Amid all the recent lamentations about the war on midcentury architecture, there comes an enlightened statement in the form of a new monograph:
Louis I. Kahn and the Yale Center for British Art: A Conservation Plan, published by Yale University Press ($50; YC British Art, March 2012). The center was completed in 1977 and has long been considered one of Kahn’s finest buildings, winning the AIA’s Twenty-Five-Year Award in 2005. But increasing visitation, an expanding staff, and a growing collection have conspired to place a strain the architect’s original design.
So the center’s leadership commissioned two studies: one by Cooper Robertson & Partners that projects the institution’s physical requirements two decades from now; and the other by the London-based firm Peter Inskip + Peter Jenkins Architects, which identifies the historically significant features of the building. In conjunction, the two studies “should prepare us to consider an expanded facility to accommodate the Center’s growth without imperiling Louis Kahn’s masterpiece,” Amy Meyers, the center’s director, writes in the book’s foreword.
Inskip and Jenkins are noted conservation architects who have worked on such projects as Strawberry Hill, the Gothic House built by Sir Horace Walpole, the son of Britain’s first prime minister. In the Yale monograph, they unveil a detailed, room-by-room assessment of the center’s cultural significance and policies for conservation. “Usually, such plans are prepared as a reaction to deterioration or to the threat of development, but to commission a plan for a building that was less than thirty years old, still remarkably intact, and in good condition was perceptive,” the architects write in the acknowledgments. “It recognized the importance of Kahn’s building as a landmark building in its own right that justified being curated as diligently as the outstanding collection that it houses.”
Such sensitivity has not been universal when it comes to Kahn’s legacy: Consider that a proposed addition to his 1972 Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, announced in the late 1980s, caused such an outcry that the plan was scrapped. Renzo Piano was subsequently tapped for the commission, scheduled for completion next year.
If Meyers has her way, the new monograph will inspire other caretakers of culturally significant sites around the country to draw up similar conservation plans, especially for Modernist buildings, still new enough that the architects’ original intent and construction details remains well documented. It’s a worthy ambition, and one that could help stewards defend against insensitive development plans.