The Age of Modernism

MAY 22, 2020

New Haven is extraordinary for any number of things. One of which is its architecture. For a city of its size, New Haven boasts an inordinately wide array of building styles stretching across a period of nearly 300 years. But have you ever questioned why there are so many Modernist landmarks throughout our city?

Fueled by the passage of the American Housing Act of 1949, which in a nutshell provided enormous federal funding for urban redevelopment and slum clearance, the period of urban renewal moved ahead in full transformative force with the election of Mayor Richard C. Lee in 1953. A New Haven native, Lee understood with precision the nuances of procuring an unprecedented amount of federal funding to set about reshaping the landscape and lives of citizens.

Lee was not alone in his vision of the future though. Across the New Haven Green, Yale President A. Whitney Griswold created a legacy of incredible Modernist patronage, recruiting the premier architects of their time. Quoted as once saying, “I don’t need a master plan I just need great architects,” Griswold led an unprecedented expansion of Yale’s campus, sharply and often controversially breaking with the past. This was coupled with an embrace of the avant-garde and new European masters in the schools of art, design, and urban planning. Yale desired to expand its reach, physically and in academics. Armed with deep pockets and the brightest young architectural talent in the United States the campus spread rapidly across the city.

These architects used New Haven as a real time lab and classroom. They embraced and innovated in the styles of Modernism that were becoming common throughout post-World War II America. This group included among others, Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer, Kevin Roche, Eero Saarinen, and Louis Kahn. In what is often a primary criticism of Modernism, especially in the case of New Haven, the basic tenets rejected unnecessary ornamentation, embracing raw functionality and a thorough disconnect with the past. The structures were bold, heavy and distinct creating a fresh new skyline of the future.

New Haven’s embrace of Modernism wasn’t entirely a post-war circumstance. It had been planned for by the city since 1941 and was based on the contracted work of French-born Maurice E. H. Rotival. Rotival’s plan was a direct shift from the past. Inspired by Swiss architect Le Corbusier, the plan emphasized high-speed travel by highways and air, and an orderly re-zoned adaptation of the 17th Century colonial city for its survival in the future. Everything was to be in its right place, rather than the messiness of the natural growth of a radial city.

Ultimately the mid-century execution of the plan is not without its faults. The wholesale demolition and displacement of over a third of New Haven remains extremely divisive to this day. The means and disconnect by which we built our “city of tomorrow” sparked protest in the 1960s, and gave rise to the historic preservation movement. This movement helped to curb the massive demolitions and guide the city to embrace a more integrated viewpoint of development over time. Today, nearly 60 years later, mid-century Modernism has become part of the American canon of architecture and celebrated by many that once derided it. Love it or hate it, it’s part of what makes the Elm City what it is today.

Jason Bischoff-Wurstle
Director of Photo Archives, New Haven Museum

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