University Art Gallery, Kahn Building

New Haven, Connecticut
Polshek Partnership, LLP

Polshek Partnership Architects restores utility and flexibility to Louis Kahn’s venerated icon without sacrificing its “tough elegance.”

By Joann Gonchar

When the Yale University Art Gallery first opened in 1953, this magazine included it in a roundup of new art museums. Calling it a “working museum,” the paragraph-long article mentioned the building’s exposed concrete construction and the presence of its unique tetrahedral ceilings. However, the piece did not anticipate that the gallery would come to be thought of as architect Louis Kahn’s first significant institutional project, widely admired not only for its engineering innovations and treatment of materials, but also for its pure geometry, flexible open plan, and handling of light.

University Art Gallery, Kahn Building
Photo © Pfeiffer Partners and Levin & Associates Architects

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Paradoxically, over the decades as Kahn’s reputation grew, the building was much changed by unsympathetic alterations. For example, fixed partitions multiplied to create space for offices, storage, classrooms, and other functions. But, as part of a $44-million renovation of the building, completed in December, Polshek Partnership Architects and its consultants sought to return the exhibition spaces to their original loft-like and light-filled state. The work also included upgrading the building’s infrastructure to meet current museum standards, and replacement of the elegant, but thermally problematic, west and north window walls.

As record noted 50 years ago, one of the building’s most distinctive features is its tetrahedral ceilings, which although muscular, seem to float overhead. These poured-in-place concrete elements integrate the mechanical systems with the building’s structure and make possible expansive and flexible galleries unencumbered by columns.
Replacement of the gallery lighting was a puzzle. The original, a precursor to modern day track systems, had been designed by Richard Kelly and specially fabricated for the gallery by Edison Price. Despite its pedigree, the system was worn out and no longer complied with code.

To replace the obsolete system, the architect and lighting designer specified short and flexible sections of track that could be threaded through the ceiling hollows.
The new lighting design provides more flexibility for the display of artwork and allows curators to maintain proper lighting levels without fixtures that drop below the bottom of the ceiling.

Flexibility and modularity are evident in the lobby’s new media lounge, designed by Yale professor and New York City-based architect Joel Sanders. Here mobile furniture and display cases on casters can be reconfigured to suit a variety of activities, including informal study, receptions, lectures, or films. The spare units, made of ebonized oak, are different from, but sympathetic to the architecture’s powerful forms.

Formal name of project: Yale University Art Gallery, Kahn Building

Location: New Haven, Connecticut

Gross square footage: 39,620 gsq.f t.

Completion Date: December, 2006

Total construction cost: $44M – total cost,   $22M – construction cost

Owner: Yale University

Polshek Partnership, LLP
320 West 13th Street
New York, New York 10028
Phone: 212.807.7171
Fax: 212.807.5917

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