The Yale Center for British Art. Image: Richard Caspole
In 2002, the leadership of the Yale Center for British Art began a process that culminated on Wednesday with the release of a conservation plan by Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee of Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins Architects. The building, completed three years after the 1974 death of its architect, Louis Kahn, is perhaps one of the greatest structures of the last half of the twentieth century, and shows the directions Kahn was headed as he reached the apogee of his career. Though the building was in good condition, the Building Conservation Committee was formed in order to preserve what the leaders of the Center for British Art see as one of the best works of art in their collection. Read more.
The plan, released yesterday in book format (though it will soon be available on line, gratis), begins with a detailed look at the site’s history and Kahn’s design process. Due to its location in downtown New Haven, Connecticut, the building was initially seen as a transgression by Yale University into the city proper, as the New Haven city government worried about losing commercial revenue from the demolition of existing buildings. And Kahn’s initial design didn’t do much to dispel worry, stretching from street to street across a city block. However, due to the economic crisis of the early seventies, and the reluctance of donor Paul Mellon to donate more money, the scope of the project was narrowed and the present design was reached.
Standing on the corner of High and Chapel Streets, the building is a four-story block of concrete, black steel, and white oak, and though its material palette might seem brutal, its presence in New Haven is at once public and prestigious, fitting in nicely to the scale of the street yet standing out as a unique architectural masterpiece. The ground floor is made up of shops and restaurants, as visitors to the galleries enter from a recessed portico at the street corner. From here, visitors experience Kahn’s signature design moves: a poetic sequence of epic spaces, with meticulous attention paid to expressions of light and material.
The Entrance Court. Image: Richard Caspole
The first of these epic spaces is the Entrance Court, a full-height room covered in skylights and open to the galleries that surround it. Here, Kahn’s subtlety can be read in his use of coded materials—black steel for commercial spaces and white oak for gallery spaces—and his structural exhibitionism as columns get thinner and recessed as they rise overhead. Strong shafts of light and shadow rake over the surface of the wood, providing a strong contrast to the diffuse light in the rest of the building.
From this first court, visitors proceed into the main stair, a square form placed within a cylindrical container. Steps of travertine contrast with the concrete structure, rising up to the stair ceiling crowned in a glass-block grid. From the attached galleries, views reach out across the Entrance Court and out to the surrounding city, anchoring art-viewers and avoiding "museum fatigue."
The Library Court. Image: Richard Caspole
From the second floor, visitors can access the Library Court, an august space meant to evoke the grand rooms of English houses, with walls covered in paintings. Here, the staircase is visible as a simple form, a cylinder contained in the greatness of the room. The stair is not structural, and Kahn made sure this was known by detaching it from the ceiling. Hence, it becomes a piece of sculpture, again serving as an anchor for the surrounding gallery, library, and conservation areas.
Thus, the duty of the conservation plan was to at once preserve the distinctive character of the building while allowing for changes to accommodate its growth. Inskip and Gee rated the significance of each space of the building, judging which could be allowed to change and which were to be meticulously conserved. Their recommendations will serve as guidelines for the foreseeable future, and are flexible enough to prevent stagnation.
One of the most challenging aspects to preserving the building is the unique materials that Kahn specified. The black steel used as cladding is irreplaceable: no one remembers how to make it, even the foundry that first produced it, and only three extra panels remain. Similarly, the carpet is made of un-dyed sheep’s wool; reproducing the color is impossible, and so replacement wool is being sourced from New Zealand flocks. Meanwhile, the concrete has been stained by the impressions of thousands of school children and the leaning stance of the center’s security guards.
The Fourth-Floor Gallery. Image: Richard Caspole
For now, the rehabilitation and renovation of the Center’s glorious spaces will continue floor-by-floor into the next 20 years, giving this building a longevity fit for an work of its status, and allowing its legacy to project far into the future. As another Kahn work is finally completed in New York—the FDR Four Freedoms Park—the long-term conservation of the Yale Center for British Art will allow the poetics of Kahn’s spaces to be felt for a long time to come.
Special thanks to Stephen Gee and the Yale Center for British Art leadership for their hospitality and the remarkable tour.
All images by Richard Caspole, Yale Center for British Art Photographer, and are from Louis I. Kahn and the Yale Center for British Art: A Conservation Plan by Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee