How the Restoration of Louis Kahn’s Yale Art Gallery Helped Kickstart Modern Preservation
I have a distinct memory from my days as an architecture student at the University of California Berkeley in the late ‘80s. During an architectural survey class taught by Spiro Kostof, Louis I Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery popped up in the slide show. “Nice building,” I thought, “but what’s with those windows?”
Fifteen years later at Polshek Partnership (now Ennead Architects), I would become the project architect for the construction phase overseeing the rehabilitation of that classic building—the most challenging aspect of which was to replace “those windows.” I came to understand, intimately, how the double-paned window wall had failed almost as soon as construction was complete. Condensation accumulated between the panes, creating the foggy effect that marred my first impression of this groundbreaking building.
It was Kahn’s first major commission and he was determined to make an idealistic statement. Indeed one could argue that that was the essence of modernism—to create singular works of art, even when the design pushed the architecture beyond its technological boundaries. While architects appreciated the importance of Kahn’s achievement, the failure of the glass window wall and “years of callous alterations” (as the New York Times put it) contributed to a generalized sentiment about modernist architecture that persists to this day: not all significant buildings are worth saving.
And yet at a time when the usefulness of these buildings was in doubt, more so than even today, Yale made a commitment to not only rehabilitate it but also seamlessly integrate it into a larger three-phase, $135-million project that reconfigured the entire Yale University Art Gallery, a process that would take almost 20 years to complete. For the other two wings, built in 1866 and 1928, the importance of treating those buildings with the utmost of care and reverence was not an argument anyone had to make. Rehabilitating the Kahn gallery was not a given at the time, but ten years after reopening, it has become known as one of the most significant efforts to conserve modernist architecture that is, even now, a rare achievement.
On the occasion of the ten-year anniversary of the Kahn gallery rehabilitation (the other two buildings were completed in 2012), I decided to take a look back at the lessons learned from restoring a modernist classic, as well as a look forward at the ongoing need for modernist preservation. My process involved reminiscing with James Stewart Polshek about his relationship with Kahn and his work; returning to all three galleries for a tour with senior deputy director Pam Franks (with whom I worked throughout the renovation); talking with architecture critic James Russell; and interviewing an architectural historian with DOCOMOMO about the work that still needs to be done to save modernist buildings.
Reflecting on the eight years that I oversaw the minutia that is the crux of historic rehabilitation work, I’ve come to realize that the most under appreciated aspect of the job is getting the contractors to care about the details—no easy task in this case considering they did not have much affinity for the Kahn wing.
Where they saw dull gray walls, I’d point out the subtle pink hue of the concrete, which resulted from the local sand used in the mixture. While they wrestled with the outdated track lighting, I’d point out its importance as the first known lighting system of its kind. When they grew impatient as we exhaustively researched replacement materials for the stairwell, I’d point out the beautiful geometry of the triangular risers ascending a five story cylinder—an iconic sculptural moment of tension and fluidity.
But it wasn’t until I had a breakthrough with the head electrician that I realized the importance of developing a shared vision with the very people who need to be the most invested in the details.
On one of many occasions when contractors grumbled about the irrationality of the building’s design, I talked about the documentary film My Architect, created by Nathaniel Kahn, the architect’s son, and released the year I began working on the gallery. As we struggled with the stairwell lighting over many weeks, much to my surprise the head electrician made a point of watching the film and sought me out to discuss it. Soon thereafter I saw a renewed vigor in his efforts to re-energize the upgraded lighting without creating a new exposed connection in the stairwell.
It is the creative execution of many such details that makes or breaks a historic rehabilitation, and if the contractors aren’t on board, the job is that much more challenging.
Replacing “those windows” was by far the most detail-oriented aspect of the Kahn gallery rehabilitation. Recreating the mullions of the new double-paned window wall to within an eighth of an inch became a particular obsession that even Polshek recalls to this day. “The reality is, an eighth of an inch may not be seen but it will be felt,” Polshek told me on a recent afternoon over coffee in the West Village. “The process we established set a standard of excellence that carried forward to other modern restorations.”
