Norman Foster returns to Yale University but Ellis Woodman is less than impressed with the results
Writing in The Architects’ Journal last year, Norman Foster recalled the final jury of the Master’s class that he and Richard Rogers completed at Yale in 1962. Collaborating for the first time, the two students had developed the design for a laboratory building on a hillside site in New Haven, the city in Connecticut where Yale is located. It is fair to say that not all the jury members were convinced: Philip Johnson brought proceedings to a close by physically ripping apart their model.
The fact that Johnson secured the commission for the university’s Kline science complex on the same site the following year can only have added insult to injury. However, if it has remained a source of bad memories for Foster, the site is one that he will have struggled to avoid since 2007, when his practice won a competition for the new home for Yale’s School of Organisation and Management on land just across the road from Johnson’s complex.
Bringing the faculty together in a single location for the first time, the now completed Edward P Evans Hall stands on Whitney Avenue, a wide, tree-lined street that provides an approach to Yale’s main city centre campus from the north. Historic two-storey timber houses set behind lawns form much of the avenue’s frontage but Foster’s building represents an early contribution to a planned university expansion along its length. The scale of these proposals has drawn considerable local protest, resulting in the scrapping of Venturi Scott Brown’s designs for a new biology building in 2005 as well as remodelling of the Evans Hall design after Foster’s competition victory.
Is it too big?
With the capacity to accommodate as many as 600 students, the now marginally trimmed building still represents a considerable incursion into a neighbourhood of predominantly suburban scale. Is it too big? Certainly one might question whether Whitney Avenue will ever quite become the metropolitan boulevard that Evans Hall seems to herald but, given the street’s generous dimensions, the impact of what is effectively a five-storey building is hardly overbearing.
In fact, if there is a charge to be answered, it is rather that its principal elevation fails to muster the impact that a building of such urban consequence deserves.
Foster’s work has rarely been at its strongest when tasked with addressing a street and Evans Hall’s language of full-height, circular, hollow-section columns ranged in front of an expanse of glazing hardly represents a departure for the practice. It is one that the firm first – and most successfully – used for the Carré d’Art in Nîmes (1993), where the colonnade provided cover for an attractive public space and offered a response to the Corinthian portico of the adjacent Maison Carrée.
The Imperial College Business School on London’s Exhibition Road (2004) employed a superficially similar strategy, but there the external steelwork offered no obvious spatial or structural dividend, serving merely as a foil for the variously clad volumes packed closely behind it.
The columns extending along Evans Hall’s frontage are more convincingly integrated into a structural strategy that extends through the whole building and enjoy a more generous offset from the facade. However, through its separation from the pavement by a swathe of keep-off-the-grass landscaping and its loading with no more than a single entrance along its entire 100m length, the colonnade struggles to convince as a space of congregation, let alone one of interaction between the institution and the wider community. In short, Evans Hall feels awfully like it belongs in a business park.
That lack of urban vitality is not entirely of Foster’s making, as the architect faced two client demands that had a particularly strong impact on the building’s overall language. The first – motivated by a desire that the architecture express an appropriately corporate image – was that the building should be fully glazed. (The architect questioned the impulse, even developing alternative proposals for a stone facade, but to no avail). The second demand was that it should be planned around a central courtyard, a space where commencement ceremonies would be conducted but which might also imbue the building with a connection to the quads of the historic campus.
This call for transparency on the one hand and fortification on the other presented a clear paradox, which the building never resolves. Particularly questionable is whether the central courtyard – which is only accessible from the street by way of the enclosed lobby – really needed to be defined in such absolute terms. In contrast to the cloister-like spaces of Britain’s historic universities, the quads of American institutions have frequently adopted three-sided formats. Johnson’s science complex across Whitney Avenue is a relatively recent example of exactly such a type. For all its glass, Evans Hall remains an altogether more introverted proposition.
Foster’s work has rarely been at its strongest when addressing a street
And yet, despite these frustrations about its relationship to the wider world, things improve markedly once you get past the building’s front door. Addressed by a canteen, media library and common room at ground level, the tree-planted courtyard provides the school with a heavily populated social focus. Like the front, it is enclosed by full-height glazing but here the facade takes on a gentle ripple in acknowledgement of a series of free-standing drums, which house the classrooms. Ranged along the double-height first and second floors, these are accessed from generously dimensioned public lobbies that form a complete circuit around the courtyard, furthering the sense of animation at the building’s heart.
