The Morse and Ezra Stiles Colleges at Yale University present crenelated concrete walls and skinny windows that evoke Italian hill towns, yet their dark rooms and bare-bones shared spaces stirred little affection.
That changed with a renovation last autumn that so improved the 1962 buildings by Eero Saarinen that students are clamoring to live in them.
Here’s another happy transformation, this one in New York City: The 1954 Manufacturers Trust building, which features expansive, light-filled spaces, has been adapted beautifully to house the clothing-basics retailer Joe Fresh.
Imaginative interpretations of history can bring new life to buildings many thought weren’t worth preserving or were too difficult to adapt.
Modernist buildings seem to demand our attention for the wrong reasons. They were built to reject tradition, often self-consciously, and embrace technical innovation. But their high ideals can go out of date and their maintenance can be a challenge.
While renovations may demand a special architectural empathy, the results can be extraordinary.
At Yale, Philadelphia architect KieranTimberlake reworked the labyrinthine layouts to unite single rooms into more sociable residential suites.
The firm excavated a lawn fronting the complex to add fitness rooms, a tiny theater and art spaces (including an improbably popular weaving studio) to the colleges’ meager suite of amenities.
Shafts of Light
Principal Stephen Kieran separated the buried addition from the original buildings with a moat of small landscaped courtyards.
Skylights bring unexpected shafts of light to the underground spaces, where the stairways show distinctive character. The new architects match Saarinen’s idiosyncrasy with their own.
Manufacturers Trust was rightly designated a city historic landmark in 1997. The building is a dazzling, three-dimensional abstract composition of thin planes and transparency.
At a time when banks portrayed their financial stability in stone palaces, Manufacturer’s Trust made a progressive statement by engaging Skidmore Owings & Merrill LLP to form a seamless whole of architecture, low-slung modern furniture and art.
Once the bank tenant departed, its extraordinary melding of interior and exterior seemed to be a liability.
What new tenant would want this “Mad Men”-era museum piece?
Vornado Realty Trust hired the original firm to adapt the building to a retail tenant.
“We did a lot of soul-searching,” said Roger Duffy, a partner, in an interview. “Because the building was so important to the reputation of the firm, we took it on to do the best that we could.”
Vornado “saw the architecture as a marketing advantage,” Duffy said. He replaced the much-altered luminous ceiling with a new, more energy-efficient one that subtly incorporates store lighting. He poured a terrazzo floor to replicate the dazzling white original.
Modernist watchdogs strenuously objected to some aspects of the alterations. Vornado dismantled a spectacular 70-foot-wide sculptured metal screen by the mid-century artist and designer Harry Bertoia. Its mottled planes in a mix of tawny metals stylishly contrasted with the crisp sleekness of the space.
Duffy also moved the entrance and a highly visible escalator.
These may sound like trivial alterations, but Modernist minimalism can depend on subtleties. A lawsuit was filed, and eventually settled: Vornado got the entrance and escalator where it wanted and agreed to reassemble the Bertoia screen.
The muscular expansiveness remains along with glorious light. The second floor, which is recessed from the exterior glass walls, still looks as if it floats unsupported in space. The gorgeous Bertoia screen nicely backdrops white-painted store dummies.
Credit goes to volunteer watchdogs and the Landmarks Preservation Commission, which kept the developer and the designers honest.
I could pine for the purity of its original state. I’d rather enjoy the way it stylishly wears color and informality.
(James S. Russell writes on architecture for Muse, the arts and culture section of Bloomberg News. He is the author of “The Agile City.” The opinions expressed are his own.)