A Treasure Trove of British Art in a Renovated Modernist Masterpiece
While you might not have heard of the Yale Center for British Art, professional architects are well aware of its world-famous design by Louis I. Kahn. After being closed for 16 months, the museum has been renovated not only to update its infrastructure, but also to better reflect the original vision of Kahn, who died a few months before his project was completed.
Opened in 1974, the Yale Center for British Art’s collection is above all made up of a gift by philanthropist and horse breeder Paul Mellon, himself a 1929 graduate of Yale. The museum’s holdings—consisting of more than 2,000 paintings, 200 sculptures, 20,000 drawings as well as watercolors, and 30,000 prints—include works by the most iconic British artists from the time of Henry VIII to the present day. J. M. W. Turner, William Blake, John Constable, and many other household names are represented there. This is the largest collection of British art outside the Isles. Additionally, the collection showcases art by foreign artists who influenced the formation of British art during the Tudor era, such as the Flemish Baroque painters Anthony van Dyck and Peter Paul Rubens, as well as the great Venetian landscape painter and printmaker Canaletto.
Designed by Louis I. Kahn, the Yale Center for British Art is a masterpiece of Modernist architecture. “Every architect around the world recognizes its design,” says George Knight, principal at Knight Architecture LLC, which was responsible for the museum’s conservation.
Born to a Jewish family in Russian-ruled Estonia in 1901, Kahn moved to the United States as a child. Educated at the University of Pennsylvania, he emerged as one of the luminaries of architectural modernism. In 1947, he moved to New Haven after getting an academic post at Yale University. There, he completed two of his best-known works: the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art.
In Kahn’s Beaux-Arts-influenced Modernist work, museums are secondary to the work they exhibit. The Yale Center perfectly embodies this—Knight has characterized it as “sublimely understated.” This makes the New Haven museum stand in contrast with the Guggenheim museums in New York and Bilbao, for example.
Natural light plays a crucial role. The top fourth floor building, which is an overview of the history of British art through the nineteenth century, is entirely sky-lit. The building’s exterior consists of stainless steel and glass windows allowing for more natural lighting and a concrete frame. The building features two courtyards, which indicates the influence of neoclassicism, as neoclassical museums have traditionally been built around courtyards. As Knight puts it, Kahn’s design is “august and uplifting, yet domestic, serene and humane."
There were several reasons for this restoration, the largest in the building’s history thus far. First, climate and lighting conditions were improved to prevent deterioration of the art. Additionally, the building’s infrastructure needed some modernization, and so improved plumbing and insulation were introduced. In response to growing awareness of the needs of patrons with disabilities, new railings, special seating in the Lecture Hall, and accessible restrooms were installed.
Furthermore, the Yale Center for British Art needed to expand to better fulfill its initial purpose—that of educating. As the museum’s collection has increased and the number of visitors has steadily grown, the building needed expansion to create more teaching space.
Knight Architecture LLC not only worked hard to preserve Kahn’s original vision, but focused above all on making it as similar as possible to the architect’s vision. The architectural firm’s stated approach was the upkeep of a modern building rather than preserving a historic relic. So they did a lot of research on the original blueprint before starting in order to see which features were of key cultural significance versus which were secondary to Kahn’s artistic vision and could be adapted.
In order to better reflect Kahn’s vision of the Long Gallery on the fourth floor as a space for education, the architects refurbished it to serve as a place of study and reflection. More than 200 works from the collection were installed across seven bays. The Long Gallery now more resembles a salon-style exhibition; previously, the gallery was composed of blocked-off units. A room on the fourth floor that served as an office was transformed into a seminar room where scholars and students could analyze works in the museum’s collection.
As far as aesthetic elements go, synthetic carpets were replaced with undyed wool carpeting, just as Kahn had initially specified. Meanwhile, the pogos—the moveable walls inside the gallery—were lifted off the ground to look as if they are floating, just as Kahn’s drawings had indicated.
A visit to the Yale Center for British Art is a twofold treat. Actually, make that a threefold treat: In addition to admiring beautiful art and one of the most acclaimed works of Modern architecture, you can see a miracle of conservation that actually brings an iconic building closer to its architect’s original vision.