Every day at the Yale Center for British Art, directors, curators and consultants act according to an architectural version of the Hippocratic Oath: The words, “First, do no harm,” take on a new meaning in the center’s efforts to conserve the building, the last major work by modernist architect Louis Kahn.
For the last decade, Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee, of Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins Architects Ltd. in London, have worked on a conservation plan for the British Art Center. Inskip delivered his first public lecture about the plan on Wednesday to a full house in the museum’s auditorium, delving into the history of the building and examining its vulnerabilities. In a reception following the lecture, he signed copies of the plan, immortalized in a 200-page book with photos, histories and suggestions about the building’s future.
In attendance was Carter Wiseman, a professor at the Yale School of Architecture and Kahn biographer, who commended the British Art Center’s commitment to conservation.
“We’ve gotten really good at preserving old buildings, but we don’t know as much about modern architecture,” Wiseman said. “If you have a work of art like this, it needs to be cared for the way you would care for a Botticelli or a Palladio.”
Kahn is considered one of the most influential architects of the 20th century. He served as a professor at the Yale School of Architecture from 1947 to 1957, during which he designed his first major project — the Yale University Art Gallery, which was completed in 1951. After pioneering his unique modernist style around the globe, he returned to Yale to design the British Art Center, which was completed after his death in 1974.
Inskip and Gee’s conservation plan, published last November, was a first for the United States: While conservation of modern buildings is widely pursued in Australia and more recently in the United Kingdom, the idea is still a novelty in the United States, Inskip said. British Art Center Director Amy Meyers GRD ’85 said the center chose to design and publish its plan so that it would be available to others who are “stewarding” important buildings. Meyers sent a copy to the members of the Association of Art Museum Directors in the hopes that they too could see conservation as a potential mission for their museums.
In his lecture, Inskip described the nature of a conservation plan.
“A thorough understanding of the place allows an assessment of its cultural significance, the identification of where that significance is vulnerable and the formulation of conservation policies to protect that significance from those vulnerabilities,” Inskip said.
According to Meyers, the path to the conservation project began 25 years before she became the center’s director. The British Art Center opened to the public on the day Meyers was visiting the Yale University Graduate School for its American Studies Program. She said she was immediately wowed by the center.
“I ended up deciding to come to Yale in large part because I was seduced by the place,” Meyers said. “The architecture itself invited that kind of thinking.”
After graduating, Meyers served as curator of the Henry E. Huntington Library, Art Collections and Botanical Gardens in San Marino, Calif. There, she first met Inskip, who was leading an effort to conserve Stowe House in Buckinghamshire, U.K. She said the two became very close professional friends as well as “dear personal friends.”
After assuming the role of director of the British Art Center, she turned to Inskip and Gee to begin work on the conservation plan. According to Wiseman, the building had been “slipping,” but Meyers recognized what was happening and strove to reverse the damage that had already been done.
Inskip and Gee traveled to New Haven three to four times a year, Inskip said, to assess the building’s vulnerabilities and explore its history. They began to assemble the plan with the help of a team of undergraduate and graduate architecture students and a British Art Center conservation committee that included British Art Center staff and Yale administrators and faculty.
Wiseman said conserving the center was especially difficult given the nature of Kahn’s architecture. Kahn believed that the marks of the maker should remain part of the work, and chips on the columns and holes in the floor remained as part of his architectural vision.
“If you’re a preservationist, you want things to be perfect. You don’t wash half a bathtub,” Wiseman said. “It’s important for preservationists to strike the right balance. One of the key characteristics about Kahn’s work is that it was imperfect.”
The British Art Center is continually looking to the next project to begin work on. The center recently finished a conservation of the lower court, and it is currently converting an abandoned bathroom into a conservation lab equipped with X-rays and other tools to maintain the British Art Center’s collection of paintings.
In addition, the museum is in the midst of conserving an egress to the building through the auditorium. Meyers said the project will activate the entrance in the way Kahn envisioned for the first time in the center’s history.
To complete this work, the British Art Center has used the services of the New Haven-based Knight Architecture firm and Turner Construction in Milford. George Knight ARC ’95 said he was humbled by the task to work on such a historic and beautiful building, work he considers the “experience of my career.” Lisa Mendes, senior project manager at Turner, described the unique nature of consulting on a project with this much direction.
“It’s not always that we have a construction plan like the one we have here,” Mendes said. “Our first approach to everything is to honor the conservation plan. We often refer to ourselves as the stewards of the building.”
Meyers said the next conservation project is the prints and drawings and the rare books and manuscripts departments, two areas that are in “very desperate need of attention.” The project will be rely on the principles of the conservation plan, she added.
Ultimately, though, the British Art Center has a looming task ahead of it. Inskip said the need to expand will be one of the toughest challenges the center will face in the next decade; in the past several years, the staff and the collections of both increased significantly. Offices meant for one employee currently serve three British Art Center staffers, and Inskip said he envisions a time when the center will think of structural expansion.
According to Inskip, Kahn made this very difficult. By excavating the lower court between the British Art Center and the Yale Repertory Theatre, rather than leaving it clear, Inskip said Kahn was telling future British Art Center directors not to expand the building’s footprint.
“The architect very cleverly screwed it up and made it impossible to build there,” Inskip said.
If anything, Inskip predicted the British Art Center can expand its basement and construct offices underneath the parking lot, although he said the idea of underground expansion was a bit bizarre for a building “dedicated to daylight.”
Inskip and Gee both serve as advisers on the British Art Center’s conservation committee. Gee said the conservation plan was a live document meant to be reviewed every 10 years rather than frozen in place.
The plan, which is available for purchase in the center gift shop, will soon be offered online as a free and public resource, according to Ellie Hughes, the head of the center’s exhibitions and publications.
“Everybody is engaged to some level in asking what we can do about digital publications,” Hughes said. “It seems like in a digital world we need to be offering this service to people in addition to the physical book.”
Meyers is proud that the British Art Center has been a leader in conservation in the United States, and she hopes that museums across the country will make use of the center’s conservation plan in their own projects. “It’s difficult, it’s time-consuming and it can be expensive, but the outcome is invaluable,” Meyers said. “We hope it will be helpful to those who steward structures of their own.”