Lacking the monumental stairs and grand doorway that often frame the entrance of other museums, the Yale Center for British Art, a functional rectangle of matte steel and reflective glass, isn’t imposing from outside. New Haven architect George Knight, whose office is nearby, understands why, from the outside, some may simply see it as "box for art."
But as Knight, who was hired by the Yale Center to oversee a long-term restoration of the storied, Louis Kahn-designed building, knows, the reserved exterior gives way to a temple for visual art, an elegant, exquisitely planned space filled with skylit galleries. The center’s director Amy Meyers calls it "the most important piece of artwork in our collection."
Next Wednesday, after eight years of planning and a 16-month closure for renovations, the four-story building will reopen to the public once again, giving patrons and visitors a new appreciation for Kahn’s vision. While his assignment was drawn out, based on original blueprints and a more than 200 page conservation plan that demanded fidelity to original materials, Knight appreciated the chance to deliver work on a timeline that focused on long-term legacy.
"It wasn’t a simple renovation," says Knight. "We’ve all been disappointed by building renovations that killed them. We wanted to restore this building in an orderly way that conferred a sense of calm and rigor."
Kahn’s last design before his death in 1974, the Yale Center for British Art, commissioned by the Connecticut school to house the collection of donor Paul Mellon, showcases many of the lessons the architect learned from his previous major museum commissions, and provided a fitting bookend to his career. His first major project, the Yale University Art Gallery he designed in the early ‘50s, sits across the street.
Built from a carefully constructed grid system, the museum consists of a series of educational spaces, galleries, and courtyards, decorated with a reserved series of materials, including ceilings and windows framed in concrete, meant to illuminate and draw focus to the artwork. The winner of a prestigious AIA Twenty-Five Year Award, it’s a confirmed classic.
Using the type of anatomical metaphor Kahn would often employ to describe his buildings, Knight compared the restoration to a delicate work of a surgeon.
"Anatomically, we found ourself with a fabulous body that had certain health issues," Knight says. "Replacing the systems can be like opening a body and taking the heart out."
In keeping with Kahn’s meticulous approach, this update was more a carefully researched conservation project as opposed to a wholesale renovation. In the decades since the building’s completion, advances in security, technology, and lighting, as well as the deterioration of building's finishes, presented the chance to both preserve the structure and provide a functional update ensuring its continued relevance. Kahn’s spartan layout, consisting of thin walls and a poured concrete ceiling designed with a focus on materials systems and skylit galleries, left little space for maneuvering, and made updating systems and structures within the building a technical challenge.
The surgical renovations and replacements stripped down the interior and then built it back up with modern technology and security features, all while replicating the original material palette of travertine marble, white oak, and Belgian linen. Finishes were rejuvenated throughout the building, including woodwork, carpets (synthetic replacements from an older update were swapped out with undyed wool), and the exterior metal panels.
The renovation also reorganized and maximized space within the galleries. Workers opened up the Long Gallery, a grand space once partitioned with room dividers, to create a showcase for sculpture, and modernized the lecture hall to create a 21st century space for teaching, communications, and performance. Dividing walls were elevated to create the sensation of floating surfaces for display, to better highlight pieces from the museum’s archive of hundreds of works of art, the largest such collection outside of the U.K.
During the process of putting the building back together, Knight, who often worked from original drawings, felt like he and the staff had put themselves in the hands of a master architect. It was like taking a class and being a student again, an experience he’s sad to see end.
"It’s been difficult for a lot of people that this space has been closed so long for renovations," he says. "For me, it’s going to be difficult to see it open. But, my melancholy is soothed by the fact that the building will be beloved again in new and deeper ways.