“Gwathmey Siegel” honors key Yale architects

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Photo by Baobao Zhang.

Two iconic figures in Yale’s architectural history come to the forefront in a new exhibit in Rudolph Hall.

On Monday, “Gwathmey Siegel: Inspiration and Transformation” opened at the Yale School of Architecture to celebrate the life and work of Charles Gwathmey ARC ’62 and Robert Siegel, the architects behind the 2008 renovation of Rudolph Hall and addition of the Loria Center on York Street. Designed to showcase the close relationship between art and architecture in many of their firm’s projects, the exhibit focuses on eight works from 45 years of practice.

Originally curated by Douglas Sprunt for the Cameron Art Museum in Wilmington, N.C., the exhibition traveled to Yale in early November. Dean of the School of Architecture Robert A.M. Stern said Gwathmey’s show had special meaning for Yale, since it is the first focusing on works by Gwathmey, who passed away in 2009.

“[Gwathmey] was of our most distinguished graduates and I knew and admired him,” Stern said. “He should have been celebrated like this even earlier.”

After the exhibition moved to Rudolph Hall, it was modified to include Gwathmey’s sketches from his time at Yale that had been preserved in Yale’s archives, said Brian Butterfield, the school’s director of exhibitions. In conjunction with architectural sketchbooks from Gwathmey’s adolescence, these provide a picture of the architect’s pre-professional work, he added.

The show’s primary focus is Gwathmey Siegel’s development of five residences and their renovations and additions to the Guggenheim Museum in New York City and to buildings at Yale, Harvard and Princeton. All of these spaces were designed to showcase art and artistic practice in some way, Butterfield explained, since several of the residences belonged to artists and most contained significant gallery space to house private collections.

Though the exhibit depicts only a fraction of the firm’s works, the displays follow each project through many phases, such as initial sketches, presentation boards, a range of 3-D models and a series of photographs of the design’s completion.

To fill out the portrait of the architects as people, a film featuring both men plays in one corner of the space. A large photo of the firm’s Loria Center addition to Rudolph Hall dominates the center of the exhibit, with backlights shining through the windows of the buildings to demonstrate their designed coherence with one another. To further demonstrate Gwathmey Siegel’s success in renovating and adding to the existing structures by other prominent architects, drawings of the firm’s addition to Frank Lloyd Wright’s Guggenheim Museum are juxtaposed with Wright’s original plan, Butterfield said.

Though the content from the original North Carolina exhibition is preserved, Butterfield said, the show had to be spatially rearranged. The segments still flow in the same order, but both the materials and space had to be slightly adapted to fit together.

“We don’t have white walls in the gallery space, so the biggest challenge was retrofitting the show to Rudolph,” Butterfield said. “We have concrete walls, which isn’t conducive to having a lot of wall art.”

Accordingly, the exhibition includes many freestanding elements, such as glass cases and models. Several additional white walls had to be constructed, Butterfield said, to accommodate the large number of pictures, many of which were meant to be hung together in series.

Still, the entire show maintains clean, simple lines in its design, reflecting Gwathmey Siegel’s style, Stern said.

“I think the exhibit conveys that [spatial] elegance that one associates with Gwathmey work without question,” he said. “You can see the cool precision of his talent at play.”

Several spectators at the exhibit, all of whom were familiar with Gwathmey Siegel’s work prior to attending, felt that its design evoked the architects’ work. Yale spokesman Michael Morand ’87 DIV ’93 said he felt this reflection was especially appropriate in the context of Rudolph Hall, whose renovation Gwathmey Siegel led so well, updating fixtures and restoring various elements of architect Paul Rudolph’s modernist design.

“Gwathmey Siegel: Inspiration and Transformation” will be on display on the second floor of Rudolph Hall until Jan. 27, 2012.

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