Modern architecture, with its exposed concrete, glass, and steel expanses, does not age gracefully. The Yale University Art Gallery, designed by architecture great Louis Kahn, is no exception. As Yale's first modernist building, completed in 1953, and Kahn's first major commission and collaboration with pioneering lighting designer, Richard Kelly, the gallery is an important part of American architecture. Yet, despite its iconic status, the building suffered numerous architectural indignities in the years following its completion, including the insertion of permanent gallery partitions, which divided Kahn's open plan, and the enclosure of an exterior court, which blocked daylight to the lower galleries.
Fortunately, Kahn's early masterpiece did not go the way of many aging modernist buildings--demolition or heavy-handed renovation--instead the University launched a three-year, $44 million renovation lead by New York-based Polshek Partnership Architects (PPA). According to partner-in-charge Duncan Hazard, the renovation began with the critical question: To what condition was the building being restored--the original built structure or Kahn's design intent? The renovation team was careful to strike a balance between the two, removing thoughtless alterations that obscured the geometric purity of Kahn's plan, while restoring many of the aging building components and systems in the five-floor, 180,000-square-foot structure.
Updating Kelly's original lighting system, developed with Edison Price, was a primary challenge. Arguably the first use of tracklighting in a museum context, this system matched the flexibility of Kahn's plan and accentuated the deep cavities of the tetrahedral ceiling, creating a visual syncopation of light and shadow. Lighting design firm Fisher Marantz Stone (FMS), who first consulted on the project in 1994 when the University began formulating a renovation master plan, wanted to preserve both the concept and effect of Kelly's lighting design using state-of-the-art technology and products. According to FMS senior associate principle Hank Forrest, project manager for the renovation, from the outset the designers realized they "would not be able to come up with something as easy and as clever as the original solution." The primary issue became one of access; the original electric busways were sandwiched between the poured-in-place concrete tetrahedron floor/ceiling slabs. To update the track, FMS had to thread segmented, flexible track through the ceiling in 32-inch sections. In keeping with Kelly's initial concept for the gallery lighting, new track was installed in every coffer. (The original installation had busways in every other coffer due to budgetary restrains.) The new system, a standard modified track manufactured by Lighting Services Inc, realizes Kelly's original concept providing maximum flexibility and architectural integration.
The gallery's expansive window walls, combined with the restored openness of the plan, made daylighting another critical consideration for the renovation. Through extensive daylight modeling, Steven Hefferan, brought in to design the gallery exhibition lighting, discovered that nearly half of all the daylight exposure occurred during non-gallery hours. To reduce daylight exposure without interfering with the visitor experience, blackout shades for use during non-public hours were designed, as well as view-preserving scrims with roughly 10 percent transmittance for public hours.
The renovation of the Yale University Art Gallery is remarkable in many ways, particularly in restoring the integrity and purity of Kahn's composition and revealing his masterful understanding of light in architecture. The expansive light-filled galleries provide dynamic surroundings that highlight the University's substantial collections, encouraging visitors to linger and explore. The renovated galleries also provide curators the ability to display works from the collection not previously viewed, benefiting curators, students, and visitors alike, allowing the gallery, as Hazard describes, "to be what it wants to be."
Project: Yale University Art Gallery Renovation
Location: Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
Original Building Architect: Louis Kahn, Philadelphia
Original Building Lighting Designer: Richard Kelly, New York
Renovation Architect: Polshek Partnership Architects, New York
Renovation Lighting Designer: Fisher Marantz Stone, New York
Exhibition Lighting Designer: Steven Hefferan Partnership Lighting Design, Boulder, Colorado
Photographer: Elizabeth Felicella, New York