A Kahn Icon Restored
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After a three-year renovation, a 1953 building that the renowned architect Louis Kahn designed for the Yale University Art Gallery has been restored and will reopen on December 10.
The New York-based Polshek Partnership Architects carried out the renovation of the building, which, with its glass-and-steel exterior, is an icon of modernist architecture. Polshek’s Duncan Hazard, who led the team, expressed both satisfaction and relief that the work is nearly done. “This has been a tough job,” he acknowledged to an audience of reporters, “a real learning experience.”
The renovation cost $44 million, the director of the Yale Art Gallery, Jock Reynolds, said.
What made the job so tough was the combination of Mr. Reynolds’s and Mr. Hazard’s reverence for Kahn’s design and commitment to preserving it, and their recognition of the building’s inherent problems.This was the first major commission undertaken by Kahn, who died in 1974, and in many instances, Mr. Hazard said, Kahn knew what he wanted to create without quite knowing how to pull it off.
The insulated glass walls of the building were problematic from the very beginning. Stress broke the insulation seal between the two layers of glass, and condensation gathered on the inside panes. Over time, the condensation corroded the steel and made the glass cloudy, so that visitors couldn’t see outside.
The walls had to be completely replaced.The architects created a system with a thermal break between the layers of glass and added extra radiators around the windows to create a current of warm air and prevent condensation.
The architects also updated or cleaned the building systems — the track lighting and air ducts nestled above the triangular concrete coffers of Kahn’s distinctive ceiling. They uncovered and restored a sculpture garden that had been roofed over in the 1970s to provide more gallery space; Richard Serra’s steel “Stacks” sculpture is now displayed there. They installed a new and much larger elevator, which will make it possible to transport largescale art to the upper floors.
A major goal of the renovation was to restore the original, loftlike appearance of the floors. Over time, Mr. Hazard said, an accretion of interior offices and storage space “obscured the original purity of the building.” The second and third floors will now be unobstructed gallery space, doubling the amount of art that the Gallery can exhibit.
Of course, while a glass-walled loft may be visually dramatic, it hardly provides the perfect conditions for displaying art. “The building is largely a glass box,” Mr. Hazard said, “and that’s not, by current standards, ideal for a museum.” The final touches of the renovation will be the addition of sliding scrims, as well as automated blackout shades, which will come down at closing time each day, to limit the exposure of the art to light.
The art itself, which has been either stored off-site or sent on touring exhibitions during the renovation, will be reinstalled beginning October 1.
The renovation of the Kahn building is part of a $500 million master plan to improve Yale’s arts buildings.
The Yale Art Gallery is across the street from the Yale Center for British Art, one of Kahn’s last commissions.