morse college courtyard via wiki commons

Stern and Saarinen at Yale: What Architectural “Style” Reveals

Humans like to be “right.” Whether you’re a Republican, Democrat, or Independent, people pick sides in dealing with politics. But architects do this, too. We want to believe in what we do, so our culture conveniently divides architecture into “styles.” In the most basic distinction, we define ourselves as “modern” or

“traditional” and we’re often judged (and judge others) in shallow and self-serving terms. It’s easier to defend what you do if you’re part of a larger canon: a set of values and criteria that define and rationalize how you design.


There is a new opportunity in New Haven, Connecticut, for a unique comparison between “modern” and “traditional” mindsets. From the 15th century on, the phrase “comparisons are odious” has been used by thinkers as diverse as Cervantes, Christopher Marlowe and John Donne. But differences in architectural outcomes can be deeply illuminating when aesthetic choices can be clearly compared.


Here in New Haven there are two sets of buildings that when seen in contrast to each other may just clarify the “whys”—and not just the “whats”—of their designs. Contrast only works when there are enough similarities in what is being compared so that the differences reveal options and priorities. The two buildings in question are of near identical use, client, cost, and site characteristics. As it turns out, both are also prototypes of their designers’ aesthetic mindsets. One employs a rigorous distillation of abstracted forms, the other uses an architecture rulebook tightly defined by eight other nearby buildings built more than 75 years ago. Paradoxically enough, the older building is “modern” and the new building is “traditional.”


Both are realized by architects of great experience and renown. I am talking about Morse and Stiles residential colleges, designed by Eero Saarinen and built in 1962, and the new Franklin and Murray residential colleges, designed by Robert A.M. Stern, just completed in time for this semester.


When two different approaches are compared so easily in neighboring buildings, the obvious contrast here raises the basic question: Why is “style” used to judge an architect?


Both buildings have sites that span between existing neighborhoods and take pains to link with the fabric of the city around them, and yet create isolated places to live for similar numbers of students. Both are technologically up-to-date structures, as Morse and Stiles was renovated and expanded in 2011 by Kieran Timberlake Architects, including 25,000 square feet of additional space, mostly subterranean, totaling 285,000 for about 950 occupants. The new colleges are slightly larger (300,000 square feet), and will have slightly fewer occupants (over 800).



Murray and Franklin Colleges cost at least $500-million to build; the renovation of Morse and Stiles was more than $100-million. Both projects use extremely thoughtful space planning inside and out. Both are “high end” in finish and amenity and utilize extensive underground space for common areas of study, play, practice and gathering, to lessen their above-ground mass. Both site approaches employ many paths and vistas, use functional expression in massing to enhance the experience of moving around varied shapes that are arrayed to create courtyards. Saarinen made individual idiosyncratic dorm rooms; Stern uses the more typical suites of clustered rooms and common areas, allowing for towers that follow the proportions of their doppelgangers found in the earlier College Gothic cloaked buildings.


To understand the projects, it’s important to know the historic context. In the 1920’s, keeping only it’s Freshman Quad on the original site of Yale College, the university opted to create a “Residential College” system, like other schools at that time (especially Harvard). Yale’s original new residential colleges were designed to mimic Oxford and Cambridge in England by copying the “Gothic Revival” architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries (which in turn was copying the medieval version embodied in England). These new “College Gothic” buildings, largely financed by the Harkness family and mostly designed by architect James Gamble Rogers, were built at Yale in the 1920’s and up to World War II.


After the war, Louis Kahn broke the Gothic logjam in 1953 by designing the Yale Art Gallery. Saarinen followed with Ingalls Rink four years later. Then came Yale’s Art & Architecture building by Paul Rudolph, and the Beinecke Library by SOM’S Gordon Bunshaft and, in that same wave of exuberant zeal, Yale built Morse and Stiles Colleges. This Modernist Yale wave was paralleled by New Haven’s participation in “urban renewal” after World War II, including some of the great Modernist works in American architecture, perhaps the most per capita of any city in the world.


Modernism had become the preferred aesthetic for fully 50 years of Yale building, including the recent Norman Foster-designed School of Management five years ago. So, in the early 1960’s, when Yale wanted to expand enrollment (before admitting women) by adding the 11th and 12th Residential colleges, they followed the Brave New World of Modernism, and hired their successful hockey rink designer, Saarinen, to create twinned residential colleges.


Like the new buildings around them, Morse and Stiles colleges are Modernist “statement” buildings using towers, paths, and perspective, just like the earlier “Gothic Revival” colleges, but with a decidedly abstract take. Unlike many of the purely sculptural and architectonic Modernist buildings built at Yale in that period and after, Saarinen spoke of his intended application of older sensibilities in his crisply rendered construction: citing Flemish villages and “the towers of San Gimignano,” to apply an experiential rationale for his abstraction.


It was not just the exterior shapes and circulation that Saarinen hoped to reinvent, he also invented “masonry without masons”—solid poured exposed aggregate concrete and the random exposed stone, a virtual mono-material, slavishly imposed on every condition. The layout involved buildings as walls to create courtyards, allowing public traffic to flow around buildings, while maintaining privacy, just like Rogers’ more rectilinear work.


Unlike the expressive roofs of Gothic architecture, this complex has flat roofs and parapet walls becoming piers and expended, folded and bent flat planes. All openings are “voids,” not framed portals for windows and doors or gateways.


Franklin and Murray Colleges are completely derived, explicitly, from James Gamble Rogers’s copy of a copy: making the new colleges a copy of a copy of a copy.


