Building on a Non-Tenured Fast Track

Coming down Prospect Street in New Haven a few years ago one spied a sleek, one-story, silver classroom and office building with horizontal metal siding and long patterns of windows that raced by each other. It was an intriguing curiosity, announcing loud and clear that it was having fun. And yet its demure profile let it nestle neatly into its residential neighborhood.

Long and sinuous, it meandered around a flagstone-paved entry court with floor-to-ceiling glass under a porch at the back, welcoming academics to enter.

Untitled-1 Untitled-1

It had more than a hint of acceleration. Born and built in only 12 months (and at half the going cost), this was a temporary building, constructed to house Yale’s homeless Political Science Department, which was left out in the cold for five to eight years between the demolition of their old housing and a new permanent home. The department was willing to stay in this “Amtrak Acela,” as the Dean of Yale College wryly called it, so long as it uplifted them and didn’t leave a generation of students feeling as if they’d been mistreated. Mother Yale worried, too, that a typical, homely mobile building might offend neighbors. Instead, the building’s clean lines and simple concept afforded enlightened fun – a break from Yale’s Gothic gravitas. Given the long, low, horizontal nature of the building, the horizontal bands of window break it up.

On the one hand, they divided in pieces to accommodate separate rooms, but on the other hand they have an overall unity. The windows’ arrangement is based on the mathematical Fibonacci sequence. Little windows sped by bigger ones to provide a sense of movement, like passing trains.

The secret to a very limited budget was using carefully designed modular trailers built in a nearby factory, but clad on site to look like one building. Inside, a central hall connected them all. It felt substantial thanks to the precise detailing of minimal trim and playful patterns of standard elements. It was high style on a low budget.

The metal color took many deliberations. Across the street, Yale School of Management buildings are very dark green, but Political Science was not part of that department. We looked at dark blue (too Yale) and a series of tinted grays. Someone suggested school bus yellow to make it playful. Eventually, Cesar Pelli, a member of Yale’s design review board, suggested silver. We jumped on that—it is gray but has sparkle, a cheerful quality without being super bright.

Continuing the economy inside are some ordinary elements, off the rack, but used in surprising ways: for example, common ceiling lights were arranged in playful modernist De Stijl patterns. Simple and light maple doors, custom maple benches, maple tables, and built-in bookshelves all showed care. The building was small enough, had such a human scale that it was friendly; its clean lines never seeming cold.

Against all odds, the building became a campus favorite. Poly Sci members affectionately dubbed their intellectual home the “Diner,” adding their own architectural flourish: “Political Science” spelled out in neon.

The building garnered nine design awards, while casual observers and architectural critics lamented its truncated fate. One media wag called it “the best doomed building in the city.” It was demolished in 2012 to make way for Yale’s new Gothic dorms, but history won’t forget it.