Detailing the Distinct Architecture of Yale-NUS
story David Chia, Arts Editor
In July 2010, Yale-NUS College’s parent institutions—Yale University and the National University of Singapore (NUS)—posed a challenge to Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and Forum Architects: “to design a residential liberal arts college contextualized in Asia in the 21st century.” Five years later, Yale-NUS students now live in their solution.
According to the design brief, Yale-NUS had to hybridize the Greek Academy tradition, with architectural sensibilities of the 21st century and of Asia. “Much like the educational mission of the College, the architecture of Yale-NUS is keenly attuned to its antecedents and committed to the ideas and responsibilities of today,” Fred Clarke, senior principal of Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, said. Indeed, this fusing of tradition and innovation from the East and West eventually led to the distinctive features of the campus.
Part of the challenge was approached by finding common elements of tradition between academies in the East and West. From the West, the architects focused on the integrated living and learning Greek tradition as seen at Oxford, Cambridge, and Yale. While for the East, the architects studied India’s Nalanda University and the Hanoi’s Temple of Literature architectural sensibilities.
Stoas, Courtyards and Sky Gardens
“One of the common elements that existed is the idea of the stoa and the courtyards,“ Mariko Masuoka, principal for academic projects and large-scale civic projects at Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, said. In both Asia and the West, courtyards, highlighted by colonnades, form nested academic communities that facilitate living and learning.
Yale-NUS takes this one step further. The courtyards at Yale-NUS interweave exterior and interior spaces to support the pedagogy of the college. Like the old tradition, the three residential colleges are animated around courtyards with processional entrances, sun and rain-screened colonnades and roof forms with detailed eaves.
Sense of intimacy and belonging
According to the July 2012 campus design brief, “residential colleges will serve as the social ‘home’ of the students, providing a sense of belonging that continues long after they complete their education.” This has led to a network of public and private courtyards interlaced with gates in and out of the residential colleges. “[The openings] are enclosed in such a way that they form a secondary courtyard within a network of courtyards,” Wong Chin Wah, Associate Director of Forum Architects, said. The choice to limit the number of openings into University Town (UTown) was deliberate to supplement the sense of belonging within the College. The sense of familiarity is supported by the visual transition from private to public. Visual cues such as sky gardens, gates, and residential college courtyards aid in the public-private separation therein facilitating the sense of intimacy. President Pericles Lewis said he liked how the courtyards and open passageways allow students to see one another from different sides of the building and engage more frequently.
Merging the Five-Foot Way and the New Haven Grid
Beyond a philosophical challenge, a huge part of the challenge is physical. The undulating topography of a 62,000-square-meter golf course caused problems in creating naturally ventilated walkways that connected the interior and exterior. The solution was inspired by the five-foot way vernacular of Singapore and urban grid structure of New Haven. The five-foot way found in many Singaporean shop houses was adopted into Yale-NUS to encourage pedestrian movement between buildings. Unlike the curviness of UTown, Yale-NUS is different in that it is in a grid structure, said Jane Jacobs, Director of the Urban Studies division at Yale-NUS.
Distinctive Woodwork and Traceries
The design brief also wanted the campus to “offer a special environment that overlays cultures and traditions.” The architects of Yale-NUS have gone out of their way to ensure the distinctiveness of every residential college—in its detail and materiality. The tropical Singaporean climate allowed for the sun- and rain-screened colonnades to create unique designs for each residential college. Each dining hall showcases vaulted ceilings with personalized wood articulations.
The materials used in each college are different: peach wood is used in Saga, cherry wood in Elm and teak in Cendana. These subtle expressions can be found in dining halls, common lounges, and butteries. Each furniture carries with it a cultural precedence that is either Western, Asian, or a hybridity of both. The precast concrete forming the exterior facade of the College contains patterned metalwork that differ by residential college. The Performance Hall resembles halls at Yale, and is clad in cherry wood commonly found in the Northeast America. The backdrop of the hall compresses the wood articulations of the dining hall ceilings of the residential colleges.
