Published: December 5, 2006
“My father was only 5 feet 6 inches, but he cast a long shadow in New Haven,” Nathaniel Kahn says in the opening minutes of My Architect , his Academy Award-nominated documentary about his father, architect Louis I. Kahn.
Kahn was teaching at Yale in the early 1950s when he was asked to design a new building to house the university art gallery. It was an important commission, one originally intended for Eero Saarinen. Founded in 1832 by John Trumbull, the artist and Revolutionary War soldier who is interred in the museum, the institution is the oldest of its kind in the Western Hemisphere, as well as one of the richest. Its 185,000-work trove — featuring 21,000 examples of American painting, sculpture and decorative arts alone — ranges from ancient Egyptian and Greek objects to Impressionist, Modern and contemporary masterpieces. Among them, Vincent van Gogh’s “The Night Café” of 1888 is known around the world.
Yale is similarly renowned for its architecture. The 260 buildings that make up its 310-acre campus in downtown New Haven represent a progression of styles from the 1750s to the present. In 1933, Yale opened its first seven residential colleges, inspired by Gothic structures at Oxford and Cambridge Universities in England. Georgian, Colonial Revival and Gothic Revival design predominate on Yale’s campus.
The gallery, Louis Kahn’s first major work, opened in November 1953. Radical for its time, the Modernist structure presented a spare, opaque face to Chapel Street. Its sides and back were transparent but hardly unadorned. Kahn fitted rectangular glass plates of alternating sizes into a Mondrian-like grid of steel. He chose glass because he wanted the building’s interiors — originally meant to house galleries, studios and classrooms — to be flooded with natural light.
A consummate artist but a hapless businessman, Kahn died nearly penniless in 1974, at age 73. His last building initiated in his lifetime, the Yale Center for British Art — housing the late Paul Mellon’s collection, unsurpassed outside the United Kingdom — opened in 1977, across the street from the Yale University Art Gallery. Two blocks from the town’s 1650 green, the buildings are an architectural treasure like no other. Bookends to Kahn’s career, they provide an exquisite precis of an unmatched talent.
On December 10, Yale University Art Gallery’s Kahn Building will reopen to the public after a three-year renovation costing $44 million. The project was directed by the New York City-based firm Polshek Partnership Architects. The firm’s founding partner, James Polshek, studied with Kahn. The partner-in-charge of the project, Duncan R. Hazard, trained at Yale and was uniquely sensitive both to Kahn’s intentions and to the building’s place in the university’s history.
Born in Estonia, Louis Kahn received a rigorous classical training at the University of Pennsylvania. After completing his graduate studies, he visited the French city of Carcassonne, whose medieval stone fortifications are echoed in many of his designs. The architect’s best known buildings include the Jonas Salk Institute (1959–1965) in La Jolla, Calif., and the Kimbell Art Museum (1967–1972) in Fort Worth, Texas, widely considered to be his masterpiece.
“He was after symmetry, order, geometric clarity, primitive power, enormous weight. God is in the work. It has to be perfect. It can’t be impatient. It’s timeless,” Vincent J. Scully Jr, Sterling professor emeritus of history of art and architecture at Yale, explains in My Architect .
Like most of Kahn’s designs, the gallery is emphatically geometric. More horizontal than vertical, it is four stories tall with a basement level for collections storage, offices and work areas. Over the years, partitions and other additions obscured Kahn’s original scheme, which was meant to be open and loftlike.
The building’s “aesthetic icon,” as Hazard calls it, is its tetrahedron ceiling, a kind of hollow concrete grill that, in its relentlessly repeating geometry, is almost Islamic in spirit. Influenced by Buckminster Fuller’s designs for a geodesic dome, Kahn chose the tetrahedron because it is the most stable form in nature.
A circular staircase with a triangulated core is another of the building’s signature motifs. Kahn’s design borders on the mystical in its reduction of form to universal geometric shapes. The architect repeated the motif at the British Art Center.
