Launch Slideshow

As Kahn Intended

As Kahn Intended

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    Yale University Art Gallery/Elizabeth Felicella

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    Peter Aaron/ESTO

    The new media lounge in the gallery's lobby, designed by Joel Sanders, is a flexible space where students can work and relax. The furniture can be easily stowed away when the gallery hosts events. A remote-controlled media screen (at left) rolls out of the L-shaped black cabinet for multimedia presentations.

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    Polshek Partnership Architects

    A building plan reveals its symmetry as well as Kahn's notion of distinct "served" and "servant" spaces. The servant core of the building houses the two stairwells, the elevator, restrooms, and closets. Although Kahn's style differs starkly from the older gallery buildings, Kahn was mindful of their scale and proportions.

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    Polshek Partnership Architects

    The 1928 Swartout Building was supposed to have extended down Chapel Street. The recess in Kahn's façade honors that original design, which called for a central entry portico.

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    Yale University Art Gallery/Elizabeth Felicella

    The west window wall of the gallery. As early as the building's first winter, the window walls were beset by interior condensation and rust. "It started to effloresce between the [two] panes, sort of like a greenhouse," says gallery director Jock Reynolds.

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    Polshek Partnership Architects

    A section through the building-with the floor slab in the middle and windows top and bottom-shows the old system (near right) and the new one (far right), which has a thermal break and a sealant joint that contracts and expands with the metal.

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    Staples & Charles

    Kahn's design for the pogo walls stipulated 5-foot-by-10- foot display panels with small feet at the top and bottom for easy moving. Not long after the gallery opened, however, staff put up more-permanent barriers that carved up the rooms and blocked light.

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    YALE UNIVERSITY ART GALLERY/ELIZABETH FELICELLA

    The new pogo walls conform to the dimensions of the originals but weigh less and are sturdier.

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    YALE UNIVERSITY ART GALLERY/ELIZABETH FELICELLA

    Capping the cylindrical stairwell is a triangular concrete slab, proof of Kahn's growing interest in monumentality and the power of geometric forms.

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    PolsheK Partnership Architects

    The Polshek Partnership team included (above, left to right) Lloyd DesBrisay, Duncan Hazard, Charmian Place, Steven Peppas, and Gary Anderson.

Beneath us lies the sunken west courtyard, enclosed by a ribbon of pale brick that extends from the front façade. That front wall was an inspiration for the new curtain wall system, DesBrisay tells me, because of Kahn's ingenuity in designing it. “If you look closely, there's a small gap between [the interior wall] and that wall,” where the heating system is, he explains. “Over the 54-year life of the building, that heating system and that gap allowed the heat flow to bathe the inside of the brick with heat, so it doesn't freeze up.”

The wall was in such good condition that DesBrisay and his colleagues simply cleaned with soap and water. They replaced brick only in the less-conspicuous inside walls of the west courtyard, damaged from construction when it was roofed over in the 1970s. In the sculpture garden behind the gallery, rather than replace an especially visible, listing wall by the lobby door, they used pressurized grout to stabilize it.

The pogo wall system

Reynolds ushers us into the new, 12,000-pound-capacity elevator—which replaces one that couldn't fit the gallery's larger canvases—and we ascend to the second floor. There we encounter another Kahnian innovation: the “pogo wall.” Kahn devised these spring-loaded panels (hence the name) as a flexible way for curators to hang artwork. His pogos, which had small feet at the top and bottom, could be placed anywhere in a gallery space, at any angle, and could be moved or removed easily by three people. There was nothing like this kind of demountable system used in other galleries at the time.

Like his concrete blocks, however, Kahn's pogos initially met with little sympathy or comprehension. Before long, gallery staff installed more-permanent partitions that had wood or black bands along the base, flush with the floor. This was a crucial deviation from Kahn's design: The original pogos had sizable gaps between the base and the floor, so that light—the lateral light entering through the north and west window walls—could penetrate beneath them. The levitating effect is “almost like a Rothko painting,” Reynolds says.

