Developmental Learning

At the Yale School of Architecture, students are getting real-world lessons about design from their future clients.

This spring ten Yale University students immersed themselves in spreadsheets, market research, and traffic studies. But they weren’t business-school hotshots. They were architecture students studying under the new Bass Fellowship, which aims to prove that designing with a developer looking over your shoulder can stimulate bolder architecture.

Endowed by Ed Bass, a developer who started at the Yale School of Architecture in the 1960s before quitting academia to rebuild Fort Worth and other downtowns, the fellowship lets a developer and an architect teach an advanced studio as a team. Dean Robert A. M. Stern says the course can dissolve stereotypes of “the architect as permanent child, the architect as hero” and help students see client and architect as equals.

The first Bass Fellow, Gerald D. Hines, has always viewed architects as critical assets. His eponymous Houston firm hired Philip Johnson to design the breakthrough Pennzoil Place. Later it built Houston’s Galleria, a massive mall with an atrium skating rink by HOK that seemed like a novelty until it raised annual rents for the surrounding shops by upward of $2 million. “We have greater available capital because we’ve made buildings that are distinctive,” Hines says.

Together with architect Stefan Behnisch, famous for Genzyme’s green Cambridge headquarters, Hines is exposing ten Yale students to a real project: an 836,000-square-foot fashion school-museum complex in Milan. The city and state governments have selected Hines to execute a 57-acre redevelopment at the tattered Garibaldi Repubblica train station, for which former Yale dean Cesar Pelli has designed the master plan. Later this year an international architecture competition will yield a designer for the site’s locus—the fashion school-museum complex—and Hines says the students’ work will animate the brief.

The course requires five pairs of students to incorporate elements such as Milan’s urban fabric or fashion’s cultural role in Italy into proposals for the complex. The students spent a week in the city, meeting with couture designers, city officials, and Hines execs. Back in New Haven they praised the developer’s open mind. Hines himself, they said, urged them to “think big.”

“It’s very important that students don’t ignore the guidelines the developer sets, but that they challenge them,” says Markus Dochantschi, a New York architect who formerly directed Zaha Hadid’s office and oversees twice-weekly studio sessions. “But you have to have the client’s vocabulary, or the challenge is something ridiculous.”

Students instantly adopted the developer’s vocabulary, but translating that into good architecture may happen more slowly. At midterm they proposed ingenious schemes for including retail space and attracting steady traffic to the stores. Several teams wanted to move buildings onto parts of the site that Pelli’s master plan leaves off limits; one even suggested additional buildings. Hines and his fellow instructors praised the students’ imagination but urged them to focus on architecture for the April 26 final review. Hines Europe managing director Jay Wyper—in a polite but firm tone reflecting years of conference calls—pointed out that Milan would not change the street layout to accommodate the luminous Champs-Elysées-style thoroughfare one team proposed. “It’s time to stop fighting the context,” he said, “and start designing buildings.”

But Stern is confident that the students will have produced more memorable designs by the final review, and he underscores that the Bass Fellowship’s blending of disciplines prepares students to work more effectively with clients whose needs are constantly evolving. “To produce environmentally sophisticated buildings with amazing shapes,” Stern says, “the practice in the twenty-first century will be much more collaborative.”

Even so, Hines gives architects special deference. “Outstanding buildings,” he says, “are the last to lose rented space.” It’s a lesson from a developer that—if the Bass Fellowship succeeds—could produce more innovative architects.

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