Sound and Truth: Yale Builds for Bells
Leading U.S. university
creates an architecture
of change ringing
by Jeremy Bates
A recent book, The New Residential Colleges at Yale: A Conversation Across Time, gives ringers good reason to rejoice. According to the book, a newly built tower at Yale University, in New Haven, Connecticut, features a “future belfry” that is designed for a “potential installation” of “change-ringing bells.”
A change-ringing tower at Yale would be the first in the Ivy League, and a leap forward for North American ringing. So we can hope that Yale will take the next step, and will announce an order of bells, fairly soon.
Even now, however, we can see that Yale has created an architecture of change ringing. Already this tower extols the Exercise. Yale’s new tower may point toward ringing’s academic future as a secular, ceremonial music; an audible branch of mathematics; a co-curricular laboratory for leadership; and a collaborative search for truth.
There is much to say about how the design of Yale’s new colleges will celebrate ringing, once bells are installed. But first, some background on New Haven and Yale, and on why a change-ringing tower there will be highly fitting.
New Haven: celestial city
New Haven, a city of 130,000 people in a metropolitan area of nearly a million, is a harbour town on the New England coast. The city was founded by Puritans from Massachusetts in 1638, when New York, to the southwest, was still New Amsterdam, a Dutch colony; and when Boston, to the northeast, was thought to be backsliding theologically.
Today New Haven is on I-95, the main New York–to–Boston highway, and on Amtrak’s principal train line.
New Haven was the first planned town in the United States. Its founders laid out a grid of four streets perpendicular to four streets, creating a nine-square plan, with eight squares surrounding a village green.
On the New Haven Green, there still is a picturesque row of three steepled churches: two Congregationalist and one Episcopal (Anglican).
The sacred precinct of the Green is now circled by secular, civic buildings: City Hall, a federal courthouse, and the public library.
To the west of the Green is Yale’s Old Campus. Yale University was founded by colonial charter in 1701. Its establishment fulfilled the vision of a city founder, John Davenport, who had attended Merton and Magdalen, and had dreamed of a college in New Haven.
Originally called the Collegiate School, the young institution gained its name in 1718, when Elihu Yale, an East India Company merchant and former Madras governor, donated books, a portrait and coat of arms of George I, and nine bales of goods worth £562.
Ever since a boat race in 1852, Yale has been Harvard University’s athletic and academic rival. Harvard’s motto is veritas (“truth”); Yale’s Latin motto is lux et veritas (“light and truth”). Yale wags insist that Harvard may have the truth, or part of it, but lacks the light to read it.
Along with light, Yale has liquidity: its Endowment totals $27.2 billion. The Yale Endowment allows the university to admit undergraduate applicants (domestic and international) without regard to applicants’ ability to pay. Yale then provides need-based financial aid on the basis of individual need assessments.
Yale enrolls 12,500 students—in an undergraduate division, a graduate school of arts and sciences, and 11 other graduate and professional schools, including business, engineering, environmental studies, law, and medicine. Nearly 3,000 Yale students are international, among them 58 undergraduates from the UK.
Religion, British studies, music
Over its 300-year history, Yale has developed particular strengths in, among other things, religion, British studies, and music.
Founded so that youth “may be fitted for Publick employment both in Church and Civil State,” Yale in 1822 grouped its theological faculty into what would become Yale Divinity School.
The largest, most comprehensive collection of British art outside the UK is free and open to the public at the Yale Center for British Art, a silvern and serene museum in downtown New Haven.
A sister institution, the Paul Mellon Centre for Studies in British Art, is a Yale outpost in Bedford Square, London.
Yale’s graduate School of Music was founded in 1894. Thanks to a $100 million gift in 2005, the Yale School of Music charges no fees for instruction. Similarly, a donation to Yale in 1973 endowed an Institute of Sacred Music, which trains church organists and singers. There is also a museum Collection of Musical Instruments that contains 180 bells.