“I was there when it was a radical intervention on the campus,” he continued, recounting how he was a student when the Kahn gallery opened. “Forty-something years later, I was teaching at Yale when I was approached about rehabilitating it. I said yes immediately. It was the perfect combination of factors—allowing an interweaving of art and craft, a respectable study of the past but not an appropriation. At the time people felt like there was no real use for the building. It had a mysterious genesis. To me it was part of our time that had to be renewed. It was necessary. But the effort to duplicate the details was incredible.”
Mid-Century Midlife Crisis
On a gorgeous fall day, my partner, Chad Smith and I toured the art galleries with Pam Franks. It felt like a homecoming. As students bustled in and out through the lobby, Franks and I reminisced about the array of changes we worked on together, from accessibility and climate control to circulation.
As important as the details are, it’s always the big picture that drives a project of this scope. And the big picture is best articulated by Franks: “The three building complex, they all were originally built as galleries. So we had this incredible opportunity to recoup the institutional mission at the same time as expanding. With more space we could display collections that had never been seen.” She added, “It was really important to retain as much as was practical, but certainly to retain the spirit.”
Franks touches on an important philosophical construct of historic preservation that has evolved over time. It used to be that when something was replaced, it was intentionally made to look different to show that it was not part of the original. That approach gradually gave way to the idea that historic preservationists should go to heroic lengths to restore a building as closely as possible to its original materiality. But modernist preservation, with its technically failing architecture, pushed this notion beyond its workability.
It is this shift in preservation theory and practice that gave rise to DOCOMOMO, which stands for the documentation and conservation of the modern movement. The organization began in Europe but has only been in existence in the US for about 25 years.
“We’re at an interesting point with modern architecture conservation,” Meredith Bzdak, an architectural historian who serves on the Board of Directors of DOCOMOMO, said in an interview. “Hard to believe but it’s still a developing field. It’s such a huge percentage of our building stock. You want to preserve the best, but there’s a lot of stuff to sift through on campuses as well as about half the building stock owned by the government. I would like to see more of what Yale did with less significant buildings. It’s an uphill battle.”
“When buildings are 40, 50 years old,” she continued, “they’ve been lived with, there’s been some work done that is piecemeal, but they aren’t old enough that anyone has taken a hard look at them. So all the systems need to be replaced and they’re not seen in the best light at that age.” She started laughing as her analogy unspooled: “They are middle aged and not yet appreciated for their wisdom!”
Architecture critic James Russell, who wrote about the Yale art gallery rehabilitation for the New York Times, agrees. “Yale made an enormous commitment to a building that a lot of people didn’t like—but they do now that the renovation is done,” he told me. “There’s a lesson for others. I’m seeing a lot of ‘Brutalism is back’ articles. I’m not sure the general public has gone crazy yet. But when you see a sensitive redo, people realize it can be done. That’s the significance of the Kahn gallery rehabilitation.”
While on campus I visited the more recently re-opened Yale Center for British Art, one of the earliest Brutalist masterpieces by Kahn that sits across the street from the Yale Art Gallery. This restoration is also garnering rave reviews, and is arguably a more accomplished work, even though Kahn died of a heart attack in Penn Station before it was complete.
Polshek told me about the day he found out Kahn died unexpectedly. He was dean of Columbia’s architecture school when he got a call asking him to escort Kahn’s wife Esther to the morgue so she could identify the body. “It was a macabre reintroduction to Lou.”
“I always had an affinity for preservation,” Polshek continued, recalling how he established preservation as a degree-granting program at Columbia’s architecture school, the first of its kind in the US. “It had been a certificate that was looked down upon. But it’s a validation of history; there’s a political edge to it. When I went to school, modernism was a religion. Everybody who was going to be an architect was going to be a great designer. Preservation was all about craft. But I believe architecture is a craft. Always new, always different isn’t always better.”
I couldn’t agree more.
Featured image: photo by Elizabeth Felicella, courtesy of Yale University Art Gallery.