Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Leaving New Haven

This is the 3rd, and most definitely final, post on New Haven. There's a few buildings I wanted to see and didn't, for various reasons, including Rudolf's Crawford Manor and the interior of the Sterling Library, so I might still get a chance to post about them individually. The picture above is of the Prague subway-ish foot tunnel below New Haven train station.

I bought a guide book this time too in a bid to avoid embarrassing displays of architectural ignorance, so expect clunking pieces of factual information strewn amidst the usual flippant nonsense.

I'll start here with the view from my hotel room window of Rudolph's Temple Street Parking Garage (completed 1961, capacity 1280 cars), mentioned before and included again because it's the first time I've really been able to convey the vast scale of the building. The other thing evident in this shot is the fabulous roof-scape of miniature buildings and concrete lamp posts that look like wilting flowers, of which more later.

A photo essay of New Haven wouldn't be complete without a visit to VSBA's Dixwell Fire Station. This is officially the first ever building with a 'peeled-off corner', a device which became a cliche of Post Modernism but had one of those curiously Venturian justifications here. It's 'required' in order to get the overscaled lettering to fit the facade facing the main street, although it's clearly the case that the text was strategically sized in order to make this circumstantial gesture necessary.

One thing that puzzles people about Venturi and Scott Brown's buildings is that they really are quite ordinary. Viewed in architecture books hey have a kind of residual glamour, but seen in context they are completely at home and, almost, unremarkable. This is meant as a compliment. There is a subtlety and 'rightness' to their proportions though, even when they are deliberately wrong, that gives them a tension with their surroundings. Even so, if you spend too much time staring at this building people tend to come up to you and ask if you're lost. Or if your house is on fire.

There's also some nice low key topiary going on around the edge, and you can't say that about the Barcelona Pavilion.

Nearby is this bizarre thing, a power station built to fit in to a Greek Revival style neighbourhood now entirely demolished. In Europe, and particularly in the UK, industrial buildings from the 19th and very early 20th centuries were routinely disguised as castles and temples. This is part of the same tradition, I suppose, although it is somehow less romantic about its artifice. Unfortunately smoke doesn't emit from the twin spires although it may have once.

On the subject of artifice, I have said relatively little about the older campus buildings. They are, in parts, deeply strange, as bizarre as anything dreamt up by Anton Faust or other plunderers of the gothic. But, despite their artifice in recreating a new super-sized version of Oxbridge, you get used to them remarkably quickly.

Take a second look at this and it's actually pretty bizarre. It's also strangely plausible. Unusually too for an American city - save New York - the central campus areas of New Haven are essentially pedestrian. Between the blocks carved out by roads, the colleges unfold as a series of interlinked courts.

I'd say that the urban morphology of the campus was highly permeable if it wasn't for the fact that I would have to kill myself afterwards.

Many of the more contemporary buildings tend to ignore such picturesque niceties. Marcel Breuer's Bekton lab, for instance, sits aloof on it's own raised plaza and refuses to pass the port in the right direction.

The back of it is almost completely windowless too, making the building a scaleless, abstract object like a bit of detailing or piece of fabric pattern, blown up to a huge size.

Philip Johnson's Kline Laboratory building attempts a (broadly) modernist updating of the courtyard theme. Around the edge is a continuous colonnade that pulls together various disparate buildings into a formal whole. They sit at the top of a steep hill and this, combined with the slightly gargantuan scale, means the space has the feel of a corporate plaza rather than an informal college courtyard.

It has an odd effect too on the other buildings, suggesting that they all sit on the fat brick piloti that support the concrete awning.

The laboratory tower itself is reminiscent of Michael Graves' (much) later buildings with its chunky stripped-classical columns and slit like windows. It lies at the queasy intersection between a De Chiroco-esque distilled evocation of the classical city and bombastic neo-fascism.

Inside it's pretty grim, although not totally awful. The library is given the best space, sunk into the podium at the bottom of a double height atrium and crossed by bridges. Despite this the whole place has the air of a particularly cruel penitentiary.

Johnson's tower is oddly off axis with Hillhouse Avenue, the street running up to the mound on which it stands. From a distance it appears to be hiding, slightly bashfully, off centre-stage.

A view of Michael Hopkins' newly opened Kroon Forestry Studies building. Like a lot of Hopkins' recent projects (see Portcullis House) it has an overall weirdness which can't be contained by the Anglo Saxon rectitude of the detailing. On the outside it is clad in a skin of very new looking sandstone that is pulled away from the facade in order to make a colonnade but also to articulate - in the accepted manner - that it is not actually holding anything up. This gives the windows a voided look too in keeping with Hopkins recent goth tendencies.

Occasionally he has peeled away the stone cladding in a mock-ruinous manner in order to further reveal the artifice of the construction. He's obviously been listening to a lot of Sisters of Mercy.

Inside it is part high-tech and part Arts and Crafts with nods to the heroic Yale campus buildings of the '50's and '60's. The fare-faced concrete and fine honed timber is indebted to Kahn's British Art Centre, but the building itself is like a huge barn, more greenfield campus than urban. This is also an unflattering photo of an interesting space and the vault at the top of the building is lovely.

The high-tech meets arts and crafts theme continues with the fetishisation of glulam technology and big bolts.