Yale and Polshek worked with Staples & Charles, a firm in Northern Virginia that specializes in exhibition design, to create new pogo walls that are true to Kahn's intentions, but sturdier and lighter in weight than his original panels. The new pogos conform to Kahn's original measurements—10 feet high, 4 feet and 11 5/8 inches wide. Now two people, not three, can move them.

The stairwell

We wander the African and Asian galleries, then climb the stairs to the third floor. Far from being a secondary space, the stairwell is the physical and diagrammatic core of the building—a hollow column of board-formed concrete topped by a large triangular concrete slab. The back and sides of the stairwell had been closed off in places to make extra storage space around the cylinder. Polshek's team cleared up the blocked areas, cleaned the concrete, refurbished the black terrazzo floors, and installed new energy-efficient light fixtures.

They also replaced the mesh panels attached to the railings with a new stainless-steel mesh, an almost perfect match to the original. It came from an unlikely source: conveyor belts from a frozen-food factory in France. “We found it by chance,” DesBrisay laughs. “It took about a year to find, and it arrived here about six weeks before we opened.”

Opened up again, the stairwell now conveys all its intended drama, giving the impression of a modern ruin—as so many of Kahn's later buildings do. It shows him developing a monumental architecture of idealized geometric forms, almost Platonic in their timeless purity.

Kahn was autocratic about his design to an extent that would be frowned on now, when collaboration and compromise are architectural buzzwords. “A good building is one which the client cannot destroy by wrong use of space,” he said testily when the gallery first opened.

I mention this to Reynolds. “To tell you the truth, he was right!” he replies without hesitation. “His vision had a very short time in which to operate. We said, ‘Let's go back and see what this guy really meant.'”

Project Credits

Gallery Staff and Consultants
Project Director: Louisa Cunningham, deputy director of finance and administration
Renovation Project Manager: Leslie Myers
Exhibition Design: Staples & Charles
Wayfinding Design: Open
Gallery and Lobby Lighting: Hefferan Partnership Lighting Design
Art Storage: Biblio Design
Lobby Design: Joel Sanders Architect
Lobby Media Design: Art Guild
Lobby Millwork: Art Guild
Conservation Environment Consulting: Garrison/Lull
Yale University Office of Facilities, Construction, and Renovation Staff
Project Manager: Mark Malkin
Architect: Polshek Partnership Architects
Partner in Charge: Duncan R. Hazard
Design Partners: James S. Polshek, Richard Olcott
Project Manager: Steven Peppas
Project Architect: Lloyd L. DesBrisay (construction phase)
Project Architect: Robert Condon (design phase)
Senior Technical Detailer: Gary Anderson
Interior Design: Charmian Place
Polshek Partnership Consultants:
Structural Engineer: Robert Silman Associates, P.C.
Mechanical Engineer: Altieri Sebor Wieber
Cost Estimating: Wolf and Co.
Specifications: Robert Schwartz & Associates
Acoustics/AV/Telecommunications: Shen Milsom & Wilke
Building Code: Hughes Associates
Elevators: Van Deusen & Associates
Food Service: Romano Gatland Food Service Consultants & Planners
Landscape: Towers/Golde
Preservation: David DeLong
Lighting: Fisher Marantz Stone
Security: Ducibella Venter & Santore Architects
Exterior Diagnostics/Design: James R. Gainfort
Exterior Wall Consultant: Gordon H. Smith Corp.
Construction Manager: Barr & Barr Builders
Barr & Barr Subcontractors:
HVAC and Plumbing: Enterprise Plumbing and Heating
Glass Window Wall: Curtainwall & Windows
Electrical: Paul Dinto Electrical Contractors
Fire Protection: M.J. Daly & Sons
Elevator: Hontz Elevator Co.
Sitework: Joseph F. Kelly Co.
Millwork: Legere Group
Masonry: NER Construction
Drywall: S.G. Millazzo Co.

The Polshek Partnership team included (above, left to right) Lloyd DesBrisay, Duncan Hazard, Charmian Place, Steven Peppas, and Gary Anderson.

The Polshek Partnership team included (above, left to right) Lloyd DesBrisay, Duncan Hazard, Charmian Place, Steven Peppas, and Gary Anderson.

Credit: PolsheK Partnership Architects