Gwathmey Siegel Associates sparks controversy with an addition to Paul Rudolph's Yale Art and Architecture Building.
Though Paul Rudolph’s newly renovated Art and Architecture Building at Yale has emerged as an object of admiration, if not adoration, it generated controversy—as rough-edged as its bush-hammered concrete shell—from the moment it opened. Anticipated as a great heroic masterwork by the university’s gifted and legendary chairman of architecture, the Art and Architecture (or A&A) Building was greeted from its completion, in 1963, with a decisive mix of acclaim and disdain. While The New York Times architecture critic, Ada Louise Huxtable, praised it as “a spectacular tour de force,” art historian Nikolaus Pevsner, the keynote speaker at the structure’s dedication, disparaged it as a work of an “individualist, the artist-architect, primarily concerned with [his own] self-expression.”
Monumental in its interlocking concrete forms, the building was designed to anchor a key corner site, culminating an architectural procession that includes Yale University Art Gallery, just across the street. With the centripetal force of a pinwheel, the A&A’s massing spins off of four complex concrete towers, with a fifth vertical shaft set to one side to house the elevators and main interior stair. Up a run of front steps that pool metaphorically at the base of the building and nearly disappear into the shadows between two towers, the interior unfolded with a panoply of interlocking spaces and planes—37 different levels terracing through seven stories, a penthouse, and two below-grade levels.
Formally and philosophically akin to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building, the A&A proposed a great central communal work space, surrounded by overlooks spanning four colossal piers. Rudolph expressed the focal center as stacked double-height spaces: an exhibition area, rising from the piano nobile and ringed by an administrative mezzanine, and directly above it, a soaring architectural drafting room, surveyed by a cast of a Classical statue of Minerva.
Despite the spatial dynamism, censure mounted. Sculpture students protested their “banishment” to subterranean (albeit skylit) studios; painting students complained of ceilings too low for the era’s increasingly large canvases; and others considered the building an inhospitable fortress, racked by temperatures too hot or too cold. The worst blow came in 1969, with a devastating fire of suspicious origin—widely viewed as arson. Charles Moore, who openly disliked the building and succeeded Rudolph as Yale’s architecture chair, reconfigured the fire-gutted interior, obscuring and hacking up key spaces. Most egregiously, the double-height drafting room was split into two separate floors, each a warren of painting studios.
After leaving Yale in 1965, Rudolph only returned many years later, and with great reluctance. That building “no longer exists for me,” he said several years before his death, in 1997. But the design that tragically led to his fall from grace was actually a bold and extraordinary architectural experiment.
To celebrate and restore what lay hidden, tarnished, destroyed, or outright vilified, the university engaged Charles Gwathmey (Yale, M. Arch., 1962) to renovate the 114,000-square-foot A&A Building and design an 87,000-square-foot addition for the art history department. The results range from exhilarating to disappointing.
The most successful part of the $126 million commission reclaims the existing building—now rechristened Paul Rudolph Hall (as requested by Sid Bass, the renovation’s lead donor). Power-washing and patching—along with vast, glowing new windows—have brought out the exterior interplay of light and shadow, of massive volumes and voids. Gone are 45 years of grime that shrouded the building’s cast-in-place, “corduroy”-textured concrete shell (and long reinforced views of the A&A as an inhospitable fortress). Inside, Rudolph’s vibrant “paprika” carpeting, a warm counterpoint to the A&A’s rough and ubiquitous concrete (inside and out), has been re-created, supplanting decades of mud-brown floor cover. And the open, double-height drafting room, with a replacement Minerva, is gloriously back. (The art students moved to their own structure in 2000.)
Rudolph envisioned the building as a teaching tool, peppering his Modernist castle with fragments of history: plaster casts of Assyrian reliefs and Parthenon friezes; Le Corbusier’s Modular measure; original Louis Sullivan gates; and locally salvaged Ionic capitals. Incorporated with remarkable self-confidence despite the contemporary sway of Bauhaus ahistoricism, many of these items have been preserved or restored.
The A&A’s notorious lack of climate control, or even airflow, has been tackled with modern mechanical systems, largely housed in the addition, and thermally efficient windows. The building is on track for LEED Silver certification.
But with these changes came losses that detract from its sectional richness and complexity. With 37 levels, ADA requirements had clearly become an issue. So the renovation leveled some (though not all) of the sunken jury “pits,” flattening zones that had been integral to the school’s culture. Rudolph’s rough-textured, asbestos-sprayed ceiling treatment required removal in 1973. Here, Gwathmey installed a bright-white, dropped-ceiling system (providing radiant heating and cooling). Its grid of square, semigloss tiles seems disconcertingly at odds with Rudolph’s tactile surfaces and language of planes and volumes slipping past one another, dynamically breaching the box, or grid, rather than conforming to it. Similarly, the massive concrete towers at the structure’s back, or west, end no longer hold habitable, open work areas, but house sealed-off mechanicals, blunting the spatial flow.
But the real casualty is the primacy of the main entry and interior stairs, now relegated to vestigial roles. Rudolph, by many accounts, had always envisioned an addition to the north, and his placement of the stair anticipates the dual structures sharing vertical circulation. Instead, Gwathmey’s addition, the Jeffrey H. Loria Center for the History of Art (housing primarily faculty offices, plus lecture halls, mechanicals, and a library expansion), introduces its own main entry and principal stair, rendering Rudolph’s counterparts oddly redundant.
The A&A’s notoriously inadequate elevators are gone, but the elevator core is now in the new wing, with the original shaft reduced to storage and other trivial functions. (Alternative solutions, such as a larger elevator in the existing shaft, supplemented by an adjacent service shaft might have been possible.) With its elevators gone and stair marginalized, Rudolph’s circulation tower loses its pivotal role and functional logic.
When he won the commission, says Gwathmey—who gained it after Yale had parted ways with Richard Meier for the addition and David Childs/SOM for the renovation—his initial reaction was: “Let’s enjoy this happy moment for five seconds, and then, well, it’s no win.” Appending onto a monumental icon, especially a freestanding one with commanding forms, is no easy feat, but Gwathmey, a former student of Rudolph’s who had helped draft the A&A drawings, had discreetly expanded Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum. An equally quiet annex, a finely crafted and contrasting box, perhaps of glass, might have served the Rudolph building well, but Gwathmey’s goal, as he puts it, was to be “deferential” while actively “engaging in a dialogue.” The Loria wing, with a busy facade of curves and skewed angles, rendered in limestone and zinc, offers more distraction than satisfying counterpoint.
While a bridge connection, or other spatial breather, might have preserved some of the freestanding autonomy of Rudolph’s dynamically splintered cube, the addition, in a language consciously distinct from the A&A’s, extends the existing entry facade, forming a single megablock without the clarity of the original volume.
Though the Loria interior pales beside the architecture school’s spatial invention, Gwathmey, following Rudolph’s cues, wisely retains an internal courtlike separation between the two structures, enriched by constant views back to the A&A. A new, skylit reading room, extending the original library across the ground floor, connects the two wings, forming a visually, but not physically, accessible courtyard.
Sadly, Rudolph did not live to see his building glowing in the limelight (though his ashes were partly scattered there by an artist in 1997). His work, however, is never free from controversy: Even with the A&A lovingly fêted, his Blue Cross Blue Shield tower, in Boston, and the interior of his Greeley Labs, at Yale, may soon be history.