After 16 months of renovations, the Yale Center for British art is set to reopen on May 11, newly restored in accordance with the vision of its architect, Louis Kahn.
The 2015-16 renovation marks the third phase of the Center’s “Building Conservation Project,” initiated in 2002 by Director Amy Meyers. Earlier phases focused on the repair of the YCBA’s exterior courtyard and Lecture Hall lobby, as well as the restoration of interior curatorial and reference spaces, such as the Rare Books & Manuscripts Department. The latest phase, which is nearing completion, has emphasized a re-imagining of the Center’s galleries and public spaces, as well as important updates to the building’s infrastructure. Working with Knight Architecture LLC in New Haven and Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins Architects LTD in London, the conservation project restored the building while remaining true to Kahn’s original design.
“This building is one of the great buildings of the twentieth-century,” Meyers said. “[It is] our largest and our most complicated object, and we treat it in that way. It is conserved as one would conserve a great art object.”
In 1966 — the year Paul Mellon ’29 announced the donation of his extensive collection of British art to Yale — Jules Prown, the YCBA’s founding director, along with Mellon and the University, chose Kahn to design a structure specifically to house Mellon’s gift. Meyers emphasized the “intimacy” of Kahn’s design for the Center, which she said resembles the domestic spaces and great halls of a British country house. The director also highlighted Kahn’s attention to the conservation demands of particular works in the collection, noting that the architect designed the building with windowless areas reserved for paper works, which may fade if extensively exposed to natural light, while other, more brightly illuminated spaces house less sensitive works.
“The building literally breathes with the elements,” Meyers said. “It’s organic. It responds in the way that we do, as organic beings, to what is happening outside.”
According to YCBA Deputy Director Constance Clement, who oversaw much of the renovation, the conservation plan addressed moments of “architectural drift,” as well as necessary infrastructural changes, such as upgrades of air handling units, electrical elements and the building’s sprinkler and security systems. Additionally, various aspects of the building’s decorative program were restored “in the spirit of Kahn,” including repairs to the galleries’ concrete and travertine stone, and replacement of their synthetic carpet, installed in 1988, with the wool version specified by Kahn’s original design. Architects also upgraded the Center’s educational spaces, refurbishing the lecture hall and adding a seminar room, which will be used as a research and teaching space.
Of particular importance, Clement and Meyers said, was the restoration of the “Long Gallery,” which Kahn originally imagined as a densely hung study space that would run nearly the entire length of the fourth floor, but which had long been broken up by temporary walls.
As the building itself underwent renovations, the Center’s displays and collections were updated, too. Upon reopening, the YCBA will exhibit a much vaster portion of its collections — the largest number of works on display in recent years — while highlighting British artwork and culture in a global context.
“This is not just a view of England or Britain. The collection is much broader than that and it speaks to a lot of issues that have to do with empire, and then a postimperial Britain,” Scott Wilcox, the Center’s deputy director for collections, said. “We have tried to bring that out.”
Though the team used the renovation as a moment to rethink the collection’s display, Wilcox explained that much of the new hang follows the same narrative of previous installations. One novelty of the reinstallation, Wilcox said, was the opening up of gallery spaces. Moveable dividers have been arranged nearer to the galleries’ outer walls, “framing” the spaces and providing views of the paintings from both a distance and up close. This shift, as well as the newly restored Long Gallery, marks a return to Kahn’s original ideas, Wilcox explained.
Beyond the newly hung collections and refurbished interiors, the building itself remains in dialogue with its surroundings, including the neighboring Yale University Art Gallery — Kahn’s first commission at Yale — and the School of Architecture.
“There is an architectural conversation that is going on for Kahn, first with the buildings that his building would connect with, and the past,” Meyers said. “Then, with what happened on the street since he finished that building many years later, in conversation with [the Architecture] building too. It’s an amazing complex.”
Pamela Franks, the YUAG’s deputy director for Exhibitions, Programming and Education said the YCBA’s absence on campus has been felt during its closure, though added that its collaborations with the Gallery throughout the renovation period allowed for expanded interaction between the two institutions.
“To have the two [Kahn] buildings right across from each other is such a defining feature of Yale architecturally, culturally and art historically,” Franks said. “It is such an important component of the museums on Yale’s campus. Of course, buildings periodically need to be renovated and we took a look at this period collectively. The two collections took full advantage of the closure period to think about what we could do during this [time].”
Upon reopening, the YCBA will host two special exhibitions, including a series of photographs capturing Old London curated by members of the Center’s Student Guide program, as well as a community event on May 14 with activities highlighting the Building Conservation Project.
Kahn received the YCBA commission in 1969.