As the Yale Center for British Art remains under renovation, a Tuesday meeting between two renowned Yale faculty members gave new insight into the building’s initial construction.
Jules Prown, professor emeritus of history of art and the YCBA’s first director, discussed a new book titled “Louis I. Kahn in Conversation: Interviews with John W. Cook and Heinrich Klotz, 1969–70,” which he co-edited with YCBA information analyst Karen Denavit. The conversation took place in Rudolph Hall and featured Prown alongside Alexander Purves, professor emeritus at the School of Architecture. Prown had hired Kahn to design the structure of the YCBA, and during the meeting, he discussed their relationship as well as the evolution and design of the YCBA’s building.
“The interviews happened right when Kahn received his commission for the YCBA, and they show us his initial thoughts,” Prown said. “They also give insight into his architectural thinking on what was his last building.”
YCBA Director Amy Meyers said the interviews included in the book provide direct insight into Kahn’s philosophy at the time of the YCBA’s construction.
The book is composed of a series of interviews of Kahn conducted by German architectural historian Heinrich Klotz, then a visiting professor at Yale, and John Cook, who was teaching architecture at the Yale Divinity School. The book provides an edited version of these interviews, some of which were previously published in a 1973 book entitled “Conversations With Architects.”
The interviews, recorded on tapes that are currently held in Manuscripts & Archives, were re-transcribed and condensed for the book. The book also features an introduction by Prown, insight into Kahn’s own architectural philosophy and a multitude of plans, drawings and photographs.
“People would always ask me questions about the building,” Prown said. “I figured it would be a good contribution to history and the history of modern architecture to have those tapes transcribed and edited.”
Yesterday’s discussion was preceded by introductions from Meyers, Dean of the Yale School of Architecture Robert Stern and Yale School of Architecture associate professor Eeva-Liisa Pelkonen. They spoke about Kahn’s tenure at Yale and the ways in which his experiences here influenced his artistic development.
According to Stern, Kahn holds a special place in the University’s Architecture Department, as he was hired amid a larger departmental effort to modernize its curriculum.
The discussion focused largely on Kahn’s novel approach to designing the center. Prown said that in spite of Kahn’s practical nature, he often employed unconventional practices in his work. Specifically, Prown noted that Kahn would deliberately submit preliminary models that lacked detail in their design in order to not create false expectations of exactly what the end products would look like.
Prown also spoke at length about the novelty of the center’s architecture when it was built. While most museums at the time used artificial illumination and were designed to maximize the amount of open space in their galleries, Prown was insistent on employing natural light sources and compartmentalizing the space into rooms.
Several audience members interviewed found the conversation to be enlightening and noted Prown’s ability to make the subject matter easy to understand.
Connecticut-based architect Michael Ayles said he enjoyed hearing the details of construction as well as how the project came to be. He added that he thought the discussion was suited to a wide range of audiences because it involved little technical terminology.
Bimal Mendis ’98 ARC ’02, the director of undergraduate studies in architecture, said the discussion of Kahn was particularly meaningful to him, as it brought to light the person behind a collection of otherwise enigmatic statements. Mendis described the conversation as an inside look at what goes into the architectural design process.
Anjali Pala, the book’s designer, said she enjoyed hearing Kahn’s own voice in the tape recordings that were played at yesterday’s event, which she had never heard before.
Kahn passed away in 1974, three years before the YCBA first opened to the public.
Correction: April 8
A previous version of this article misidentified Robert Stern, dean of the Yale School of Architecture, as Robert Storr, dean of the Yale School of Art. It also misspelled the name of YCBA information analyst Karen Denavit.