Across the street from Louis Kahn’s first significant piece of architecture stands his last. The Yale Center for British Art was completed in 1974, the year of Kahn’s death and 23 years after its neighbor, The Yale University Art Gallery was finished. A style and theoretical change throughout a career is visible in one scene.
Unlike most galleries, the design prompt for the Yale’s British Art Gallery called for very specific needs. Being part of an educational institution the agenda called for several learning oriented spaces. The program consisted of stipulations for exhibition space and storage space for paintings, sculpture, drawings and prints; a rare book collection; a research library; a photograph archive; an auditorium; classrooms; workshops and offices; and conservation facilities.
The exterior of the structure is clad in dull metal with intermittently penetrated by glazed openings. This gives the external surface an austere feel yet it still blends serenely with its institutional surroundings.
The transition to the interior is met by a mix of elemental spatial and material evolutions. The entrance sequence proceeds from outdoor expanse through a covered exterior space and into an interior courtyard with expansive ceilings. The warm brushed metal panels carry to the interior but are mingled with warm wooden cladding in a glowing top-lit space.
From this liberal space allotment the occupant is sent through a much more cavernous space in order to reach the galleries within. Straight ahead is a cylindrically enclosed staircase which seems the logical circulation path. However a circulation around this central stair leads to a central unreserved and open space.
Typical of Kahnian modernism the plan of the structure is based on a 20 foot square grid. This grid is used to create a series of rectangular and square galleries interconnected and overlooking a central courtyard space. The inner courtyards and upper galleries are naturally lit from by a system of gridded skylights.
Kahn’s thoughts on galleries had been developed throughout a career of institutional design. He believed that museums should be secondary entity that fades behind the artwork. It should pay homage to its holdings and display them well. The museum should be spread out and be completely free.