Turner Brooks Architects creates a winning design for Yale University's Gilder Boathouse in Derby, Connecticut.
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 9/1/2001 12:00:00 AM
Currently celebrating its 300th anniversary, Yale University is in the midst of a major campaign to restore many of its historic structures, ranging from 19th-century, Federal-style dormitories to Paul Rudolph's brutalist Art and Architecture Building. This large-scale effort includes much-needed upgrades for various athletic facilities, most of which are housed in the school's dowager neo-Gothic gymnasium, a building that more closely resembles a house of religious worship than a temple to the human physique. The men's and women's crew teams are the latest to get a new home, a decidedly modern structure by New Haven-based architect Turner Brooks.
In 1998, the university motioned to replace its beleaguered 1920s boathouse with a new, Victorian-inspired structure just upstream. Although the proposal had received the support and blessing of the undergraduate coaches and team, the site, unfortunately, fell through. Forced to raze and rebuild on the existing lot, too slender to accommodate the boxy design, Yale went back to the drawing board and invited four firms to submit new concepts better suited to the wedge-shaped plot. Brooks won the design competition and, with ambassadorial panache, eventually won over the various constituents—Yale's physical plant department, the primary donors, crew teams and coaches, and an active, spirited alumni core.
Brooks collaborated with associates Eeva Pelkonen and Michael Curtis (a former Yale rower) on the design of the sloping, cedar-clad boathouse, which clings to the river's edge, ready to glide through the water at the bang of a starting gun. "This project was very much about integrating with the landscape—it looks somewhat as if it had been 'beached' along the riverbank," says Brooks. The angular building, he continues, was shaped by "the narrow, steep sliver of a site, bracketed between a busy highway and the Housatonic River. There was very little wiggle room." And wiggle room, of course, was needed to maneuver the crew shells (which are up to 60 ft. long) and crowds of spectators from the driveway to the racecourse below. "The turning radius of the boats was a major determinant in the design," Brooks concludes.
The architects packed a dense but fluid program into the 22,000-sq.-ft. facility: a trophy/viewing room, coaches' offices, and locker rooms on the upper level, and six boat bays (including one for repairs) and state-of-the art docks below. The boathouse narrows to a point at its southernmost end, where trucks can unload boats directly onto a ramp that descends to the docks. Visitors enter through "a mighty, rattling gate" fashioned of aluminum oars. The ceremonial gate opens onto a covered outdoor corridor that bisects the building, offering an immediate and tantalizing view of the landscape just beyond. Spectators proceed to a grand, expanding staircase that spills down towards the docks, while athletes are ushered along the wraparound porch towards the locker rooms at right. "This is the only boat house we know of where the finish line is associated with the building itself," says Brooks; the design accommodates and absorbs the race-day spectators by means of the staircase (which doubles as bleacher seating) and the porches that sluice through and wend around the building.
By means of a common materials palette, the building's interior and exterior fold seamlessly into one another like a Möbius strip. The exposed structure and timber cladding, used both inside and out, nod to traditional boathouse architecture and the area's history. "The archaeology of the former industrial boom times on the river is as much a part of the surroundings as the bucolic riverscape," says Brooks, who describes the hydroelectric dam and the old locks nearby. Bowstring trusses recall "the great old boathouses" while expressing "tension and compression"—appropriate for a building associated with athletic activity. "American, industrial-style" bare bulbs hang unadorned in the viewing room, where fir walls, maple floors, and a yellow birch ceiling create a warm backdrop for enjoying the race—or, simply, the view—through sliding doors. Brooks had furniture-maker Jonathan Fallos "scale up" an old Adirondack chair, testing prototypes on the streets of New York before deciding on the final version, rendered in mahogany. Tall straight-back chairs of bird's eye maple encircle an Apple-Ply table in the middle of the room, while upholstered lounges form a cozier vignette near the Roman-brick fireplace.
At every turn, the building not only accounts for but suggests movement: of the cheering crowds, of the crew shells surging towards the finish line, and even of the university itself as it glides gracefully into a new century.