Yale University’s School of Architecture was in the midst of pedagogical upheaval when Louis Kahn joined the faculty in 1947. With skyscraper architect George Howe as dean and modernists like Kahn, Philip Johnson, and Josef Albers as lecturers, the post-war years at Yale trended away from the school’s Beaux-Arts lineage towards the avant-garde. And so, when the consolidation of the university’s art, architecture, and art history departments in 1950 demanded a new building, a modernist structure was the natural choice to concretize an instructional and stylistic departure from historicism. Completed in 1953, Louis Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery building would provide flexible gallery, classroom, and office space for the changing school; at the same time, Kahn’s first significant commission signaled a breakthrough in his own architectural career—a career now among the most celebrated of the second half of the twentieth century.
The university clearly articulated a program for the new gallery and design center (as it was then called): Kahn was to create open lofts that could convert easily from classroom to gallery space and vice versa. Kahn’s early plans responded to the university’s wishes by centralizing a core service area—home to the stairwell, bathrooms, and utility shafts—in order to open up uninterrupted space on either side of the core. Critics have interpreted this scheme as a means of differentiating “service” and “served” space, a dichotomy that Kahn would express often later in his career. As Alexander Purves, Yale School of Architecture alumnus and faculty member, writes of the gallery, “This kind of plan clearly distinguishes between those spaces that ... house the building's major functions and those that are subordinated to the major spaces but are necessary to support them.” As such, the spaces of the gallery dedicated to art exhibition and instruction are placed atop a functional hierarchy, above the building’s utilitarian realms; still, in refusing to hide—and indeed, centralizing—the less glamorous functions of the building, Kahn acknowledged all levels of the hierarchy as necessary to his building’s vitality.
Within the open spaces enabled by the central core, Kahn played with the concept of a space frame. He and longtime collaborator Anne Tyng had been inspired by the geometric forms of Buckminster Fuller, whom Tyng studied under at the University of Pennsylvania and with whom Kahn had corresponded while teaching at Yale. It was with Fuller’s iconic geometric structures in mind that Kahn and Tyng created the most innovative element of the Yale Art Gallery: the concrete tetrahedral slab ceiling. Henry A. Pfisterer, the building’s structural engineer, explains the arrangement: "a continuous plane element was fastened to the apices of open-base, hollow, equilateral tetrahedrons, joined at the vertices of the triangles in the lower plane.” In practice, the system of three-dimensional tetrahedrons was strong enough to support open studio space—unencumbered by columns—while the multi-angular forms invited installation of gallery panels in times of conversion.
Though Kahn’s structural experimentation in the Yale Art Gallery was cutting-edge, his careful attention to light and shadow evidences his ever-present interest in the religious architecture of the past. Working closely with the construction team, Kahn and Pfisterer devised a system to run electrical ducts inside the tetrahedrons, allowing light to diffuse from the hollow forms. The soft, ambient light emitted evokes that of a cathedral; Kahn’s gallery, then, takes subtle inspiration from the nineteenth-century neo-Gothic gallery it adjoins.
Of the triangulated, concrete slab ceiling, Kahn said “it is beautiful and it serves as an electric plug.” This principle—that a building’s elements can be both sculptural and structural—is carried into other areas of the gallery. The central stairwell, for example, occupies a hollow, unfinished concrete cylinder; in its shape and utilitarianism, the stairwell suggests the similarly functional agricultural silo. On the ceiling of the stairwell, however, an ornamental concrete triangle is surrounded at its circumference by a ring of windows that conjures a more elevated relic of architectural history: the Hagia Sophia. Enclosed within the cylinder, terrazzo stairs form triangles that mimic both the gallery’s ceiling and the triangular form above. In asserting that the stairs “are designed so people will want to use them,” Kahn hoped visitors and students would engage with the building, whose form he often described in anthropomorphic terms: “living” in its adaptability and “breathing” in its complex ventilation system (also encased in the concrete tetrahedrons).
Given the structural and aesthetic triumphs of Kahn’s ceiling and stair, writing on the Yale Art Gallery tends to focus on the building’s elegant interior rather than its facade. But the care with which Kahn treats the gallery space extends outside as well; glass on the west and north faces of the building and meticulously laid, windowless brick on the south allow carefully calculated amounts of light to enter. Recalling the European practice, Kahn presents a formal facade on York Street—the building’s western frontage—and a garden facade facing neighboring Weir Hall’s courtyard. His respect for tradition is nevertheless articulated in modernist language.
Despite their visual refinement, the materials used in the gallery’s glass curtain walls proved almost immediately impractical. The windows captured condensation and marred Kahn’s readable facade. A restoration undertaken in 2006 by Ennead Architects (then Polshek Partnership) used modern materials to replace the windows and integrate updated climate control. The project also reversed extensive attempts made in the sixties to cover the windows, walls, and silo staircase with plaster partitions. The precise restoration of the building set a high standard for preservation of American modernism—a young but vital field—while establishing the contentiously modern building on Yale’s revivalist campus as worth saving.
Even with a pristinely restored facade, Kahn’s interior still triumphs. Ultimately, it is a building for its users—those visitors who, today, view art under carefully crafted light and those students who, in the fifties, began their architectural education in Kahn’s space. Purves, who spent countless hours in the fourth-floor drafting room as an undergraduate, maintains that a student working in the space “can see Kahn struggling a bit and can identify with that struggle.” Architecture critic Paul Goldberger, who studied at Yale a decade after Kahn’s gallery was completed, offers a similar evaluation of the building—one echoed by many students who frequented the space: “its beauty does not emerge at first glance but comes only after time spent within it.”
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- DesBrisay, Lloyd. "The Renovation of Louis Kahn's Yale University Art Center: A Significant Moment for Architectural Preservation." ArchDaily. January 19, 2018.
- Goldberger, Paul. “Challenge and Comfort.” The Kenyon Review 31, no. 4 (Fall 2009): 23.