When the newly hired director of the Yale Center for British Art toured the building in 2002, it seemed to be in fine shape. The museum had seen major renovations in 1996 and 1998, and regular maintenance was treated with strict vigilance.
Three weeks after her arrival, the director, Amy Meyers, found herself in a conversation with the then-associate director about the replacement of two elevator control panels. It occurred to her that though such repair projects keep a building’s functionality intact, over time the collection of small changes could alter the building for the worse, shifting it away from its original design.
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“If something as small as an elevator button could change an interior space, then larger issues could change the building forever, in ways that we all could regret,” she said.
Since it opened in 1977, the British Art Center has come to represent a monumental work in the history of American architecture. Famed architect Louis Kahn’s last completed building, the museum sits directly across Chapel Street from the Yale University Art Gallery, the architect’s first major project. Characterized by an abundance of outdoor light, natural materials and flexible exhibition spaces, Yale’s art museums are two of Kahn’s best-recognized designs and key works in the history of modernist architecture.
With the importance of the building as a cultural artifact in mind, Meyers began a new project at the British Art Center — a set of policies for the development and maintenance of the building to protect its architectural integrity that will be published this November by the Yale University Press.
Losing Kahn’s vision was not a new concern. Administrators at the Art Gallery have had their own worries about blurring Kahn’s original design.
In 2003, the Art Gallery undertook a three-year, $44 million renovation of their own Kahn building — the only portion of the gallery currently open to the public as a construction project on the rest of the building continues. The renovation aimed to repair structural concerns while simultaneously restoring what Deputy Director of Finance and Administration and project manager Louisa Cunningham called the “spirit of the place” — the distinctly “Kahn” aesthetic that Cunningham felt had been lost over years of construction since the museum’s opening in 1953.
Though the premises require no immediate renovation, the British Art Center has developed its own plan for its building’s future maintenance. Through extensive consultation with outside architects, conservators and Kahn’s original documents, the British Art Center hopes to save its building long before it is lost.
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In the 50 years between the Art Gallery’s conception and 2003 renovation, small, disparate renovation projects began to sully the fundamental qualities that make it one of Kahn’s great designs.
When its doors opened for the first time, the Art Gallery was not only the first modernist building on Yale’s campus — an obvious departure from the University’s neo-Gothic style — but also the first major work by a man who would become one of the country’s leading modernist architects.
“Each [change] doesn’t seem so sinful on its own,” Cunningham said. “But over time, you realize the spirit of the place really has been lost.”
For instance, the first floor of the Art Gallery lost its sense of openness, Cunningham said. A museum shop blocked the cylindrical stairwell that visitors now see straight ahead as they walk into the Kahn building. Because many of the gallery’s temporary shows take place on the first floor, the lobby area was often clogged with temporary pogo walls while exhibits were being installed. De-cluttering the first floor was both an improvement to the museum’s installation system and also brought the building closer to Kahn’s original vision for an uplifting, open entry space, Cunningham said.
In another aesthetic slippage, a former director felt that the pogo panels should be covered at their bases by kickboards, Cunningham said. Kahn had designed the panels to stand disconnected from the floor except for two metal legs, as they are now. With the kickboards, the panels appeared fixed to the floor, rather than as floating elements of the room as Kahn intended, Cunningham said.
In addition, past administrators covered up the lobby’s textured cinderblock walls with flatter-looking sheet rock in an effort to create a blanker background for the works displayed on it.
The inclusion of the kickboards adhered to a “white box” look, the dominant 20th-century design aesthetic in museums in which works of art are shown against as neutral a backdrop as possible.
Though popular, a “white box” was not the look Kahn intended for the Art Gallery, Cunningham said. The unconventional, pinkish-brown color of the cinderblock brick wall in the lobby, for instance, was meant to play off the works set against it — not simply provide a blank background. Cunningham said she felt that the walls enhance the texture of Impressionist paintings and set off ancient sculptures to surprisingly great effect.
“I think they didn’t quite get the building,” she said.
But Kahn’s work was not lost forever. In the 2003-’06 renovation, sheet rock was removed from the walls of the Art Gallery, recovering Kahn’s intended aesthetic. Today, Syrian stone reliefs hang against an expanse of the original cinderblock walls in the Art Gallery’s lobby.
The British Art Center has been more fortunate. Because it was built when Kahn was already a world-renowned architect, the building’s unique aesthetic was protected by his reputation, Director Amy Meyers said. The Art Gallery, by contrast, was the work of a younger, less recognized Kahn — and in fact began its life as art and architecture classrooms. Major internal renovations are part of the Art Gallery’s history, Meyers said, while the British Art Center will never suffer repurposement.
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“We started our life with a building by a great architect who was understood as such; our building was going to be protected by his reputation,” Meyers said. “These problems were never allowed to happen; there was never any great transformation of the interior, it was greatly tended for and cared for.”
That said, the British Art Center did experience some problems with their own Kahn pogo panels. Peter Inskip, a London-based architect and consultant on the project, said the temporary exhibition walls, which Kahn designed in light linen, were once subjected to their own inappropriate redesign.
“They hung [the pogos] with different colored 18th-century-looking damasks to hang the portraits on,” he said, “That mucked up the consistency.”
With the British Art Center in such good condition, some may question the museum’s decision to make a marked effort to conserve it.
But Meyers described the project as an opportunity to ensure that no egregious errors can ever be made in its stewardship.
MAKING A PLAN
In November, the British Art Center will publish long-term conservation plans for its Kahn building, which they view as a site of historic and cultural importance.
