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Restoring a Gem of Architectural Modernism


Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut is known for its neo-Gothic campus, 20th century buildings in the style of medieval Europe. But the university is also home to several treasures of modern architecture, including the Yale University Art Gallery. The building was designed by a 20th century master, the Estonian-born architect Louis I. Kahn, whose reputation has only grown since his death in 1974.

Erected in 1953, the Yale University Art Gallery was American architect Louis Kahn's first major commission, when he was already over 50. Gallery director Jock Reynolds says it was also a departure for Yale. “It was something entirely new for Yale,” Reynolds said in an interview at the gallery. “It was the first modern bit of architecture in all of New Haven. And this building itself had some of the very first breakthroughs [in architectural design]. It was the first building to have track lighting, one of the first curtain-wall buildings, one of the first buildings with double-paned glass, one of the first buildings, in particular, with this unique, tetrahedral cast-concrete ceiling that you see above us."

The gallery, which is free and open to the public, displays some masterpieces of Western art, including paintings by Manet and Van Gogh, as well as ceramics, screens and paintings from Asian countries. It is also home to a major collection of African art, mainly sculptures and masks used in religious rituals. The building housed Yale's architecture school for many years, as well.

Kahn, a University of Pennsylvania professor, taught at Yale part-time -- when he wasn't designing other icons of modernism, including the Kimbell Museum of Art in Texas, the Indian Institute of Management, and Bangladesh's parliament building -- as well as another museum for Yale, the Center for British Art.

But over the years, the Yale University Art Gallery building grew shabby and cluttered with partitions. So, beginning in 2004, Reynolds oversaw a two-year restoration, re-opening the spaces to match Kahn's vision. "It has a warmth and an organic quality and a massiveness to it that you don't associate with some of the other modernist buildings,” Reynold says of Kahn’s work, “and, frankly, a sensitivity to human scale. The geometry of the building is robust throughout, and it’s subtle throughout. So, you get massiveness and you get delicacy. And it’s so often scaled to your own body and your own hand. These beautiful bricks that make up the wall are three by six inch bricks; they fit in the hand. They’re very unlike the great big bulky concrete bricks that people work with now for economy of scale and labor. And that’s true of practically all the materials in the this building.”

Louis Kahn died in 1974, but his influence can be seen everywhere in contemporary architecture. Yet Reynolds notes that unlike the sharp-lined buildings of many other modernists, Kahn's designs had an air of spirituality, like ancient monuments. "It was very much a reaching back into time, even to Egypt, and the pyramids and that kind of geometry and form that inspired Kahn,” Reynolds says. “Really, the ancients spoke to him, Greek, Roman and Egyptian."

Polshek Partnership Architects, a New York-based firm, oversaw the restoration of the Yale University Art Gallery. A show of contemporary sculpture chosen by a group of Yale students to celebrate the re-opening, Responding to Kahn: A Sculptural Conversation, includes works by Alexander Calder, Annette Lemiuex, Duane Hansen, Sol Lewitt, and Alison Saar, among others.

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