Three years ago, the bricks around the Yale University Art Gallery’s York Street sculpture courtyard were fractured; white sheetrock covered architect Louis Kahn’s rough concrete walls; and the metal mesh between the banisters and the steps in his triangular staircase had been damaged.

But for the past three years, renovators have worked meticulously to restore the Kahn building. When conservators needed to replace the deteriorating brick, they spent countless hours color-matching with a brick maker so that the new material would look just like the original on the Chapel Street facade. They painstakingly removed plywood and sheetrock from the gallery’s concrete walls. And until a museum worker discovered a replica of the stainless steel mesh in a French frozen food industry catalog, the conservators had searched fruitlessly for something to replace the damaged product on Kahn’s staircase.

But at the top of that staircase, at the back of the concrete cylinder that houses it, a span of graffiti remains to attest to the 53-year history of this gallery. Scrawled self-portraits and penciled-in signatures, courtesy of architecture students from the ’50s, serve as a reminder that the gallery is more than a masterpiece of architectural modernism; it once was a place where students drafting in a fourth-floor studio would doodle when they left their work to talk on a phone bolted to the back of the staircase.

The sketches and names that cover the cylinder seem to belong there as much as the concrete. Like the ancient carvings and contemporary spray paint that dot Roman ruins, these etchings remind anyone who cares to peek behind this corner that the gallery — which launched the career of one of the most influential architects of the 20th century — is a living object.

The fourth floor has been removed of its pseudo-vandals, their studios replaced by temporary exhibition space. New areas, such as a media lounge and increased space for permanent exhibits, aim to integrate art into students’ and visitors’ daily lives. The renovations have been nuanced, rendering Kahn’s ideal of expansive spaces and exposed surfaces more clearly than perhaps ever before, while implementing incremental changes to remind us of the function that the gallery was originally intended to serve. But the writing is literally on the wall: The ideas of preserving the precise architectural integrity of Kahn’s vision, and creating a space responsive to the needs of the collection and of students who use it, might seem to be in tension. After $44 million of work, has the gallery succeeded in accomplishing its two goals?

A revolutionary architect vs. his era: Transcending modernism

Kahn’s three-dimensional ceiling, composed of concrete triangles and devoted to integrating the building’s structure, is perhaps the most iconic element of the gallery: It is both a visual and a mechanical part of the building, said Estelle Margolis ARCH ’55, one of Kahn’s students.

But Kahn’s striking tetrahedrons — designed in collaboration with co-worker Anne Tyng — were almost too innovative to make it into the final blueprints. The interlocking triangles were intended to support the ceiling for long spans without needing beams, an idea that was being pioneered in the 1950s, said Leslie Myers, renovation project manager at the gallery. The New Haven building commission had never seen something like this before; afraid that the ceiling would collapse, they forced Kahn to change its structure.

The gallery itself, the first modernist building on Yale’s campus, was revolutionary. Its stark lines and geometric shapes still stand in strong contrast to the sea of neo-Gothic forms abounding on campus. History of art professor Sean Keller said American universities underwent a wave of expansion in the ’20s and chose the collegiate Gothic style of Oxbridge because of the prestige and history it connoted. But after World War II, university culture became less elitist, and the architecture on campuses expressed that change.

“There was a more general cultural shift after the war in which there was a broader acceptance of new technologies, a sense of creating a new future that would break with the past,” Keller said.

While the art gallery’s dominant window walls are a clear break with the faux-historical casement windows of Branford, Kahn was anything but a typical modernist. Architectural critic Paul Goldberger, who writes for the New Yorker, said 20th-century modernists wanted to escape from what they saw as the heaviness of older buildings, but to Kahn, this ideal of lightness connoted impermanence. Kahn, an Estonian emigre, was resident architect at the American Academy in Rome. Captivated by the ruins he saw there, he integrated historical elements into the gallery, his own first monument.

