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An Architect of the Moment
Eero Saarinen broke out of the box of architectural orthodoxy to give the university three of its most distinguished modern buildings.

When Eero Saarinen first saw the 300-foot central concrete arch of his design for Ingalls Rink rise above the campus in the fall of 1957, he said it looked “like the spine of a giant dinosaur.” Saarinen, who had earned his BFA in architecture at Yale in 1934, would not be the only one to interpret the building in animal terms: Some called it a turtle, or a fish, but the most lasting sobriquet would be “the Yale Whale.” Metaphors aside, Saarinen’s design for the rink—like his other work, including Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges—was driven by an inventive attention to structure and function, but above all to the spirit of the activities his buildings were to accommodate.

A standard barrel-vaulted roof would have been more economical, but much poorer acoustically, and Saarinen intended that his building be flexible enough to handle assemblies and dances as well. The use of its “privileged location” could be justified, he said, only by “beautiful architecture” that he felt he had achieved in a “structure based on tension rather than compression, which is unique to 20th-century technology.”

After the death of his father and partner, the noted architect Eliel Saarinen, in 1950, Saarinen emerged as a leader in experimental architecture. Saarinen’s free use of sculptural forms marked a departure from the boxlike volumes of the prevailing International Style. In little more than a decade, Saarinen’s thoughtful research, skill in using materials, and emphasis on process rather than stylized forms produced an impressive number of unique constructions, including Dulles International Airport in Washington, D.C., the CBS headquarters in New York, and the TWA Terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport.

In planning for the new residential colleges, Saarinen faced “a special challenge.” Part of the challenge, he said, was the “relationship of the new buildings to their neighbors,” the “pseudo-Gothic gymnasium, with its formidable scale,” and the “pseudo-Gothic Graduate School, with its somewhat smaller scale.” The rest of the challenge lay in the buildings' spirit and meaning. In presenting the preliminary plans to the Yale Corporation, Saarinen said that the emphasis of the colleges must be on the individual. Talks with students strengthened his belief “that the rooms should be as individual as possible, as random as those in an old inn rather than as standardized as those in a modern motel.” He also hoped to prevent them “from looking like poor cousins compared to the existing colleges.”

Saarinen achieved his goals by making the building polygonal “citadels of earthy, monolithic masonry.” He devised a new method of making “masonry without masons” by pouring crushed stone of varying sizes into molds, then pumping concrete through hoses inserted into the form wall between the stones. The citadel colleges were separated by a narrow walkway, “not unlike a small Italian hilltown street,” as the architect described it, and crowned by two towers, “since all other colleges at Yale have some kind of tower or belfry to identify themselves in the silhouette of the city.”

Saarinen died a year before the colleges opened. In a letter expressing her appreciation to the Yale Corporation for its memorial tribute, his widow Aline B. Saarinen described Yale’s “particular meaning for Eero.” He felt, she wrote, that “Yale managed, uniquely, to respect tradition and still to move forward. It seemed timeless and of our time and of the future. It was this feeling, along with respect for its intellectual goals and for the life of the individual, which he wanted to express in his architecture on the campus.”  the end


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