For more than 40 years, students at the Yale School of Architecture have designed and built structures for low-income communities. For more than a decade, the program, now called the Vlock Building Project, has focused on building houses for low-income residents in New Haven, Connecticut. The building project is integrated into the first year of the masters of architecture program, giving students a crash course in collaborative design processes, construction, and community outreach. A recent mugging on the site this year’s house caused the university to take the unprecedented step of abandoning the location, forcing the school of architecture to rush to salvage the project and the students’ learning experience.
In mid-May, the building project team had just finished the foundation for a house at 32 Lilac Street in the Newhallville neighborhood. Then-83-year-old architecture professor Paul Brouard was assaulted and robbed at the building site. He was taken to the hospital and has since fully recovered. Building project director Adam Hopfner immediately met with Yale School of Architecture dean Robert A.M. Stern and associate dean John Jacobson to devise a plan to continue work. Their plan included transportation to and from the site as well as security anytime students or faculty were working on the house.
The matter didn’t end there. “The decision left the school and moved up to the top of the university,” said Hopfner. Simultaneous to those meetings, outgoing Yale president Richard Levin and incoming president Peter Salovey met with the chief of the Yale Police, who determined that the safety of students and faculty could not be absolutely guaranteed. They then overruled the school of architecture’s plan and ordered that the Lilac Street site be abandoned.
“I am saddened by the decision,” Hopfner said, “we broke our commitment to the Newhallville community.” Faculty and students had done significant outreach to the area, including hosting a block party, meeting with neighbors, and developing programs for homeless youth from a neighborhood shelter. Last year the building project constructed a house two blocks from the Lilac Street site.
Working with the city of New Haven and non-profit partner Neighborhood Housing Services, Hopfner was able to secure a new site in a university-approved neighborhood, West River. “The students have been wonderful,” Hopfner said. “I told them, this is a test of the prototypicality of your design.” In order to preserve an existing tree on the new site, they mirrored the plan to accommodate a curb cut. The students have also devised a way to prefabricate many of the elements off-site so they can speed up construction.
The contrast between Yale, a wealthy university, with New Haven, a largely poor and working-class city, is stark. The University’s decision—made during the transition of presidents—underscores that strain, as well as the limits of architecture to transcend societal problems.