“Kahn was not a very traditional modern architect — he kind of reinvented modernism for himself,” Goldberger said. “He was very interested in returning to the purest, basic things about architecture. … He was searching for a way that the modern vocabulary of architecture could express the same sense of permanence that architecture had historically had.”

Visiting vs. lingering: Beyond the collection

Modern-day reactions to Kahn’s search will be on display in the gallery’s first-floor special exhibitions area, which now holds the gallery’s first exhibition to be curated entirely by students and gallery interns. The planning of “Responding to Kahn: A Sculptural Conversation” has allowed students to become intimately acquainted with the gallery and to learn about the entire curatorial process, said Catherine Sellers, one of the curators and an intern in the gallery’s education department.

The exhibition, the first installment of a student-curated series, is just one of the ways administrators are trying to draw students into the gallery. Jock Reynolds, director of the gallery, hopes that the new lobby — which features wireless Internet access — will become a place for students to linger. This idea was in fact fundamental to the gallery’s mission model of the elitism of a lot of museum culture,” Myers said. “He wants to turn this into a hangout. To that end, the lobby has been turned into a lounge.”

Students were excited to see the new gallery and anticipate spending time in the building’s open areas.

“I think I’ll be spending a lot of time there in comparison to my time spent in the old gallery,” said Ali Van ’08, who was at Wednesday’s campus preview. “The experience wasn’t as uplifting in the old gallery. It felt very academic, versus the new building, in which you feel like you’re leaving Yale to live in this whole new world.”

Though the funding for the art gallery came entirely from private donors, the University is devoting $500 million of its $3 billion Yale Tomorrow campaign to capital projects at the arts schools and the galleries, said Jill Westgard, the director of development at the gallery.

“This is the first Yale campaign to make the arts a priority for funding,” she said in an e-mail.

Yale’s four arts-related professional schools and two museums have historically attracted undergraduates, University President Richard Levin said, but their facilities did not match the strength of the programs themselves, which the University is trying to change.

Rationality vs. ornamentation: Kahn’s choice?

In order to get the gallery’s tetrahedral ceiling past the building commission, Kahn had to added a more traditional post-beam structure, in which columns stretched from floor to ceiling support the weight of the building. But he held on to the pyramidal tesselation he had envisioned. He made the beams in the post-beam ceiling part of hi
s triangles, rendering only one side of each triangle structurally necessary, Myers said. This is why the sides of the triangles connected to the posts are wider than the others.

“One of the main declarations of the modernists was that ornament was no longer acceptable, so everything should be stripped down to the essentials,” said Carter Wiseman ’68, the author of a forthcoming biography of Kahn. “What Kahn discovered is that when you exaggerate or emphasize the structural elements of a building where the pieces come together, you actually get ornament. … The modernists were all about rationality and reason, but Kahn was a man who had a lot of blood flowing through his veins.”

When Robert Lehman, a member of the University Council, spoke at the art gallery’s 1953 dedication ceremony, his speech made clear that the gallery, like Kahn’s vision, was about something more than pure functionality.

“This is to be a living institution, not merely a repository for the records of the past,” Lehman said.

The building was certainly more than storage space to Kahn. Margolis recalls the professor keeping his students regularly up until 3 a.m., showing them models of the gallery in progress.

“He held materials in his hands with huge respect,” Margolis said. “He once said, ‘What does this brick want to be in this building?’ ”

Restoration vs. renovation: Finding the architect in his building

Fifty years of technological development have vindicated Kahn’s contentious ceiling design, said both Myers and Duncan Hazard ’71, the lead architect at Polshek Partnership Architects in charge of the gallery’s renovations. Although the city’s building department could not understand Kahn’s design a half-century ago, current computer simulations would have allowed Kahn to prove its structural integrity, Myers said.

“Computers allow the buildings to keep up with the imaginations of the builders,” Myers said.

In Kahn’s building, however, in the varying width of the ceiling beams, in the slightly slanted line of the bricks in the inner walls, in the roughness of the concrete, we can see that the gallery is authentic and imperfect, and Kahn wanted it to be that way.