Memorial Quadrangle: carillon venue
That Collection does not, however, hold all of Yale’s bells.
After the First World War, in order to house more undergraduates, Yale built a Memorial Quadrangle. This collegiate-Gothic complex—really six quadrangles—is crowned by the 216-foot Harkness Tower, modeled on Lincolnshire’s famous Boston Stump.
Residential colleges: Oxbridge analogues
Over the past century, the Memorial Quadrangle has influenced other Yale buildings.
In the 1930s, Yale decided to house all undergraduates in a further series of collegiate quads. These lack the academic independence of Oxbridge colleges; hence Yale’s term for them: “residential colleges.” Each college houses several hundred students, some fellows, and a head of college. Each has a dining hall, library, common room, and co-curricular spaces like art studios and music-practice rooms.
In 2008 Yale announced a plan to expand again, with two more colleges. The project was delayed a few years by the financial crisis; but it resumed in 2013, after Charles Johnson, class of 1954, pledged $250 million.
Yale sited these colleges between its core campus, focused on the arts and humanities, and a northern group of buildings known as Science Hill. On this interstitial site, Yale intended the new colleges to help unify the university, both intellectually and urbanistically.
The site had previously been occupied by Berkeley Divinity School, an Episcopal seminary (now affiliated with Yale) that had summoned students to chapel with a bell; and by a 1901 metallurgical laboratory, the roof of which had a copper cornice with a raised-hammer motif.
The location thus has Anglican, percussive, and metallic antecedents.
RAMSA: traditionalist architects
To design the colleges, Yale chose Robert A.M. Stern Architects (“RAMSA”), a firm skilled in traditional styles. At the time, RAMSA was designing a neo-Georgian chapel and eight-bell tower for Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. (See Ringing World 5346.)
For inspiration in New Haven, RAMSA looked to Yale’s past. Like Memorial Quadrangle, the two new colleges would be a series of quadrangles in an English Gothic mode. Also like Memorial Quadrangle, they would feature a tall tower. But would it be a bell tower?
As the colleges were constructed, favorable evidence emerged. In early 2016, the builders began to outline bell-friendly spaces: a high-ceilinged seminar room that can double as a ringing room, a steel-beamed bell chamber, a 20-foot space above for the sound to mix and rise, and a sound lantern.
Names and shields
In April 2016, Yale named its new colleges.
Yale named one college for Benjamin Franklin, the 18th-century printer, journalist, scientist, and statesman. Yale named the other college—the one with the bell tower—for Pauli Murray, the 20th-century human-rights activist, lawyer, poet, and priest.
Both Franklin and Murray were change agents, and had connections to bells.
Franklin exercised with a dumbbell and used bells in his electricity experiments. In the 1750s he led a campaign to install bells at Christ Church, Philadelphia. And as a Fellow of the Royal Society, Franklin made recommendations on how to protect St. Paul’s Cathedral, London, from lightning strikes.
Murray, the first African-American woman ordained an Episcopal priest, was among the first women priests in the Anglican Communion. Her ordination took place in 1977 at Washington Cathedral. It was another barrier broken in a trail-blazing life. Decades earlier, Murray had refused to move to the back of a segregated bus, and was arrested for it, long before Rosa Parks did the same. Later Murray compiled States’ Laws on Race and Color, which Justice Thurgood Marshall called the “bible” for civil-rights litigators.
In July 2016, Yale unveiled heraldic shields for the new colleges.
The shield for Benjamin Franklin shows a bend rompu: a lightning bolt or perhaps, to ringers, a treble-bobbing line.
According to Yale, the Pauli Murray shield contains a “counterchanged” circle of inclusion, and spurs to social change. Alternatively, one can read the Pauli Murray shield as a Eucharistic wafer and a bejeweled cup. Or it may abstractly represent a change-ringing tower, with a circle of ringers below and a rope running to a wheeled belfry above.
