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Louis Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art reopens after renovations

May 21, 2016

By all accounts the recently completed renovation of the Yale Center for British Art has set a high bar in the category of “sensitive restorations of iconic Modern architecture.” The Center is one of Louis Kahn’s final works, completed in 1977 by the firm Pellechia & Meyers after the architect’s death in 1974. It is situated directly across the street from another Kahn building, the Yale University Art Gallery, which opened in 1953 and was his first significant commission. The restoration has been almost 15 years in the making, starting in 2002 at the behest of the Center’s then new director Amy Meyers, who has now seen the project through to completion. 

The team did their homework before proceeding with physical intervention. For almost a decade, preservation architects Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee studied Kahn’s writings, plans and drawings related to the building, from which they produced a detailed conservation plan with recommendations for the renovation as well as for future upkeep of the site. This initial research uncovered information that aided the restoration team, led by George Knight of Knight Architecture, in bringing the building closer to Kahn’s original vision. One such example is the lifting of the “pogo” walls – movable walls that artwork is mounted to – off the ground, so that they appear to float. This change was based on a newly discovered drawing dated one month before Kahn’s death. In the Long Hall, the pogo walls were removed entirely to allow for a single, extended space with unobstructed views of the collection. Many elements of the restoration were exercises in restraint. When new wood was needed, Inskip and Gee refrained from staining it to match the original white oak, concluding that Kahn himself would not have specified stained wood.

Restraint is also an appropriate term to describe Kahn’s matured style, manifested throughout the building, including in its alternating matte gray steel and clear glass exterior. However, the centerpiece of the design is a classic Kahn element that recalls his earliest works: a textured concrete cylindrical stairwell that interrupts the refined space, drawing people to it, and eventually upwards, to the higher galleries.

While it was built to house the impressive British art collection of philanthropist Paul Mellon, the building is a work of art in its own right. The Center has dutifully documented the restoration effort both on their website and in a short video.

Whispers of Louis Kahn’s Vision at the Yale Center for British Art,” New York Times, April 28, 2016.

Yale Center for British Art, 1977, New Haven. © Richard Capsole