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Coming to Light
A great architect’s first great work is restored.

Photo tour by Richard Barnes

If you made it through your time at Yale without figuring out that the building Louis Kahn designed for the Yale University Art Gallery is a masterpiece of modern architecture, here’s some good news: it’s not your fault.

Within a few years of its completion in 1953, Kahn's seminal building underwent a series of alterations that hid its essence behind drywall partitions. This process continued for decades as offices, classrooms, and storage space ate up more and more square footage, making the building unrecognizable as the light-filled, free-flowing space Kahn had designed.

The restoration is more than an aesthetic improvement.

Which brings us to more good news: after a three-year, $44 million renovation, the Art Gallery and a team of architects have brought the building back to something like its original condition. Its glass exterior walls, which were plagued with condensation from the beginning, have been re-engineered so that they will stay dry and clear. Its interior spaces have been opened up to more closely resemble Kahn’s loftlike originals. And the concrete cylinder that houses the building’s main staircase—once hidden behind partitions in an effort to create extra storage space—is now exposed. “What you see now is a more open floor plan than the building enjoyed even in its 1953 debut,” says Jock Reynolds, the Art Gallery's director.

The restoration is more than an aesthetic improvement. It is also the fulfillment of a responsibility to architectural history. The building is the first important work by Kahn (1901-1974), a revered architect who is known for combining the abstract language of modernism with the weight and gravity of the ancient ruins he admired. Kahn built more resolved and mature works around the world in the two decades after he completed the gallery—among them the Kimbell Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California; the National Assembly building in Bangladesh; and Yale’s own Center for British Art—but the gallery was his first major commission at the late-blooming age of 50.

Kahn had practiced on his own in Philadelphia since 1935, but his built work consisted mostly of houses and small renovation projects. It was while teaching architecture at Yale that he was selected, in 1951, to design an addition to the Art Gallery’s 1928 building by Egerton Swartwout (now referred to as the Old Art Gallery or, more commonly, the Swartwout building). The addition would provide new exhibit space for the Art Gallery and studios for the School of Art’s city planning, architecture, and graphic design programs. His response—Yale’s first foray into modern architecture—was a series of open spaces interrupted by a cylindrical concrete stairwell and a rectangular core housing the elevator and mechanical equipment. The ceilings, which became the signature feature of the building, were concrete tetrahedra with openings for the placement of lighting for artworks (the first use of track lighting in a museum setting). For the display of art, Kahn’s friend and colleague George Howe, chair of the architecture department, devised a system of movable partitions called “pogo panels” because of the spring-loaded poles that held them in place.

The architects and museum staff sought to undo decades of alterations.

For all the innovation in the display of art, the building’s materials—concrete blocks, glazed bricks, window walls, and poured concrete—were just as forward-looking for their time. “It represented a new direction in modernism,” says Duncan Hazard '71, the lead architect for the renovation and a partner at the Polshek Partnership. “It was a kind of modernism that was more deeply connected with materials, structure, and the art of building.”

In renovating the building, says Reynolds, “we decided very early on that this building deserved to be treated as one of our greatest artworks.” The architects and museum staff sought to undo decades of alterations, including the roofing-over of a sunken courtyard at the corner of York and Chapel. (The restored courtyard proved just the right size for Richard Serra’s sculpture Stacks, which had dominated the sculpture hall of the Swartwout building since 1990.) A museum store and other intrusions on the first floor were removed so that visitors could take in the building’s elemental features—the stair cylinder, the window walls, and the ceiling—immediately upon entering. Much of the first floor is devoted to a generous lobby that Reynolds describes as a “living room” where students, faculty, and the public can “cool down and linger with art.”

Upstairs, curators have had the opportunity to rethink the display of their collections from scratch, and in some cases (Asian and African art in particular) more space. But the current arrangement will be relatively short-lived. After an addition to the Art and Architecture Building is completed, renovation work will begin on the Swartwout building and Street Hall. By 2010, the gallery will have exhibit space stretching across all three structures. “As happy as people are now about the Kahn building,” says Reynolds, “wait until 2010 if you want to really see this place in full bloom.”  the end  




What They Said

The project represents incredible flexibility while paying homage to its surroundings. … I’m impressed with the pure respect and humility of the building.

The existing gallery, built just 25 years earlier, was an Italian Romanesque palazzo designed by Egerton Swartwout, a Yale architect, and paid for by [Edward] Harkness. It had massive cornices and a heavy pitched slate roof. On the Chapel Street side, it featured large windows framed in compound arches of stone.

Kahn’s addition was … a box … of glass, steel, concrete, and tiny beige bricks. … In the eyes of a man from Mars or your standard Yale man, the building could scarcely have been distinguished from a Woolco department store in a shopping center. In the gallery’s main public space the ceiling was made of gray concrete tetrahedra, fully exposed. This gave the interior the look of an underground parking garage.

This building has many virtues. … It also has many questionable aspects, such as the awkward and perverse arrangement of a triangular staircase in a “silo,” which is both esthetically and physiologically uncomfortable and, as in the elevator hallways, an exposure of ducts which reminds one of Wright’s phrase, “indecent exposure.”

On Chapel Street, [the Kahn building's] undecorated brick façade meets the Italianate Gothic Swartwout building, a part of the museum complex, and defers to its elegant arches. … A stairway up to an entrance between two planes of the bronze-colored brick cleanses the visual palate, and prepares the visitor for the nearly devotional space within.

The great concrete frame looms over the gallery spaces, enforcing a sense of heavy physical pressure which had generally been absent from earlier modern architecture but which was coming into its own at that time in Le Corbusier’s late work. Kahn’s slab has therefore been described in part in terms of Le Corbusier’s “Brutalism,” which had a savagely primitivizing effect on buildings in cities during the following years. … But Kahn’s slab was not really that; it was more mathematical than animal, structural rather than sculptural.

The true revelation occurs when you step into the galleries. Every museum director and curator embarking on a new building project should be required to tour these rooms. The potent thrust of the concrete-beam ceiling draws you into them as if you were being lured into a sacred tomb. You gaze up in awe, and then turn to the paintings. … The stunning variety of the light and the tension between the forms and materials—the delicacy of the partitions, say, versus the brute weight of the concrete—keep us alert. Everything here feels warmly alive.


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