Monday, March 1, 2010

Return Of The Hack

He's back! The New Haven flâneur returns, camera in hand, pounding the streets and taking run of the mill photographs so that you don't have to. This time I managed to circumnavigate approximately 240 degrees of New Haven, missing out, unfortunately, VSBA's firestation and SOM's Beinecke Library. Maybe next time. Or maybe this is enough.

This might have been where I left off: Rudolph's A&A Building on York Street. An insanely baffling but brilliant building entirely made of concrete cast inside a giant piece of corduroy. Perhaps an oblique reference to the sartorial mainstay of the 1950's architect? And who's that strangely proportioned man in the corner?

Opposite is Louis Kahn's Yale Art centre - inexplicably mocked in Tom Wolfe's generally pretty woeful From Our House To Bauhaus - which has a highly ambiguous relationship to the street. The bottom doesn't seem to touch the ground, disappearing instead behind a low, blank wall to the street.... a way that can be read as a laconic comment on the vestigial defensive moats that separate many of Yale's medieval style campus buildings from the sidewalk.

Parked in front of which was this: The Cheese Truck Co. truck. More of the ubiquitous quilted stainless steel too, this time in the form of a nice quilted door demonstrating the material's admirable versatility...

Stone carving of a roast chicken denoting kitchen. Neither a duck nor a decorated shed this but a shed decorated with a chicken.

And an (only slightly) more modern take on the strange bits of heraldry that litter the Yale campus, Eero Saarinen's Ezra Stiles College building. The rubble stone walls occasionally erupt into sculptural protrusions like this, bits of modern art clinging to the deliberately antiquated facade.

The building itself is utterly unlike Saarinen's more zoomorphic designs (the TWA and Dulles airport buildings, the Yale Ice Hockey Rink etc.) and is a US collegiate take on a Tuscan hill town. Incidentally, Saarinen, like Leonardo De Vinci, used to write backwards and take a carbon copy so other people could read his notes.*

For a country obsessed by the car, US train stations are usually pretty fabulous. Unlike North European stations, which tend to be a mix of Gothic spookiness and cast iron engineering, American ones are grandly Neo-Classical with Deco overtones.

New Haven's station also has beautifully detailed linear oak benches topped by glass display cases containing 1:25 scale model trains. It thus taps into two powerful strands of male nerdishnes in one space.

"This shot isn't going to help your plan to rehabilitate Charles Moore" remarked Sam Jacob as I stationed myself opposite the elaborately layered bin store of Moore's Church Street South housing project. The most interesting bits (formally speaking) are also the most favoured spots for a re-up, which makes wandering around with a brief case and a digital camera a dangerous business. This is a constant issue for the effete architecture fan in America, as cities tend to move from affluent and well off to shockingly deprived in about half a block.

The dwellings themselves are pretty basic, fair-faced blockwork and concrete row houses with occasional remnants of their '70's Po Mo supergraphics still visible on the gable walls...

....which look strangely incongruous on the otherwise pretty downbeat architecture. Moore was, of course, once Dean of Yale as well as the owner of a spectacularly groovy downtown bachelor pad featured famously in Playboy. More worthily, he was also the initiator of the still-going Yale Building Project.

Swirl, interrupted.

The mysterious Knights of Columbus building by Kevin Roche. The Knights are a kind of Catholic masonic fraternity formed in New Haven in 1882 and their HQ is pretty much the tallest building in the city. Roche was a former partner of Eero Saarinen (whose practice he effectively took over after Saarinen's death) and, before that, of Michael Scott in Ireland. It's difficult to know how to take this piece of late '60's bombastic commercial modernism though, other than badly**.

The nearby Knights of Columbus museum tests my re-found enthusiasm for Brutalist mega-structures beyond the limit so I didn't take a photo of it. It also has this heraldic emblem on the door. For an explanation go here...

VSBA's Anlyan Center Medical Research building. It's pretty typical of the practice's recent output, a large 'generic loft' providing laboratory facilities, artfully artless in its relationship to the street and decorated with bands of brick and stonework. The subtle way that the windows are detailed to be in the same plane as the brick is completely impossible to decipher in this image.

There's a bit of what Venturi calls 'fanfare' around the entrance with trademark offsets and cut out windows, very similar in essence to the Charles Moore housing above. No one was doing a re-up in the courtyard though.

'Round the back there's some cartoon trees assembled from bits of welded steel sitting, slightly forlornly, in a kind of no-go area behind the service entrance.

Directly opposite is this thing which I took to be a mid-period Frank Gehry rip-off although there is a slim chance that it's genuinely mid-period Frank Gehry.***

Small building with two enormous funnels. It's disturbing to imagine what fumes might need to be directed quite so far away from anybody else.

And back to the second best car park in town. This is the fabulous concrete circulation drum to the multi-storey just off York Street in downtown New Haven. It's an extraordinary object, a slightly terrifying machine for parking in that erupts from an otherwise quiet and secluded courtyard.

This is the way in. There is no way out.

* This fact was divulged in Eeva-Lissa Pelkonen's excellent lecture, which opened Yale's exhibition Eero Saarinen: Shaping the Future.

** Many thanks to @langrabbie for providing a link to Roche's only (?) UK building, the Cummins Engine Factory outside Darlington.

*** This is getting embarrassing. Mr Rabbie (see comment below) confirms that the Frank Gehry-like building is indeed a Frank Gehry building. I somehow both dimly new this and had completely forgotten about it. The fact that it was designed in conjunction with another architect - the New Haven based Allan J Dehar - perhaps explains why it is both typical of Gehry's work and oddly generic at the same time. Here's the link to an article about it.


bazza said...

When I first travelled to North America I was really suprised at the architecture.
I had always imagined it to be on a gigantic scale but otherwise unremarkable.
I felt that much of it lacked the inhibition that a lot of European architecture seemed to display. Some of the state capital buildings seemed, to my amateur eye, to display a confidence which may have been seen as, overblown in Europe. I am not sure if I still feel that way.
I had better keep reading your fascinating blog!

Lang Rabbie said...

The Gehry "rip off" is actually Gehry and Dehar's Yale Psychiatric Institute.

Charles Holland said...

Cheers Bazza. I think the best comparison is often of American buildings in the UK. If you look at something like the Sainsbury extension to the National Gallery everything is just so much....bigger. The scale of everything is just ramped up.

Thanks (again) Lang. Perhaps you should write the captions....

Jim said...

Cheers Charles, for another fascinating wander!

Re the rehabilitation of Charles Moore though; a difficult feat while the man himself is trying so hard to undermine his own practice's reputation with buildings such as the new(ish) US embassy in Berlin - an experience as bland as hanging out with the members of Coldplay watching beige paint dry. I rather prefer his bonkers themepark stuff...

Charles Holland said...

Hi Jim

I know what you mean re: that embassy but it's hard to blame the man himself as he died in 1993. His old firm Moore Ruble Yudell were responsible though.

Lang Rabbie said...

Have you ventured as far out as the School of Nursing yet? It was originally built by Roche and Dinkerloo as Richard C Lee High School.

I'm imaging that interiors
are still potentially more interesting than the exterior:

Charles Holland said...


Yes I have walked past it - it's quite close to both the Moore housing scheme and the Knights of Columbus building. You're right, it's not particularly remarkable on the outside. More 'of its time' than anything else really. The nearby Knights of Columbus museum is probably a bit more formally exciting but I couldn't bring myself to go inside!

Thanks for the links though, that website is very useful,

AM said...

another great post :)
can't wait to see your photos on VSBA's firestation on The New Haven flâneur's revenge II :)