Aesthetics are only half the story. In his use of materials and his approach to technical problems, Kahn was a visionary. He used the hollow concrete ceiling to hide the building’s electrical and ventilating systems. It was an ingenious device, but one that discouraged renovation.
“Simplicity, clarity, purity — this is the great success of the building. Kahn was innovative in terms of wanting to integrate technology into interstitial spaces,” says project manager Steven Peppas of Polshek Partnership.
“It is clear the more you work on the building that it is really the result of a brilliant architect figuring things out, in many cases figuring things out for the first time,” says Duncan Hazard.
“We wanted to expand the museum and make our collections more accessible. When we began planning these renovations, less than two percent of our collection was on view. We also needed more accessible storage and classrooms. It was a real challenge,” says Jock Reynolds, the Henry J. Heinz II director of the museum.
A decision was made to restore flexibility to the galleries by removing partitions and relying where possible on Kahn’s original spring-loaded “pogo” walls, which can be put up in any configuration.
“A lot of what has happened is hopefully invisible to you,” Reynolds says of the structural modifications.
“The exterior window wall was a great challenge. It was beautiful but always troubled. It did not tolerate expansion and the glass almost immediately began to fail,” says Hazard. Polshek Partnership replaced the steel frame of the window wall with an aluminum one that is thermally broken by a synthetic material, so that the fluctuations in external temperature that previously resulted in condensation and corrosion have been minimized. New expansion joints installed throughout the building relieve the pressure that previously caused floor slabs to crack and glazing seals to fail.
The original air distribution system was cleaned and reused, exhibit lighting capacity increased and made more flexible, and climate control and security systems brought up to contemporary museum standards. The museum also got compressible storage for art, a new elevator big enough for even sizable contemporary works and a kitchen that can cater gatherings of up to 120 people.
“The fourth floor is going to be the real workhorse of the museum,” says Reynolds. A space devoted to prints, drawings and photographs is twice its previous size and new classrooms have been added.
The lobby, which used to feel dark and cramped, is now airy and light. The restored York Street courtyard showcases “Stacks,” a 1990 sculpture by Richard Serra. The rear of the museum overlooks a newly expanded sculpture garden presenting works by Tony Smith, Joel Shapiro, Martin Puryear, William Tucker, David Smith and Louise Nevelson.
Curators have been busy reinstalling the museum’s permanent collection, incorporating important new acquisitions, such as the 586-piece Charles B. Benenson gift of African art, a Fourteenth Century Japanese hanging scroll, a painting by Pontormo and an etching by Jasper Johns.
To celebrate the gallery’s reopening, Yale has organized several temporary exhibitions: “Responding to Kahn: A Sculptural Conversation,” on view through July 8; “Jasper Johns: From Plate to Print,” on view through April 1; and “Making a Mark: Four Contemporary Artists in Print,” also on view through April 1. Through January 14, Yale is also presenting the continuing exhibit, “To Know the Dark: American Artists’ Visions of Night,” featuring works by Ralph Albert Blakelock, Oscar Bluemner, Winslow Homer and Edward Hopper, among others.
The renovation of the Kahn Building is part of the Master Plan for the Yale Arts Area, a ten-year program to renovate and expand all of the university’s art facilities, making them more accessible to the academic community and the public at large.
“Yale is unique in that it has schools of art, architecture, drama and music, as well as two art galleries. This is an unprecedented challenge to bring it all together,” explains Barbara A. Shailor, Yale’s deputy provost for the arts.
“Our biggest challenge is to anticipate not just what will satisfy our needs for the next ten or 15 years but to think about what Yale might be doing now to set the tone for collecting, teaching and working with art,” says Reynolds.
With the forthcoming renovation of two other historic structures that, together with the Kahn Building, comprise the Yale University Art Gallery, the eloquent architectural conversation along Chapel Street continues.
Yale University Art Gallery is at 1111 Chapel Street. For information, 203-432-0600 or www.artgallery.yale.edu.
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