When I was an undergraduate at Yale, in the early 1990s, I was assigned to live in Morse College, a dormitory designed by Eero Saarinen and completed in 1962. I’d arrived at Yale as an admirer of modern architecture and soon became a fan of Saarinen’s work—especially his Ingalls Rink from 1958, a humpbacked arena on the edge of the Yale campus known as the Whale. But I never liked living in Morse. An idiosyncratic spin on residential Modernism, it had a sculptural power that made it transfixing from afar. But to spend days on end inside was a different story. Its extremely narrow windows and tough surfaces gave the place a medieval feel—or, as I thought when I was feeling especially cynical, a touch of the penitentiary. In winter, its brown–beige palette, set off against gray skies and patchy earth, was depressing, especially for a kid from California like me.
My love of Modernism aside, I secretly longed to live in one of the neo–Gothic residential colleges that still, for most of the world, define the look of Yale. In my junior year I moved off-campus with two friends, to a nondescript apartment above an Italian restaurant rumored to be owned by the mob. I’d found Saarinen’s dormitory so unpleasant that I traded it for a place that was controlled by low-level wise guys and smelled all day of baked ziti and eggplant parmesan.
Over the course of my four years in New Haven, as I learned more about Morse—and its sister college, Stiles, also designed by Saarinen, and also finished in the fall of 1962—I came to chalk up some of its faults to the fact that it had opened a full year after the architect’s death. I heard stories that Yale had cut corners on the construction budget and made changes to the design that Saarinen, had he been around to oversee the completion of the buildings, would never have stood for. In particular, I learned that the stones embedded in the façade were supposed to have been less smooth and more randomly arranged.
I concluded, with the kind of righteous certainty common to undergraduates, that Morse was a textbook example of the perils of posthumous architecture. I decided that the integrity of Saarinen’s design had been lost, and that because of that loss Morse would never be considered one of the architect’s more impressive achievements, let alone ranked alongside his masterpieces—the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, say, or the TWA Terminal at Idlewild, now Kennedy Airport.
But it turns out I was wrong—about the circumstances of Morse’s construction, and about the latter stages of Saarinen’s career. To begin with, when Saarinen died in September 1961—of a brain tumor, at the age of 51—work on Morse and Stiles was nearly complete. In addition, it was never a project that seemed to fully engage his talents—Saarinen’s young associate Cesar Pelli led the design team for the colleges. (Another up-and-coming architect in Saarinen’s office, Kevin Roche, also worked on Morse and Stiles.) The details that I’d fixated on as symbols of the project’s shortcomings seemed precisely the sorts of design elements an older architect, healthy or not, would have delegated to a younger one.
And those landmarks of Saarinen’s career that I’d looked to as examples of unspoiled achievement? Well, those were finished after Saarinen’s death too; they were subject to all of the same post-mortem risks as Morse and Stiles, without the resulting flaws. The TWA terminal opened in 1962, and the Gateway Arch wasn’t officially completed until 1968.
In a broader sense, I was also wrong about posthumous architecture. Over the last several months, I’ve visited several designs constructed after their architects’ deaths. And what I’ve learned—particularly in studying newly built projects by Louis Kahn and Raimund Abraham—is that the chief danger for designs sitting on architects’ drafting tables or computer monitors when they die is not that they will be horribly compromised. It is that they will never be completed. Especially if they are doing innovative or experimental work, architects spend far more time and energy working to get projects built—to find and cultivate the right patrons, to grease the right wheels—than they ever do designing them. And when architects die, that interest in driving the process of construction forward often disappears, too.