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Racing by Design
The university’s oldest sport gets a new home that puts it out in front of the architectural pack.

In 1998, when Architect Turner Brooks ’65, ’70MArch, was presenting his entry in a competition to design the new Yale boathouse, he impulsively plunked his model onto the fake river of the site model and announced that his building would be “like a mighty Athenian trireme being propelled down the river.” Brooks now remembers the moment with some embarrassment (“It’s not a boat, it’s a building,” he says), but his colorful exuberance may have won him the job—and won Yale its most distinctive piece of new architecture in years.

The Gilder Boathouse—named for the family of Richard Gilder ’54 and Olympic rower Virginia Gilder ’79, whose foundation contributed $4 million to the project—was dedicated last October to rave reviews from the crews and their coaches, who are pleased to have better dressing rooms, more boat bays, and a safer and easier way to unload boats from alongside busy Route 34. But in addition to its functional advantages, the new building displays an architectural sophistication lacking from other recent boathouse designs, which tend toward a romantic historicism.

Things could have turned out differently. Yale’s initial plan, released in 1996, called for a new building on a larger site just north of the Cook Boathouse. A Massachusetts firm called Architectural Resources Cambridge produced a squarish, vaguely Victorian design. But the plan to acquire the new site fell through, and the design would not fit on the narrower plot where the old boathouse sat.

At about that time, the Gilders stepped up with their donation and asked that the University start from scratch with an architectural competition. Four small firms with Yale ties were invited to compete for the job, Brooks among them. For Brooks, it was a major opportunity. He had made a name for himself as a teacher at the School of Architecture and as a designer of small, quirky houses in rural Vermont, but his only major institutional project had been a small arts building at the College of the Atlantic. He and his wife, Eeva Pelkonen ’94MED (who also teaches at the School of Architecture), planned to collaborate on the design along with Susanne Pollmann ’98MArch. The only trouble was that Brooks knew little about rowing. But his classmate Michael Curtis ’66, ’70MArch, had rowed at Yale. “When I found out that we had made the list of competitors,” Brooks recalls, “I realized the architects we were competing against were all rowers, so I called Michael out of the blue, and he was available.” Curtis became the job captain and rowing expert on the project.

Brooks and his collaborators looked to the site—a steep, narrow sliver between Route 34 and the Housatonic River—and saw an opportunity to build something “organically connected to the landscape,” in Brooks’s words, “like a boat that was beached, eroded, and had become part of the bank.” The building, necessarily, is long and slender, and the focal point is the central outdoor stair that bisects the building and allows a dramatic passage from the road to the water.

The design is both a continuation of and a departure from Brooks’s earlier work, which was much more directly influenced by the farmhouses and vernacular buildings of Vermont, where he has done much of his work. Part of the change, he says, has to do with his collaboration with Pelkonen, a Finnish-born architect he married in 1996. “It’s true that since Eeva the work has become sleeker, with a somewhat more modernist sensibility.” But the cedar siding that encloses the building and the laminated wood roof structure have a warmth that recalls Brooks’s earlier work, and the seemingly incongruous old-fashioned lettering on the front of the building, it turns out, was chosen with tobacco-barn signage in mind.

The boathouse will see its first major races this month, and fans will be able to watch the finish from the monumental stair, from the boat ramp alongside the building, and from the glass-walled “viewing room.” In writing about his earlier buildings, Brooks has said he liked to imagine them “steaming and hissing along as if passing through the landscape under their own power.” This time, though, the boats will move while the building stays solidly grounded.  the end





Slide show of the Gilder Boathouse


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