The New York Times
July 1, 2006

Last Exam: Renovate a Master’s Yale Shrine


The task seemed daunting enough: renovate a 1963 landmark marred by a patchwork of repairs that had left its signature interior — 37 levels of interlocking spaces in a 7-story building — looking rundown and gerrymandered.

But far more intimidating was the status of this Brutalist-style structure, the Art and Architecture Building at Yale University, designed by Paul Rudolph, a renowned architect and the former dean of the School of Architecture. For those who studied the subject at Yale in the 1960’s and 70’s, the building was a locus for spirited debates about functionality, the twilight of Modernism and the vicissitudes of architectural fashion.

That was the legacy facing Charles Gwathmey, who received his master’s in architecture in 1962 from Yale, when he took on the renovation of Mr. Rudolph’s creation. It will include an addition for the art history department, which will share a fine arts library in the addition with the architecture department. After six years of planning, construction of the extension starts next week; work on the existing building will follow next summer. With its distinctive rough concrete surface and interlocking masses and voids, the A & A Building, as it is called, is probably the best-known work by Mr. Rudolph, who died in 1997.

In an interview in his office on Manhattan’s far West Side, Mr. Gwathmey said he felt honored but also nervous about the project. “It was, in a sense, Rudolph’s legacy building,” he said. “It’s a very nice compliment to me, which is also very pressured. I think an architect doing an architecture school adds an obligation. You want to be respected by your peers.”

In approaching the project with his partner Robert Siegel, Mr. Gwathmey said, he has strived for a light touch. Most of his changes will not be immediately visible to the untrained eye. The facade’s signature “corduroy concrete” will remain, for example, although it may be cleaned.

The building’s odd circulation pattern will generally be retained, with about the same number of levels within seven stories. But the elevators will be moved to the new addition and increased to three from two.

There will be the necessary infrastructure upgrades: a new mechanical system, new windows and air-conditioning. (The building currently has none.) Ceilings, removed in 1973 because they contained asbestos, will be restored according to Mr. Rudolph’s original design intention.

Otherwise, Mr. Gwathmey said, he has left well enough alone.

He remembers Mr. Rudolph wrestling with the plans, starting in 1960, shifting gradually from clean, rational lines to stark, cubic forms. The building opened 10 years after Louis I. Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery, another break from the campus’s neo-Gothic and Colonial aesthetic.

“It was a huge struggle for him,” Mr. Gwathmey said of Mr. Rudolph. “He had many schemes, and the shadow of Kahn was pervasive, and he really wanted to build the ultimate diagram and the ideal architecture school in his vocabulary. And he wanted it to be the greatest modern building.”

“It wasn’t received the way he had wished, and it affected his career,” he continued. “It wasn’t critically acclaimed.”

Although the building drew fervent praise from some quarters— Ada Louise Huxtable, then the architecture critic of The New York Times, called it “a spectacular tour de force” — some objected to the building’s hulking form and its corrugated concrete exterior.

“It was seen as an aggressive building,” said Robert A. M. Stern, Yale’s current architecture dean. “It was the most talked-about building of its time.”

Art students protested that the allocation of interior spaces favored architects over artists; nonarchitecture Yalies of the 60’s were put off by what they saw as the building’s authoritarian and unfriendly presence.

“I think this is one of the most difficult and challenging and important projects an architect can take on,” Mr. Stern said. The project is part of a $500 million overhaul of all of the university’s major arts buildings, including a refurbishing of the art gallery, which is scheduled to reopen in December, and a new home for the drama school.

“The arts are a vital part of the life of this community, and the Yale schools are major contributors,” said Richard C. Levin, the president of Yale. “They are all in substandard facilities.”

The Rudolph building has been through the wringer: a mysterious fire in 1969, a round of window replacements and stopgap attempts to divide the open space to accommodate growing numbers of students.

“You read the building as a sort of collage of history right now,” Mr. Gwathmey said. “All that will be stripped away. The building will be read much more as it was in 1963, when it opened.”

Architects who trained there say its resiliency is part of its charm. “It could get beat up and didn’t have to be all neat and tidy,” said James Polshek, the architect. “It really was a joyous place — and it still is.”

David C. Childs, another alumnus, said: “It’s not flexible. It’s a big hunk of concrete, but a great piece of sculpture and architecture and space. It holds that corner wonderfully.”

Mr. Gwathmey, 68, graduated from the architecture school a year before the building was completed; his classes were held in Kahn’s art gallery, currently being restored by Polshek & Partners. He has also taught at the school and participates each year in student reviews.

There are seven recent Yale graduates at his firm, Gwathmey Siegel & Associates, and Mr. Gwathmey said he had solicited their views of the building. “They like its eccentricity, its variation,” he said. “They like the fact that you can mess it up, that it’s totally unsacred.”

Architecture students shared the building with studio art students until 2000, when the art school regrouped across the street in the former Jewish Community Center, which was renovated and expanded by Deborah Berke and dedicated as Holcombe T. Green Jr. Hall.

At that point, Yale hired Mr. Childs to redo the Rudolph building and Richard Meier to design a separate art history building. Mr. Levin said Mr. Meier’s design was “spectacular” but was ruled out as too expensive.

Mr. Childs said the university decided to go with a single architect for cost reasons and deemed it unfair to choose between him and Mr. Meier; Mr. Gwathmey was the new choice. Mr. Meier said he was never informed about Yale’s reason for abandoning his design.

Museum additions are nothing new to Mr. Gwathmey, who designed expansions of the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard in 1991 and of the Solomon R. Guggenheim in New York in 1992.

For the art history addition, Mr. Gwathmey is starting from the ground up, with a new building of zinc and limestone that is to include a lecture hall, classrooms, faculty offices and a cafe open to the public. Even though the art history building is an addition, he said, faculty members were clear about wanting their own identity “articulated,” he said.

And although architecture students are ultimately the crucial clients for his renovation of the A & A Building, Mr. Gwathmey is keeping Mr. Rudolph in mind.

“I think you have to acknowledge this kind of building as a moment that represents where modern architecture was in the United States at that time,” he said. “You don’t burn the books. You don’t tear down iconic buildings.”

“The Yale School of Architecture was designed by a major architect and educator,” he continued. “You want to resurrect it as best you can.”

Copyright 2006 The New York Times Company