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    Kahn's Design Restored in Yale Gallery's $44 Million Overhaul

    Date: 29 Dec 2006 | | Views: 3952

    With its long, uninterrupted wall of beige masonry, the newly restored Yale University Art Gallery extends a sullen invitation to New Haven's Chapel Street.

    It's a different story once you enter the building, which reopened earlier this month after a $44 million renovation. The interior richly rewards the curious, thanks to the painstaking restoration efforts of Manhattan's Polshek Partnership Architects.

    While Yale has so far only redone the 1953 extension, designed by Louis I. Kahn, the university also plans to renovate wings that date from 1928 and 1867. It's all part of a 10-year, $500-million plan to overhaul the entire arts campus. Work is also planned for the departments of art and art history, architecture and drama.

    Yale's museum, with its impressive 185,000-object collection, was founded in 1832. Art from Africa, Asia and Europe, as well as contemporary works, have been reinstalled, along with temporary exhibitions of sculpture and Jasper Johns prints.

    Kahn was the "architect's architect,'' only recently a popular favorite in spite of endless books and periodic museum retrospectives that have been mounted since his death in 1974 at age 73. The 2003 film documentary "My Architect,'' made by his son Nathanial, brought to a wide audience the father's fundamental humanism as well as the sheer power of his architecture. He was 50 when he received the Yale job, his first major commission.

    Quiet Power

    Duncan Hazard, the Polshek partner in charge of the project, removed a half-century of partition walls and other accretions to reveal the airy, loft-like sweep of the building's four exhibition levels. The new openness isn't spectacular -- nothing about this building is -- but it unleashes the raw, quiet power of the interior's most distinctive feature, a lattice of triangulated struts of concrete that supports each floor.

    Kahn threaded ductwork and lighting tracks through the lattice so that they could be unobtrusively hidden in plain sight. (Polshek doubled the number of tracks for added flexibility.)

    Until that time, modern architecture had made much of structural derring-do. Kahn was the first to recognize that the wiring, ducts and other mechanical, electrical and plumbing systems that had burgeoned in buildings deserved to be gracefully integrated. In subsequent projects, he would make these systems a key expressive element.

    Polshek's new window-walls give these galleries a surprisingly even and glare-free ambience. Polshek's team has layered the glass and metal with reinforcing and insulating materials Kahn could never have imagined, yet maintained his elegant sense of visual weight.

    Abstract Body

    Kahn's brilliant sense of proportion is also revealed: Superimposing a square window on a pair of tall narrow ones is so simple. But anyone can see in it an abstraction of the human body -- one of the many ways he softened modern architecture's sharp, machined edges.

    In so painstakingly following Kahn's lead, Hazard has adopted a pure preservation approach, explicitly treating the building as a historic landmark rather than just another aging building needing a makeover. I often find this stance too deferential -- embalming a good building rather than enlivening it.

    In this case, Hazard unveils rich subtleties -- like the massive cylindrical core, with which Kahn anchored the interior composition. Into this round tube, Kahn fitted a triangular stair. Unflashy but elegant, it's a fetish object for Kahn cultists. He poured a triangular panel in concrete at the top of the staircase, filtering daylight around it from barely visible clerestory windows. The combination of the panel's primordial weight and the mysterious, celestial light is the whole Kahn mystique embodied in about 20 square feet.

    Spiritual Quest

    That stairway was the first fruit of Kahn's search for a timeless but modern spirituality. He saw it in ancient ruins -- stripped to a geometrical clarity by time -- that he sketched while traveling in Europe at the time he was awarded the Yale job.

    Starting with the Yale gallery, Kahn would take modernism from pure form-follows-functionalism to a new expression that connected it to the grandeur of the great works of history. That interpretation would blossom in mature masterpieces, like the Center for British Art (1977) across the street. Kahn found the way to imbue "silence into light,'' which is among his oblique but evocative sayings.

    Kudos to the university for committing to such a painstaking approach (and cost). With so many important works of baby-boomer- era modernism threatened, including works by Eero Saarinen, Paul Rudolph, Marcel Breuer and Richard Neutra, treating this modest but seminal building like a masterpiece is a work of cultural courage.

    The Yale University Art Gallery is at 111 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut. For more information, call +1-203-432-0600.

    By James S. Russell, Bloomberg


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