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AD Classics: Yale University Art Gallery / Louis Kahn

  • Architects: Louis Kahn
  • Location: 1123 Chapel St, New Haven, CT 06511, USA
  • Architect: Louis Kahn
  • References:,
  • Project Year: 1953
  • Photographs: Pfeiffer Partners and Levin & Associates Architects, Elizabeth Felicella

AD Classics: Yale University Art Gallery / Louis Kahn AD Classics: Yale University Art Gallery / Louis Kahn AD Classics: Yale University Art Gallery / Louis Kahn AD Classics: Yale University Art Gallery / Louis Kahn

From the architect. Known for his fusion of the International Style and personal poetic influences in his architecture, Louis Kahn is notably one of the most respected architects of the 20th century. He often worked alongside engineers and contractors, which enabled his innovative designs to be structurally sound while continually advancing towards a new refinement.

One of his more famous structures and the first significant commission of Louis Kahn, the Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven, Connecticut was designed when he was a visiting critic at the Yale School of Architecture as the first of three art museums to be designed and built. The project was built between 1951 and 1953.

longitudinal section
longitudinal section

With this Kahn was able to explore the ideas he had about transforming modern architecture which to him lacked the monumental and spiritual quality of ancient buildings. He was successful in his hopes of redefining architecture, as this building marks a significant turning point in the history of American museum architecture.

According to author Patricia Cummings Loud, “The commission brought about Kahn's discovery of structure, materials, and perhaps most important, the power of the forms he was capable of creating. The Yale Art Center served to catalyze many of his basic ideas and beliefs about architecture, both in words and in work.”

This art gallery is considered by historians to be a response to Kahn's desire for a new monumentality in the post-World War II period. His masterful sense of space and light worked to create structures that emotionally impacted those who encountered them, as he combined visually compelling spaces that varied under the transforming light during different times of the day.

While walking along the bordering street of the campus, the building's blank walls stand out against the neo-Gothic background of the university. 

As is apparent in this structure, Kahn typically tended toward heavily textured brick and bare concrete, which he wonderfully juxtaposes against more refined and pristine surfaces, like the large glass windows of this building beautifully lined by steel.

The front door is found in a recessed corner that is defined by an absent rectangle following the pattern of the glass fenestration. The door leads to a series of open loft spaces on the first floor, which flow horizontally until the space is broken by core circulation elements, including the main stair, elevator and mechanical core. The highly flexible space not only stores a portion of the University's art collection but also functions as a studio for architecture students.

The more prominent features of this building include the hollow concrete tetrahedral space-frame that allows for the omission of ductwork while also reducing the standard requirements regarding floor-to-floor height. 

His interest in pushing the boundaries with technology led him to design this waffle-slab that served as the floor of one room and just as functionally became the ceiling of another. The stairway in the center reflects the triangular patterns and lines of the exterior and also acts as an sculpture in the center of the gallery space.

Recently the art gallery underwent a three-year, $44 million renovation which hoped to restore the landmark to its original purity and integrity after years of repair and alterations. The hopes were to also update the building systems so that they may be of the most functional and optimal design.

© Elizabeth Felicella
© Elizabeth Felicella

The most laudable aspect of the renovation was the replacement of the signature window-walls of the building with a new system that addressed the original wall's technical shortcomings.The open-space layout of the galleries and the exterior courtyard were reinstated in the renovation, as well as the transformation of the first-floor lobby into a media lounge. 

third floor plan
third floor plan

The President of Yale University, Richard C. Levin says that the renovation “preserves and restores the architect's brilliant vision, and it also accommodates the Gallery's expanding scope and needs for many years to come.”

Said by New York architect Jeffry Kieffer, “Kahn's accomplishment was not the formal variation of elements as ends in themselves, but his constant ability to extract from this void means to express his belief in the institutions he was working for.”

west elevation
west elevation
Location to be used only as a reference. It could indicate city/country but not exact address. Cite:Megan Sveiven. "AD Classics: Yale University Art Gallery / Louis Kahn" 21 Oct 2010. ArchDaily. Accessed . <>