Bass Tower: “bell tower”
Then Yale named the new tower Bass Tower. Edward Bass, class of 1967, generously supported the new colleges, and has captained other efforts to unify Yale and beautify it.
As the scale of Bass Tower became clear, the press began to anticipate bells.
In June 2016, the architectural critic of the Hartford Courant, Connecticut’s leading newspaper, called Bass Tower a “bell tower.” Then the Yale Daily News—the undergraduate newspaper—was told that Bass Tower contains the “infrastructure” for bells. In December 2016, the Washington Post likewise described it as a “bell tower.”
In August 2017, with the colleges complete, the critics began to react. The reviews largely depended on whether the critics liked RAMSA’s traditionalism—but several reviews echoed the point that Bass Tower is a bell tower.
On the skeptical side, Alexandra Lange, writing for Curbed, called the colleges a “missed opportunity” for contemporary architecture. She tried to convey disdain:
Stand at the end of the walkway between Yale University’s two new residential colleges, and you will see what looks like an illustration for a bedtime story. Lines of lampposts and young trees soften the red brick and stone facades, punctuated by the occasional gable. At the far end, a Gothic bell tower, with four layers of round arches, reaches into the sky.
Blair Kamin, writing for the Chicago Tribune, did not mention bells explicitly. His verdict, however, was suggestive: “Architecture can—and should—be evaluated by its ability to make memorable places. The new colleges perform admirably along these lines.”
More enthusiastic was Peter Lyden, of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, who wrote that RAMSA’s design “builds upon a mode of Gothic architecture that harkens” to the university’s pre-war buildings. “The bell tower at Pauli Murray College, for example, reflects Yale’s iconic Harkness Tower, and also serves as an important visual landmark, connecting the new colleges with rest of the campus.”
Indeed Bass Tower anchors the view up York Street from Yale’s art museums, to the south, and the view from the laboratories of Science Hill, to the northeast. If you are driving west on I-95, then from the bridge over New Haven Harbour, Yale’s new tower is perfectly framed.
Nevertheless, Christopher Hawthorne of the Los Angeles Times decried Yale’s “Hogwarts-style dormitories.” He seemed to find Yale’s “Gothic illusion” too easy or too comfortable. To Hawthorne, good architecture “should concentrate your attention and your judgment, not anesthetize them.”
Which raises the question: How can a building concentrate our attention and our judgment?
Cornhill, Limehouse, Spitalfields
All this brings us back to the recent book.
The New Residential Colleges at Yale: A Conversation Across Time was written by RAMSA’s namesake and éminence grise, former Dean of the Yale School of Architecture Robert A.M. Stern; and by architectural historian Gideon Fink Shapiro. The book was edited by Stern’s colleagues at RAMSA.
It’s really three books in one. The first third is a lavishly illustrated essay on Yale’s architectural history. Here Stern and Shapiro justify Yale’s preference for a traditional style, and explain why RAMSA happily opted for neo-Gothic. This first part is almost RAMSA’s riposte to reviewers like Hawthorne and Lange.
The middle third describes RAMSA’s design process. Notably, RAMSA here confirms that “The crown of the tower is reserved for the potential installation of a set of manually operated change-ringing bells.” (NRCY:CAT at 100.)
To readers unfamiliar, RAMSA explains that “Change ringing bells differ from carillon bells, such as those in Harkness Tower, in that they are rung by a group of ringers pulling ropes in a full circle, beginning from a bell-upward position.” (Id. (bolding added).) This description sets forth major themes—“group,” “full circle,” and “bell-upward position”—that distinguish change ringing.
The architects also say that Bass Tower “steps back significantly as it rises from the lower half . . . to the future belfry and the ornamental crown accentuated with corner finials, a profile that is very English in its quirkiness.” (Id. at 168.)
