In July, Deborah Berke, one of the most sought-after contemporary architects working today, takes over as dean of the Yale School of Architecture. The moment is perfectly timed, given that she starts the job hard on the heels of the reopening of the Yale Center for British Art, designed by Louis I. Kahn. She calls Kahn’s 1977 masterpiece “spectacular, one of my favorite buildings in the world.”
“When I first started teaching at Yale,” says Berke, harkening back to 1987, “one day there was no classroom space in the Paul Rudolph building for my materials class, and they told me, ‘Use that building across the street.’” They meant the Yale Center and the gig began her lifelong appreciation of it.
In May, the Center for British Art emerged from a $33 million conservation that perfected its greatest quality—a spectacular diffused light—and fixed many hidden problems. Now everyone can better see what Berke sees.
“My ongoing love for the building, beyond the composition and the jaw-dropping entry space, is in the detail of the materials,” she says. “Wood, concrete, metal, glass. Every inch of how it comes together is absolutely perfect.”
The center is more than 114,000 square feet and occupies a fascinating place in Kahn’s biography: He died in 1974, so it was completed after his passing. And it’s literally across the street from his first museum—indeed, his first commission of any kind—the 1953 Yale University Art Gallery.
There’s been something of a resurgence of interest in Kahn, with the documentary My Architect and the renovation of his other buildings, like the Temple Beth El in Chappaqua, New York, which received an addition by the architect Alexander Gorlin in 2012.
Kahn is probably best known for his design of Fort Worth’s Kimbell Art Museum, and for architecture fans who know only that, Yale is really the place to see how he perfected his elegant museum designs.The outside of the Center for British Art, constructed from matte steel and glass, isn’t particularly eye-catching—inside is where it comes to life. Using limited materials—foremost his beloved concrete but also travertine, white oak, Belgian linen and not a whole lot else—Kahn fashioned a space for art that positively glows, thanks to skylights fitted with diffusers.
Anchored by a cylindrical, cast-in-place concrete staircase, it’s the epitome of dramatic, art-friendly modernism. For proof, look no further than the way it shows off “Britain in the World,” the reopening installation of more than 500 works that is now on view.
The center and its contents were the gift of the philanthropist Paul Mellon, and although the institution actively collects in a serious way, its original collection of British art—the largest anywhere outside of the United Kingdom—is composed of masterpieces by Turner, Gainsborough, Hogarth and Constable, the top talents of centuries past. They happen to shine in Kahn’s rigorously modern envelope.
“The idea is that light is a tool to be used on the walls and the art,” says the center’s director, Amy Meyers, who has developed a nuanced appreciation of the architecture. “Kahn was such a mature architect when he did this. He knew where the vistas and vantage points would be—you always know where you are.”
In fact, in one spot Kahn placed a window with a sightline right onto his earlier Yale University Art Gallery, and one can speculate that he was making the connection to his own oeuvre and demonstrating in his inimitable way that it’s all one piece.
Behind the scenes, the building had been having typical middle-aged aches and pains, and this latest conservation actually completes the last third of a long-term fix-up plan.
“This whole initiative began because we knew we were stewarding one of the great 20th-century buildings, and we didn’t want to face deferred maintenance issues,” says Meyers. But she adds that they went to great lengths to be faithful to Kahn. “Anytime we could keep the original materials we did—even some of the couches were cleaned and put back.”
They hired George Knight, a local New Haven–based architect and a graduate of Yale’s architecture school, to lead the conservation job. “The building’s systems were superbly imagined, but they were coming to the end of their lives,” says Knight. “Kahn always talked in anatomical metaphors, and the electrical and wiring were the heart and capillaries. Two huge rooms for air filtering in the basement were the lungs—and we replaced both lungs.”
The museum may have been closed to the public during the last phase of conservation, but the building’s offices and other functions were still open, meaning “the patient was alive on the gurney during the renovation,” says Knight, chuckling at the audacity of the project.
The steeply banked, concrete-cossetted lecture hall has been greatly improved with all-new seating. The lightness of the art-filled gallery spaces was made even more buoyant by making a small-sounding fix that had major impact: The temporary, moveable interior walls, which the staff called “pogos,” now float a few inches off the ground instead of going all the way to the floor. And the design for them was based on a drawing Kahn made shortly before his death.
By far the most dramatic improvement is the restoration of the Long Gallery, a space which had been encroached on over the years and now has the gracious, extended progression that Kahn intended.
“Returning visitors are going to be delighted,” says Knight. “It has those perfect proportions that recall longitudinal galleries all the way back to antiquity.” Some 200 works are stacked salon-style now in the Long Gallery, with equestrian works mixed with august portraits and charming still lifes.
What Kahn achieved there and elsewhere in the center is what we might nowadays call creating “safe space”—a place to commune with great works where the rest of the world falls away. “You’re protected there,” says Berke, reflecting on what she likes best about the building. “It’s just you and the art.”