Just down the hill from both Johnson and Hopkins is SOM's former Watson Astronomy Centre building which sits enigmatically behind its ivy filled moat.

Sitting at the bottom of Hillhouse Avenue is the very bizarre Cloister Hall. There are many things to enjoy about this including the stone gable superimposed on the tile one behind and the vaguely grotesque bay window bursting like a malignant growth on the left hand side.

This is a remarkable object, a cartoon piece of classical whimsy where everything is a bit fatter and rounder than it needs to be, like a bouncy castle carved out of real stone. The dummy windows are highly embellished blanks while the real ones are more low-key and largely hidden by vegetation.

It also has some very strange asymmetrical columns adding to a general sense that it might be several buildings cut and put back together in the wrong order. Or a building that got dressed in the dark.

I like a Dutch gable. And some rustication. This has both and is by McKim, Mead and White. Architecture criticism doesn't get much more sophisticated than this.

Strange, heraldic brickwork, sometimes incorporating the word Yale covered this building....I've no idea what the other signs mean although they may be something to do with a secret society.

Speaking of which, I risked my life taking this shot. It's the mysterious Skull and Bones Secret Society "Tomb". I half expected Robert DeNiro to suddenly appear beside me a la The Good Shepherd and tap me up for CIA membership. The Skull and Bones is mostly the subject of amusement rather than awe at Yale, although it still has strong links to political power. Both Bush presidents were members, as was John Kerry and Obama's current economics advisor. The building is attributed to Henry Austin who added various other bits of neo-Egyptian architecture to the campus.

The Gordon Bunshaft designed Bienecke Rare Book library appears like a colossal but very un-aerodynamic spaceship that has just landed amidst Yale's neo-medieval campus.

The library is a windowless concrete framed casket where the marble infill panels are sliced so thinly that they let light through into the interior. It sits enigmatically in a granite plaza from which the building's columns seem to grow.

The soffit around the entrance is notably low and hangs slightly menacingly above your head as you enter.

The inside is very beautiful and has a misty quality reminiscent of Renaissance churches where the precise edges of the room are hard to make out. The strangely corporate furnishings though also give it the feel of a sensationally upmarket hotel lobby.

This it turns out is by Charles Moore, or at least the office of Moore and Turnbull. When it was completed the air-conditioning grills to each apartment were painted in different colours, although they have faded now leaving the building unremittingly grim. My guide book said something about the top row of windows forming a vestigial cornice, which is generous.

Across an asphalt car park from the Moore building is this somewhat creepily blank church with a roller shutter entrance door...

...guarded by someone in this little hut who's been using a lot of gas.

I took this shot for Lang Rabbie, who asked in a comment to a previous post whether Kevin Roche and John Dinkerloo's Yale Nursing School was still there. It is, although it appears to be sinking.

Back on the roof of Rudolf's car park I got very into the concrete folly-like service towers. The lean to greenhouse is new I assume but the bright mosaic tiles are original. The lamp posts are also very elegant, made as if from a thin strip of concrete that has been peeled apart like a banana...

The interior is fabulous vortex of clashing concrete decks and vaulted tunnels and an excellent location for a car chase.

The height of the roof is also almost exactly aligned with the various church steeples that sit along Temple Street (so called for that reason), giving them an odd, almost domestic quality when viewed so close up.

A seagull gazes mournfully out across New Haven towards the port and Marcel Breuer's vacant former Armstrong Rubber Company building stranded by the freeway. Next to it is a vast Ikea which sometimes uses Breuer's building as a billboard.

And finally, a shot back to the good old Omni Hotel. I shall miss its heavily patterned interior and scarily large apples in the lobby.


richard said...

I find something strikingly, startlingly wrong about the Sterling memorial Library at Yale. Perhaps it's the fact that the gothic styling is even heavier there than on NY and Chicago commercial buildings, perhaps it the fact that it's a skyscraper/gothic hybrid nestled in the middle of all that self-consciously historicist Oxbridge fetishism, but I think it sounds exactly the right discordant note, like a deconstruction of the whole Oxbridgesque project in 1930.

Charles Holland said...

yes you are absolutely right. and it's pretty remiss not to have mentioned it. maybe i'll put that right. and yes, pretty much everything about it is wrong...

AM said...

Dixwell Fire Station is such a fine "ugly and ordinary", slightly distorted (and slightly perverted - almost pre-Decon...) "box", without the "I'm an (anti) Monument" on top of it...
Much the contrary of (I'll say it again) Vitra Zaha's Flop (people, and architects alike, seem to be so much more interested on the likes of "the first ladie of Decon" - Zaha, I think, goes to architecture as Lady Gaga goes to Pop...)
Anyway, I would love to see an "update" on Steven Izenour kind of (anti) iconic photo of Dixweel Fire Station with the neo-gothic (?) church (?) to the right and to the background of it...
Could, would, you?...

AM said...

"I am a monument", sorry

Charles Holland said...

Too late I'm afraid AM...already left.

I much prefer my Gaga to my Zaha.

Btw, just about the same time as i read your comment I was enjoying a nice Smiths moment via your blog...spooky.

steve harman said...

Brilliant article! Thanks for sharing your experiences.

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