For precedents, RAMSA points to several London bell towers:
The arched opening and corner finials of Bass Tower bear a certain resemblance to those of the Hawksmoor-designed tower of St. Michael, Cornhill—a medieval parish church in the City of London that was rebuilt in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth cent[u]ries—but the deeply setback crown of our tower more aptly recalls Hawksmoor’s towers of the London churches of St. Anne’s Limehouse, St. George in the East, and Christ Church Spitalfields. [(Id.)]
Ornament and lighting
The last third of the book is a portfolio of photographs of the project as built. These images prove that bells are a theme of the new colleges’ ornamentation.
One photo shows a staircase newel that mimics a Venetian campanile. Another shows the door to the new tower—and chiseled into the stone above the door, eight solfège hand signals. (These two images, and over 200 more, are available at the OTTO archive; just search for <Pauli>.)
We see, carved in the mantel of the Franklin dining-hall fireplace, the lyrical line, “It was just one of those things.” You will catch the reference if you know the music of Yale alumnus Cole Porter.
Peter Pennoyer, writing in The New Criterion on “Yale’s Sense of Place,” says that Stern chose this lyrical inscription himself.
Another Franklin engraving quotes a line from Yale’s alma mater: “Time and change shall naught avail to break the friendships formed at Yale.”
One cannot imagine a better plea that students tolerate extended change ringing from a nearby tower.
From the walkway between the colleges, pedestrians can see a bell curve, as generated by a quincunx or Galton board.
To the left of one of the gates to Pauli Murray College is the common room, which includes comfortable chairs, a piano, and a fireplace.
Above this fireplace, the mantel shows a bell, wheel, and clapper. To quote RAMSA’s book, the bell is about to swing “in a full circle, beginning from a bell-upward position.”
Even the new colleges’ custom-designed lighting can be read to refer to bells.
The bronze-tinted chandeliers in the Pauli Murray dining hall have two circles of eight lights each, suggesting eight ringers below and eight bells above. The servery has a further circle of eight globe lights in tones of copper and brass.
And in both of the new colleges, hundreds of lighting fixtures have a Y motif, for Yale.
And the Ys are both up and down, suggesting bells that swing.
All the decorative hints have not been overlooked by the new colleges’ founding undergraduates. They have begun to establish certain community traditions.
The students in Pauli Murray, for example, have chosen their mascot: the lemur. Their choice is in part a play on Pauli Murray. But the undergraduates have donned lemur costumes—and the college lemurs are ring-tailed, with tails that look like sallies.
The students in Benjamin Franklin have been enjoying their new piece of public art—a statue of Benjamin Franklin, sitting on a bench and reading a newspaper.
The statue ostensibly has nothing to do with ringing. Yet both Franklin and his bench are cast in bronze.
Sonus et veritas
In sum, although Yale has yet to announce a bell order, in recent years its donors, architects, staff, and students have done the remarkable. Together they have created a community that not only could accommodate, but also could celebrate, change ringing.
So it seems that someday a Yale band will have a ringing venue in New Haven, and that Yale will someday join the ringing world. This prospect is good news for the Exercise.
It is also good news for Yale. After all, change ringing enables people to collaborate in working out a kind of truth. To us ringers, “truth” has a very specific meaning. Yet by insisting on truth, change ringing reinforces the academic mission.
Universities are built to search for truth; that is what they do.
And they insist on this. Yale for example often communicates its Latin motto—lux et veritas, light and truth—visually. No Yale publication is complete without a photo of a campus building at dusk, aglow with lux—and so, by association, radiating truth.
Well, Yale now has another such metaphor. With its new tower, Yale is poised to express truth in sound—in sound that unites engineering and divinity, math and music, algorithm and rhythm, science and art.
By building a tower in a place in between, Yale has unified its campus and nobly lifted up the work of many disciplines. When the bells go in, and Yale gathers together to find truth in music, Yale will have attained a new sense of itself.
Text copyright 2018 by Jeremy Bates. Created 8.18.18; last revised 8.28.18.