Samuel F.B. Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges, Yale University
In 1956, Yale University President A. Whitney Griswold formally announced his intention to construct two new residential colleges, since the ten colleges constructed in the 1930s were filled to capacity. By April 1958, architect Eero Saarinen began making site and design studies even though he did not receive the commission until April 1959. Saarinen graduated from the Yale School of Architecture in 1934 and designed the David S. Ingalls Hockey Rink at Yale University (1958). The colleges are named for Samuel F.B. Morse (Class of 1810), a renowned painter, inventor of the telegraph and co-inventor of Morse Code, and Ezra Stiles (Class of 1746), Yale University's seventh president (1777-1795) and a theologian, lawyer, scientist and philosopher.
Samuel F.B. Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges at Yale University are, physically, two independent residential colleges. Conceptually, however, they are derived from the same formula and share the same aesthetic components, thus architecturally merging the two colleges into one. A stepped, winding alleyway is the only clear architectural separation of the two. Morse and Stiles are composed of clusters of rooms organized around asymmetrical courtyards, resulting in a back-to-back abstracted-pentagon site plan. The polygonal, interlocking two-and-four-story forms are pierced by two towers- one eleven stories (for Stiles, at the western end of the complex), the other fourteen stories (belonging to Morse, at the eastern end). A reinforced rubble aggregate concrete wall system was used for the entire complex, with large pieces of granite set in tan mortar- what Saarinen referred to as "masonry without masons." Due to the continuity of the clusters, the colleges take on a monumental quality and appear fortress-like yet engaging at the same time. While the walls serve a structural purpose, they primarily serve an aesthetic role, with an additional function of visually connecting the colleges to the surrounding neo-Gothic campus architecture and referencing the complexity and organic growth of Medieval Italian hill towns. At the same time, however, the structures come across as a completely Modern interpretation of these archetypes and stand independently from all other Yale and New Haven structures. Largely devoid of ornamentation, Saarinen instead adorned the entryways, walls and courtyards with forty-six Cubist molded concrete sculptures by sculptor Costantino Nivola and had sculptor Oliver Andrews design iron lighting fixtures for both interior and exterior use. The interior plan of single-rooms is echoed on the exterior by vertical strip windows. The colleges are well-known for the fact that each room contained no ninety-degree angles (until a 2010 renovation).
Morse and Stiles Colleges are located several blocks from the center of the Yale University campus, on an irregular site bounded by Broadway to the south and west and Tower Parkway to the north and east. A commercial building designed by Saarinen and constructed of the same rubble aggregate concrete as Morse and Stiles, is located directly south of the colleges on Broadway. The Hall of Graduate Studies, located east of the colleges, and Payne Whitney Gymnasium, located north across Tower Parkway, are two of the best-documented sources of Saarinen’s neo-Gothic design inspiration.
Relation to Yale’s College Architecture: The aesthetic compatibility of Morse and Stiles Colleges to other Yale University buildings was of utmost importance to Saarinen. In particular, he noted the presence of traditional features such as stone construction and courtyards, which were employed in James Gamble Rogers’ designs for eight of the ten colleges built in the 1930s. As a result, Saarinen avoided the use of glass and metal in his design since they, unlike stone, were materials that would not allow for a play of light and shadow. However, Saarinen still wanted his buildings to stand apart from the other colleges, and thus created a modern version of a stone wall that would contrast with the smooth stone walls of the earlier built colleges.
Rubble aggregate concrete was invented in Scandinavia and brought to the United States by Saarinen, in 1959, for his design of Morse and Stiles Colleges. The construction of these walls involved coating the interior of the wooden formwork with a chemical retardant, placing large stones (with diameters sometimes exceeding six inches) into the formwork in several layers, pumping mortar through steel reinforcement tubes (from the bottom up) into the voids created between the stones, and finally, allowing the concrete to set sufficiently so that the formwork could be removed. Due to the retardant, the mortar at the surface remained workable, and was later scraped off to reveal the surfaces of the large stones. Saarinen’s choice to use this system, a variant of traditional concrete construction, meant that significant laboratory testing and mock-ups prior to construction was necessary to produce a wall that was both aesthetically pleasing and structurally sound.
In 1933, Yale University established a residential college system based on those of English universities such as Oxford and Cambridge. The colleges provided dormitory rooms, dining halls and common spaces; each student was assigned to a particular college for their entire undergraduate career. Ten colleges had been constructed by 1956, yet President A. Whitney Griswold wrote in his 1955-56 annual report, “We have the colleges so full that community life, discipline, education, even sanitation are suffering.” As a result, he planned to add two additional residential colleges to the Yale University campus. Due to the severe overcrowding of the residential facilities, Saarinen was asked to design the colleges with only single rooms (instead of the traditional suites composed of two bedrooms and a study). Saarinen was certain to include the same amenities that the existing colleges contained: a dining hall and common spaces. However, instead of a large, open common room (as were present in the other colleges), he designed dark, low-ceilinged rooms meant to resemble ratskellers, below-street-level bars. With single rooms as the building block of Morse and Stiles, Saarinen became very focused on the concept of the “individual.” He based his organic design on the belief that every room should be distinctive, “as random as those in an old inn rather than as standardized as those in a modern motel,” in order to create “an architecture which would recognize the individual as individual instead of an anonymous integer in a group.” On another social level, it is necessary to understand that Saarinen designed Morse and Stiles for the solely male undergraduate population that attended Yale until 1969- the year women were admitted to the undergraduate college. Prior to this year, the residential colleges were used for living and studying, not necessarily for socializing. Once Morse and Stiles became a residence to both male and female students, the colleges became places for social gathering in addition to living and studying. Thus, Saarinen’s concentration on the individual did not transition well through the following decades. As the years progressed, the ratskeller-like common spaces were avoided by students and the large concentration of single rooms prevented socialization. The recent renovation work done on Morse, and the future work on Stiles, hopes to remedy these issues.