In a 1957 issue of the Yale School of Architecture Journal, Perspecta, Kahn said, “a space in architecture shows how it is made. … Nothing must intrude to blur the statement of how a space is made.”

It is for this reason, Myers said, that “this building is often described as humanist, warm, friendly. When a building is built with a computer, it can be so perfect that it’s deadening.”

In this sense, the renovation — which preserved the slight imperfections in Kahn’s first monument — is more of a restoration. And the renovations have in fact deferred to some of Kahn’s architectural ideas that were obscured by the stricter modernist interpretation that held sway at the time.

For example, Kahn originally installed “pogo walls” — exhibition walls separated from the floor and ceiling by springs — in order to allow light to come through. But the walls were bordered with black rubber when Andrew Ritchie, one of the Museum of Modern Art’s directors who was wedded to the modernist aesthetic concept, assumed the position of director at the gallery in 1957.

Kahn was so incensed that he protested to then-President Whitney Griswold.

“I should like the opportunity to explain the design of the Art Gallery to whoever may be responsible for the modifications being made to it,” Kahn wrote in a letter dated July 30, 1958. “I hope to prevent thereby the further dissipation of its character. … It certainly seems reasonable that the architect of a building be consulted on changes to his building as long as he is active in architecture.”

Griswold, however, disagreed.

“I shall tell [Kahn], with a bland smile, and I hope, my politest accents, how ridiculous I think his case is,” Griswold wrote Aug. 6, 1958, in a letter to Dean of the School of Art and Architecture Gibson Danes. “It seems to me preposterous that an architect who has finished his work and pocketed his fee should thereafter claim an equity or a proprietary interest of any kind in his building.”

The black stoppers remained. But now, the administration has a different take on the importance of Kahn’s convictions, and the gallery and its ceiling can be seen as he must have wanted. The tetrahedral ceiling and the window wall on the first floor seem to expand continuously, and we can see their full span without being distracted by partitions inside the space. And though some would argue that the building’s architecture overpowers the art on display — “something about the general modernist severity of this place, the low-lying ceiling, the infinite expanse of those tetrahedral models … seems to me to inhibit the appreciation of art,” said James Gardner, architecture critic for the New York Sun — none disputes the power of the building as a whole.

“It’s the most powerful form at Yale,” said Vincent Scully ’40, professor emeritus of the history of art. “The most primitive, most sublime, most gratuitously unnecessary cloud of reason. We’re lucky to have it. … Since that tetrahedral slab, there’s been nothing quite so wonderful, sublime, portentive at Yale.”

Aesthetics vs. education: A reconciliation

As Kahn himself believed, Yale students are “lucky” for more than purely aesthetic reasons.

“Every time a student walks past a really urgent, expressive piece of architecture that belongs to his college, it can help reassure him that he does have that mind, does have that soul,” Kahn said, according to a banner on the Chapel Street facade of the gallery.

Kahn’s commitment to the University as an educational institution extended beyond the buildings he designed to his position as a teacher. John Field ARCH ’55 said that Kahn was devoted to helping his students develop their own architectural styles.

“He was remarkable,” Field said. “He came to your desk, and he only wanted to see how good you could make your idea if he helped. Not make his idea, but make your idea. He meant to get you to do the best job you could.”

In that dual commitment — both aesthetic and educational — to the University, Kahn tried to ensure that students had an environment in which they could maximize their creative potential. And the University, Wiseman said, advances Kahn’s vision by prioritizing great architecture not just for its aesthetic value, but also because it marks the University’s commitment to its students.

“Look at the people who come out of our great university and what they do — not always for the best, but at least they’re operating at the highest level,” Wiseman said. “They felt they were taken seriously as leaders, and one of the measures of that investment was the architecture around them. … Yale is a teaching enterprise, and Kahn, I think, understood that architecture was part of the text.”