Horizontal to Vertical Typology
A distinctive departure from the horizontality of low rise residential colleges at Yale, Yale-NUS has invented a new vertical typology for the residential college system. Student housing and faculty apartments are vertically stacked onto faculty offices, dining halls, butteries and classrooms. This verticality could be traced back to the density of buildings in Singapore. Unlike Singaporean public housing, condominiums, and colleges at UTown, the towers at Yale-NUS are slender to allow for natural ventilation, said Tan Kok Hiang, Founding Director of Forum Architects. In an attempt to replicate the entryways at Yale, he added, each tower is separated into neighborhoods housing about 30 to 40 students. The outdoor stairway within each neighborhood serve the social purpose of drawing people together.
Cluster Skyscrapers and Syncopated Skyline
Towers mark the presence of an institution in the skyline, another commonality in the East and West. At Yale, the collegiate gothic-style Harkness tower, situated between Branford and Saybrook College, is extracted into more detail as it reaches the top. Yale-NUS takes on a different ‘feel’. At Yale-NUS, the cluster of mini skyscrapers deconstructs the Harkness tower and subtle sculptural tops celebrate the towers meeting the sky. A lot of thought is put into the way in which the building ends, said Mr. Clarke. Unlike the Petronas Twin Towers, another architectural project by Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects, the towers at Yale-NUS are lit from above instead of from below. “This is a new way to highlight the faces on top to give it more glow and body,” he added.
From Heaven to Earth
At the main entrance, an inward-sloping roof of grand scale forms a square oculus that draws in a dramatic cascade of rainwater into a large circular reflecting pool below it. While also drawing attention to the ecological features of the College and of tropical rainfall, the oculus is a sculptural contribution to Yale-NUS. Philosophically loaded, the oculus is a playful reversal. In Chinese symbolic tradition, circles refer to Heaven and squares refer to the Earth. At Yale-NUS, this symbology is reversed—the Heaven is brought down into the circular reflecting pool while the Earth is brought up. Rain, in many Asian cultures, is also a symbol of wealth and wisdom, said Ms. Masuoka. A highly refined piece of engineering, the inward-sloping roof modulates intense rain by funneling water in and through the square oculus.
Throughout the design process, “a learning landscape” has been a slogan that has stuck with Lekker Architects, the firm responsible for the landscaping of Yale-NUS. That slogan served a double meaning: it is a landscape in which people learn, but it is also a landscape for learning, said Joshua Comaroff, co-founder of Lekker Architects. The landscape served the educational purpose of introducing the larger social and historical context of biodiversity around the region. The elliptical courtyards at Yale are adapted, with a wide range of regional equatorial plant species. Within the lush landscape of the campus green lie six heritage trees—one of which is the Margaritaria indica, the only tree of its kind in Singapore. The Ecopond plays the role of filtering water runoff at UTown. Joshua Comaroff estimates that about 11% of University Town rainwater runoff is filtered at the Ecopond.
Reinforcing the distinctive features of each residential college, each courtyard is landscaped along a theme. The Saga courtyard is planted with species that are religiously significant in local and regional cultures such as the plumeria rubra, melaleuca cajaputi, often found in Hindu temples. The Elm courtyard contains palms and cycads, blending nicely with ferns that echo and stitch into the larger UTown landscape. Palms were also planted practically to avoid damaging the large utility cable that runs underneath the Elm courtyard. Finally, the Cendana courtyard is planted with species that contain culinary or medicinal values in regional cultures, including nutmeg, neem trees, and pandan, ginger, and curry plants.
A tribute to its ecological features—from biodiversity to architectural innovation—the College received the Greenmark Platinum Award from the Building and Construction Authority (BCA) in May 2013.
A Design of Learning and for Learning
Ultimately, the project of Yale-NUS was both a design in which people learned, but also a design for learning. The collaboration between Pelli Clarke Pelli Architects and Forum Architects reflect the academic mission and foundation the College. “Designing Yale-NUS is one of the most significant projects in education and for education in the 21st century,” Fred Clarke said.
Indeed, the confluence of architecture and cultural pressures that one finds at Yale-NUS pushes boundaries, embraces intersections, and echoes its context. “The campus is not simply a mash-up of architectural elements but rather a unique response to context,” said Ms. Masuoka. In both its process and product, the design of Yale-NUS is attuned to its antecedents and committed to the ideas and responsibilities of the 21st century. Openness to East-West hybridity and the balancing of tradition and innovation have resulted to a distinctive solution to a unique architectural challenge—all that’s left is the community within to enrich it with narratives.