Save for an area of glazing above each door, the classrooms are windowless and finished externally in high-gloss blue panels, a treatment that invests them with an air of luxury vehicle chic. They vary in size and geometry to accommodate different layouts, including an in-the-round debating chamber, a lecture hall and a distribution of free-standing tables for the use of team-based study. Built-in cameras allow classes to be filmed for broadcast online, while large-format perimeter video screens enable foreign students and invited speakers to participate. Developed through the use of 1:1 mock-ups, the suite of 16 rooms has radically transformed the school’s pedagogical culture, enabling a much-increased commitment to social learning.
The other principal spaces are sited on the axis extending through the middle of the courtyard. Cantilevered above the main entrance is a modest library or, to be more accurate, a reading room, as the school’s decision to make all texts available digitally has relieved it of the need to house books. Meanwhile, a horseshoe-shaped auditorium projects from the back of the building, supporting a glazed multi-function space above. The proximity of some notably well-to-do neighbours, including the New Haven Lawn Club, restricted the height of this frontage and necessitated the creation of a substantial intervening garden. Designed by landscape architects Olin, it offers a lush counterpoint to the sparely planted courtyard and a particularly attractive prospect for the belvedere-like function room set above it.
Whatever my doubts about Evans Hall as a piece of city-making, as an academic environment the project has much to recommend it. What Philip Johnson might have made of Foster’s first building to be realised at his alma mater we can but wonder. This critic gives the interior a B+, the outside a borderline fail.
The new School of Management building is comprised of five storeys above grade and two storeys below grade. Buro Happold used steel construction for the above-grade structure and reinforced concrete flat slab construction, with drop panels spanning to cast-in-place columns, for the below-grade floors. The engineering team selected steel for the above-grade portion – using more than 1,900 tonnes – because they considered it to be the best material with which to achieve the architectural design for large, column-free areas and clear, unobstructed facades.
Foster + Partners proposed a four-storey, curved, glazed facade to serve as a prominent feature in the courtyard. The facade is supported only at top and bottom. To achieve this long vertical span without large structural members that would interrupt the view, the facade weight was hung entirely from the roof, with the bottom support used only for lateral bracing. Buro Happold designed custom steel sleeve connections to integrate the facade’s vertical element with the second floor’s structural steel. This allowed for seamless integration and vertical movement between the second floor and the facade, even though a separate contractor provided each.
Half-way up the facade, a mezzanine extends within several feet of it but does not connect. This created a cantilever condition ranging from 10 to 17ft that had to fit within the thin floor profile. To achieve this, the cantilever beams were designed for strength only and deflection control hanger rods were added at the ends of the cantilevers. As the rods were designed for deflection control only, they did not need fireproofing, which lessened the structure’s impact on the architectural design.
The exterior, architecturally exposed structural steel columns, while part of the desired aesthetic, presented several challenges. As these columns would be exposed and visible from both the inside and outside of the building, the aim was to minimise their profile. Due to the hanger rods supporting the floors, some of the exterior columns, which are up to 64 feet tall unbraced, carry a significant portion of floor load, creating undesirable fireproofing issues. To resolve this, Buro Happold performed detailed fire engineering studies, proving that these HSS 18x0.5 columns could better withstand a fire than anticipated by the design codes. Consequently, the fireproofing to these key architectural elements could be reduced and, in some cases, eliminated.
The auditorium, located beneath a proposed entertainment/multi-function space, had strict acoustical criteria in terms of vibration and noise transfer for the structure supporting the space. To meet the vibration criteria, Buro Happold designed 49in-deep plate girders for the 50ft span and also made provisions in the plate girder design to accommodate penetrations for the building systems, as the steel members took up all of the available ceiling space. In addition, the criteria for limiting noise transfer into the auditorium from the space above was met via a 7in-thick normal weight concrete-on-steel deck slab.
- Stephen Curtis, associate principal, Buro Happold
The competition brief was to unite Yale’s School of Management departments in a single location, foster a sense of community and support the radical, integrated curriculum ‘to create the best business school in the world’. The brief for the classrooms developed as the design progressed and it became clear the teaching methods demanded different layouts in each. This led the team to develop six models, which interchange to create 18 distinct classrooms. These range from a debating chamber to a team-based working space and a classroom ‘in the round’, designed to challenge the faculty to pioneer new ways of teaching.
- Chris West, partner, Foster + Partners