Every aspect of Eero Saarinen’s designs for the Morse and Stiles Colleges was created with a clear purpose or inspiration in mind. Saarinen explicitly stated his reasons in the project statement as well as in correspondences with former colleagues, which continue to serve as primary evidence of why the structures were designed in their present forms. In the project statement Saarinen explained, “Flatness, lightness, glistening aluminum and glass, smoothness instead of rough texture and the play of light and shade- all these could neither express the spirit we wanted nor be compatible with our neighboring buildings.” In another reference to the residential college buildings of the past, Saarinen spoke of presenting the colleges “as citadels of earthy, monolithic masonry buildings where masonry walls would be dominant and whose interiors of stone, oak, and plaster would carry out the spirit of strength and simplicity.” Saarinen’s interest in incorporating the ideas of traditional Yale University college design is therefore clear, although it can also be implied how challenging it must have been to create a new, Modern college vocabulary without losing sight of the original. Although the rubble aggregate concrete walls were very much a means of incorporating the materials of existing neo-Gothic Yale University architecture into the new structures, they were also inspired by the stone construction of Medieval Italian hill towns such as San Gimignano and were even meant to represent “the walls of old Pennsylvania houses, where worn plaster reveals the stonework, or the stone walls of the Cotswold in England.” The stepped, winding pathway between Morse and Stiles was also inspired by Medieval towns, and the two towers mimicked those found in San Gimignano while also mirroring the towers of both the Payne Whitney Gymnasium and the Hall of Graduate Studies located nearby. Without this diverse group of inspirations, Saarinen’s completely Modern take on centuries-old building methods may not have resulted in quite as significant a structure. After all, in the words of Robert A.M. Stern, the current Dean of the Yale School of Architecture, Saarinen “believed that each project had its own artistic expression that grew out of the program and the client.”
Eero Saarinen’s architectural designs for Morse and Stiles Colleges were both celebrated and misunderstood at the time of their completion. Saarinen, who died unexpectedly in 1961 before the colleges’ completion, did not live to see this varied reaction and support the design scheme that he had so clearly outlined. His organic, ever-changing design process served in stark contrast to other prominent Modernist architects, particularly Paul Rudolph and Louis Kahn (both of whom designed buildings for Yale University and the City of New Haven), who had a clear formula with which they worked for every project. “Saarinen’s dramatic shapes and technical innovations, and his sense that each project was its own unique thing, were highly criticized in his lifetime,” said Robert A.M. Stern. Paul Rudolph, for example, compared Morse and Stiles Colleges to “sets for Ivanhoe.” Progressive Architecture praised Saarinen’s complex plan for the colleges while regarding them as “histrionic,” but Architectural Forum wrote, “Inserting two brand-new building groups into the determinedly ancient environs of Yale University was…as dangerous as introducing a pair of young ‘method’ actors into a group of retired Shakespeareans,” and thus seemed to understand the complex nature of the project’s scope. In 1963, the American Institute of Architects awarded design honors to Eero Saarinen & Associates for the design of Morse and Stiles Colleges. One of the most significant characteristics of the complex, ever-changing nature of Saarinen’s architectural designs is that it allows for constant reinterpretation of his work. Architectural historian Vincent Scully, a former Yale University professor, recently reflected on his 1960s critiques of Saarinen’s architectural work and retracted much of what he believed almost fifty years ago. Scully stated that while he originally thought Saarinen’s buildings to be a “stylish packaging of forms,” he now realizes that contemporary architects “regard Eero’s more spectacular shapes as heroically conceived and inadequately appreciated precursors of their own: so more sympathetic and even useful to them than [Louis] Kahn’s massive geometries or [Robert] Venturi’s contextual and semiological concerns,” and states that Saarinen “was clearly much more, at once more complex and more deeply serious, and more directly concerned with human use and meaning, than I thought he was so many years ago.” Scully does question, however, “If Eero felt that the traditional masonry was a good thing and he wanted to evoke it in his own building, then why change it?...People who were close to it have assured me again and again that it was not economics, but ‘the spirit of the times’ that was involved.” And in a statement that seemingly defines Saarinen’s design for Morse and Stiles Colleges, Scully concludes, “Eero had to invent something; he had to be modern.”
Samuel F.B. Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges very much represent the spirit of 1950s and 1960s architecture- socially, technologically, and culturally. The residences were designed to celebrate the individual while still striving to create a space in which numerous students could live and study. New concrete structural systems were utilized that spoke to both a structural and aesthetic purpose, and the design upheld a move away from International Style buildings of glass and steel toward a more solid, concrete architecture of evolving character and individuality. Morse and Stiles Colleges speak to Saarinen’s varied aesthetic taste, and he, unlike most other Modernist architects, was not afraid of using stylistic non-modern precedents in his designs. He created a new type of Modernism that did not rely on breaking with the past, but instead reinterpreted it. Samuel F.B. Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges stand as a unique, modern interpretation of Yale University’s 1930s architecture while clearly showing signs of inspiration from European sources and a defined sense of the structure’s purpose as a place to foster and celebrate individuality. Ultimately, Morse and Stiles Colleges speak to Saarinen’s ever-changing aesthetic and belief that each structure is itself an individual. In the words of architect Cesar Pelli, Morse and Stiles “intimately fit in and grow from a piece of Yale. They could not be anywhere else…”
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