The manuscript details 142 policies concerning maintenance, repair, growth and modification of the building. And no aspect of the structure is exempt. From the external steel walling to the skylights, every feature of the building is included in the plan, the report said. Three policies in the report even deal with “migration staining,” the human-based oil stains that arise when visitors and guards lean against the concrete walls.
When beginning research for the report, the conservation planning team dove into the drawings, correspondence and written records Kahn left before his death in 1974. They consulted with the Kahn-designed Kimbell Art Museum in Texas and sought resources from the University of Pennsylvania, which has a collection of Kahn’s documents.
The British Art Center also consulted heavily with Inskip and his co-director, Stephen Gee, at their London-based architecture firm, which has a background in drafting conservation policies for architectural sites.
“What we find in our work on historic buildings, as well as modern ones, is that you have to get back and assess how it was done and achieved originally,” Inskip said.
Fortunately, the architect left explicit directions for construction of the museum in his papers, going so far as to write out instructions on the proper method of pouring the concrete.
“It was remarkable how amazingly organized and thorough the drawings from Kahn’s office were, compared to some of the other offices that had collaborated at various instances,” said Shayari De Silva ’11, who worked as an intern on the project.
De Silva, an Architecture major, said her work involved rooting through the archives for information on the material makeup of the building so the original design could be maintained in the future. In the course of the project, she gathered information on where the wool for the carpets was sourced and what materials were needed to match the travertine — a form of limestone — in the building.
The British Art Center used projects like De Silva’s to make a full inventory of the building’s features to inform their policies.
And no area was exempt from investigation: even the restrooms, with their tiling and use of clear light bulbs, show Kahn’s touch — Kahn used the same bulbs in his own living room.
WEAR AND TEAR
Deviation from Kahn’s original aesthetic is not the only conservation issue that the British Art Center is dealing with — there is also the simple issue of deterioration. Even repainting requires research, Inskip said.
To establish the correct paint colors for the exterior, consultants from the Metropolitan Museum of Art completed forensic analysis of paint chips from the original building. The results helped the team establish an exact color, while the examination of written records provided further biographical data. In this way, Inskip said, external paint colors, museum signage and car parking signs — even the lime green fire escapes — can be returned to their intended hue.
And like a work of art exposed to the elements for an extended period of time, the building’s features have not been immune to deteriorative issues such as soiling and discoloration.
Since they were last replaced in the 1990s, the linen of the pogo panels has become discolored as people rub up against them in the course of walking through exhibits, Inskip said. Elsewhere, the oil from guards’ hands as they leaned against certain concrete walls had begun to show. And with years of condensation gathering on exposed steel beams, rust stains have emerged on the metal.
For analysis of the steel, the team again turned to the conservation department of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as specialists from the Cliveden Conservation Workshop.
“Anything that involves cleaning, we find a conservator,” Gee said.
But cleaning is just the bare minimum in maintaining a building. As its human activity and purpose evolves, the architecture must shift to match the changing function.
While the Art Gallery and British Art Center have made it a priority to maintain Kahn’s original design, administrators said their intention is not for the buildings to remain static.
Constance Clement, the Center for British Art’s deputy director and the project’s chair, said her team recognizes the practical need to accommodate the expansion of the collection as well as a corresponding increase in staff members. The key, she said, is only making changes insofar as they adhere to the existing themes of the building.
“We are not advocating that the building not change,” she said. “It’s more a matter of making informed decisions.”
Kahn designed the building down to the offices. But when the education department outgrew its given space, the museum’s administration had to decide how to reappropriate other areas to accommodate them.
Its solution was to convert an adjacent library into an office. But the wall between the library and the education department was solid, and no sunlight reached inside the windowless library. It seemed inhumane to the future occupants, Clement said, not to deviate from the original design and let some natural light in.
“So we looked to the building for cues,” Clement said.
Looking at the use of glass walls elsewhere in the building, the team constructed a new wall that served their purposes without breaking the building’s cohesively “Kahn” look.
As staff numbers increased in other departments, offices that were designed for one occupant — with a single desk in the center of the room — were to altered to accommodate two people. In a nod to the old desks, new desks made of the natural oak found throughout the building were installed against the walls.
Like the British Art Center, the Art Gallery’s 2006 renovation sought Kahn-like solutions to technical problems that had cropped up since the building’s construction. In dealing with frost issues that Kahn had not anticipated, the architects created a radiator that looked almost exactly like the original but that had two pipes rather than one. To a visitor, it reads the same aesthetically but helps with the museum’s heating troubles, Cunningham said.
As another solution to the building’s condensation problems, Cunningham met with multiple architects to create a curtain that covers the lobby’s large windows that face the sculpture courtyard. When the weather drops below a certain temperature, the scrim also drops, insulating the building.
In order to blend this new feature with Kahn’s original architecture, Cunningham said the team worked hard to devise a system such that the scrim would remain out of sight when not in use.
“It was a major feat,” Cunningham said. “It looks really simple, but I can’t tell you how many meetings occurred with multiple architects, trying to figure out how to get the scrim and blackout shades and mechanics up behind this massive beam.”
In regaining its identity as a Kahn building, the Art Gallery once again resonates with its sister across Chapel Street. The 2006 renovation liberated the Kahn interiors from the “white box” influence of kick boards and sheet rock.
“[The Art Gallery] had been buried in this white box modernist interior that had little to do with Louis Kahn,” Meyers said. “When that came down, and Kahn was revealed, it allowed the buildings to have a conversation.”
At the British Art Center these deviations from the original design were never allowed to happen, Meyers said. And with a new set of policies that underscore the center’s commitment to Kahn’s vision, it is likely they never will.