In many ways, Stern’s new colleges follow the same rules of the other residential colleges at Yale: a wall/gateway/courtyard/tower composition. But Stern has declared his fealty to an ironic new mimicry. Franklin and Murray Colleges are completely derived, explicitly, from architect James Gamble Rogers’s copy of a copy: making the new colleges a copy of a copy of a copy. The exteriors use patterned brick and stone traditionally rendered materials and details in the way Disney makes theme park fantasylands, by manipulating the buildings of our memory to serve the uses at had.


Both projects use angles and towers in the layout to create flow and enhance the perspectives of those walking through the ensemble. But Saarinen’s Morse and Stiles colleges are not Hogwarts. This is a crisp, scoured sculpture that rises, falls, gaps and bends in ways both responsive and directive. There is less rhythm and much flow. No recognizable architectural or cultural icons are used. This is a sculpted concrete set of forms cast and choreographed with a landscape.


In contrast, the clearly “constructed” Franklin and Murray Colleges directly apply over one-hundred CNC-fabricated limestone bas reliefs that tell stories and express ideas. Hundreds of pieces of ornament in sculptured details, words, patterns, faces, downspouts, wooden doors, windows, hardware, vents, chimneys, eaves, bays, etc, are woven together in architecture. History is replicated in both large massing and small detailing. Every jot and tittle follows the College Gothic Rulebook.


Saarinen simply rendered solid and void to create shape and space, whereas Stern has employed a panoply of catalogue pieces and parts to evoke an invented history. Eero manipulates a scale-less palette of concrete and stone goo, while Robert A.M. uses a kit of nameable parts utilizing dozens of man-made, history-based pieces, sewn together in a sea of brick.



Inventing things has costs. When chimneys have no function save their desired aesthetic punctuation, the construction ignores their historic use. Thus the chimney shapes were prefabricated, airlifted, and literally dropped in place. In contrast Saarinen aggressively hid chimneys as extensions and folds of his universal skin, denying their need for special construction.


Stern also invents “additions” in a place that was built all at once. Beyond all the fully designed and invented history incorporated into his new buildings, Stern designs these asymmetric elements set into a “regular” parent building, as if they were later amendments instead of a convenient manipulation in the original design. While Saarinen uses a sea of rock-spiced continuous skin that extends, bends, is cut and applied, to create forms and spaces, Stern uses a rigorous, equally unrelenting, application of traditional College Gothic motifs manipulated to focus attention and reward focus with detail.


Saarinen’s sculpture is cast from the ground up with what is seen at its surface: a universal constant of undifferentiated material, dead vertical, roofless and abstract. Stern’s structure was cast too: but that skeleton was completely hidden by his universally thin layer of decorous skin stretched over the robustly cast structural grid, often over steel. Beyond the faux chimneys, the tower tops were applied from the top down in pre-made pieces, with no evident means of support as construction commenced, an anti-gravitational tack-on of ornament and detail, almost absurdly floating over a concrete cage.


All of Saarinen’s exterior surfaces are vertical abstraction, and just like the hidden structure behind Stern’s skin, Saarinen’s exterior denies the sense that gravity had any impact on its design. Stern’s interiors are full of rich materials and luxury decorations, several with those almost comically mute fireplaces. Alternatively, Saarinen bent over backwards to make the outside and the inside feel part of a continuum (except in the cheaper blandness of many of the residential spaces, even after the renovation).


So, there are a number of questions that these twinned twins pose for us: Which one is more posturing, disingenuous, polemical? Does a Modernist mono-material abstraction define architecture as a sculptural exercise? Is playing architectural dress up to affect College Gothic turn buildings into imagery?


Is Stern more relevant to our culture when he copies a known, loved, useful set of historic “things” in a thoughtful way? Is Saarinen more innovative for cultural advancement because he wholly invents the techniques used to render his design?


For Saarinen, the 1962 Morse and Stiles college followed the “new-new-new” mid-century mindset of aggressive invention and rejection of anything done before. For Stern, his 2017 colleges manifest an intentional manipulation of sentimentality and memory in their 3D Xeroxing of another architect’s work to extend the Yale brand.


Is “branding” less cynical when it surfs the “cool” of a specific era? For Saarinen, the 1962 Morse and Stiles colleges followed the “new-new-new” mid-century mindset of aggressive invention and rejection of anything done before. For Stern, his 2017 colleges manifest an intentional manipulation of sentimentality and memory in their 3D Xeroxing of another architect’s work to extend the Yale brand. Each project’s affect is a calculated part of its desired impact.


All buildings are part of their time, but here, these near identical design programs offer a clear realization of their particular Zeitgeists and cultural intentions. Stern’s faux old buildings mix Yale’s provenance and a college age generation’s love of Hogwarts. For Saarinen, the branding of “modernism” and the era’s fine arts obsession with newness was his baseline criterion.



Side by side these efforts have clashing images and we tend to see “style” first and judge. It’s easier to embrace or dismiss whatever reinforces our point of view. Most architects trained in Modernist design values typically loath Stern’s avowed copy-catting, as a cop-out from the responsibility to move the culture forward.  Many “civilians” loath the abstraction and coldness of any “modern” rejection of what they are used to, in favor of a comfy, culturally validated, historical iconography.


The biggest lesson derived from the dialogue of these two well-built, rigorously planned dormitories is that the zealous pursuit of an architectural vision uniquely reveals the values of its designers. In this moment of charged sensibilities, we have learned that polarizing politics damages our culture, no matter who is rejecting whom. Similarly, I posit that easy-answer labelling of “modern” or “traditional” short changes the values of both.


Denying diversity is the fatal flaw of most dogma. It may be comforting to dismiss, empowering to advocate, even nourishing to fully live in the beliefs we create, but in the end, beauty is found in both surprise and memory, not in any “style.”


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