Kahn building prepares for opening

Although the Yale University Art Gallery, designed by renowned architect Louis Kahn, will not reopen its doors to the public until Dec. 10, its fully visible, dramatic window-walls have allowed curious passers-by a chance to get a glimpse of the ongoing transformation of the building.

The December celebrations will mark the culmination of a three-year, $44 million project to restore Kahn’s masterpiece to the condition it was in at its 1953 opening and to fix underlying technical problems. When the building reopens, it will feature its first-ever student-curated exhibition and a broadened selection and variety of the gallery’s collections.

Amy Porter, the associate director of communications at the gallery, said renovators have worked to ensure that Kahn’s emphasis on artistic value is maintained — down to the color of the bricks used in the walls.

“We really, really wanted to preserve Kahn’s vision — everything down to the last detail,” Porter said.

Duncan Hazard ’71, the partner at Polshek Partnership Architects in charge of the Kahn building renovation designs, said new walls and offices that had been built into the building’s floor plan were detracting from the aesthetics of the gallery space.

The main impetus for the renovations came not from complaints about design, however, but rather from difficulties that some of Kahn’s 1950s-era plans posed to the environment inside the museum. Chief among these problematic features were the wall-sized windows on the west, north and east sides of the building. The double panes of the 1950s windows were connected by steel, which conducted cold air through the wall into the building and increased energy consumption.

“The replacement of that wall has consumed more of our time than anything else,” Hazard said.

Hazard’s firm, during renovations, installed a “thermally broken wall.” In these new walls, a plastic gasket — which separates metal on the exterior and interior of the building — will prevent cold air from entering the museum.

In addition to the installation of the newly designed window-walls, the building’s extensive renovations will double the amount of lighting in the museum, replace all heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems, and insert an elevator large enough to carry sizeable works of art to the upper floors, Hazard said.

The Kahn building will also boast more entrances for disabled people than it did in the past, said Imani Lane, a security officer at the gallery.

On the first floor of the renovated building, visitors will be able to view an exhibition curated entirely by Yale students. The seven curators of the show, titled “Responding to Kahn: A Sculptural Conversation,” include students from Yale College, the schools of Art and Architecture, and the Graduate School, as well as an education intern at the gallery.

Pamela Franks, the curator of academic initiatives at the gallery and coordinator of the exhibition, said the students have been involved in the planning, publication, production and installation of the show since the fall of 2005.

“In order to celebrate the reopening, we wanted to engage students in as many aspects of our work as possible,” Franks said. “We felt that the notion of responding to the building was very appropriate.”

Student curator Sydney Skelton ’07 said all of the objects have been selected from Yale collections and were created within the lifetime of the building.

“We came up with an exhibit that we think responds not just formally to the building, and not just philosophically, but we’re trying to create conversations that encompass the variety of different ways you can respond to a great piece of architecture,” Skelton said.

Once visitors can enter the building, they will be able to explore a wider array of the museum’s collection of 185,000 objects, including some recently acquired works of art that have never before been displayed. Many of the objects in the museum’s extensive Charles B. Benenson collection of African art will be displayed for the first time in an installation in the second-floor galleries, Porter said.

Franks said seeing the building empty while it underwent renovation deepened her understanding of and appreciation for Kahn’s architecture.

“When I was working in the Kahn building [prior to renovations], it was more divided up into offices and gallery spaces and the conservation lab and all sorts of spaces meant to accommodate various departments and people,” Franks said. “One of the things that this project has really helped me to appreciate is that the Kahn building is actually very sculptural itself.”

Students who have visited the building echo Franks’ admiration of Kahn’s unique architecture.

Paull Randt ’08 said he has visited the building numerous times in his capacity as a gallery guide and assistant to the museum’s development office. He said Kahn’s unique design emphasizes the building’s artistic character.

“It allows for the building itself to enter into the discussion of artwork, and the building itself becomes another piece on display,” Randt said. “Just as pieces will dialogue with each other, the building will be part of that dialogue.”

Yale students, faculty and staff will be invited to a campuswide preview of the building to be held Dec. 6.

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