest within the new space, but by and large the new space is unable to match the best moments of the old or greatly improve on the failures of the Rudolph building. The new building sits inconspicuously in the middle ground between purely functional space and a new architectural statement for the Yale campus.

A more radical approach would have still allowed for the preservation of Rudolph’s classic building, without diminishing the new building to the role of servant.

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