New Haven, Connecticut
Walking through Louis Kahn’s Center for British Art—where sunlight streams in from skylights, and concrete, wood, metal, and stone combine in precise yet monumental ways—leaves one yearning for the days when museums, quite honestly, weren’t so sterile.
After comprehensive research on the history of the design and construction of Kahn’s last museum by London-based Peter Inskip and Stephen Gee, who created a conservation plan, several phases of work began in 2008, including exterior courtyard renovation (removing years of accretions like awnings and trellises), followed by interior restoration. The center was completely closed for a year and a half; it reopened to the public last month.
“The building is the center’s largest and most complex work of art,” says director Amy Meyers, who saw the need for its overhaul upon noticing a “looming list of issues,” not least of which were its outdated mechanical, electrical, fire protection, and security systems.
“It’s difficult to bring new systems to a building that had been so beautifully designed for the systems of the 1970s,” explains George Knight. His locally based firm, Knight Architecture, oversaw the restoration project.
Located across the street from Kahn’s first major commission, the Yale University Art Gallery (1953), on the school’s campus in New Haven, Connecticut, the five-story center opened in 1977, three years after Kahn’s untimely death, which left some of the architect’s design intentions unclear.
For instance, the design for, and configuration of, the “pogo” walls—lightweight panels used as independent display screens throughout the galleries—was at last realized, based on drawings that predate Kahn’s death. That included changing their edge-trim details and linen covering. The galleries also received new wool carpeting, replacing the synthetic one installed not long ago.
In other cases, work was carried out to bring certain elements to code. Within the iconic cylindrical concrete stairwell, nonconforming step heights were addressed. “It was painstaking work to drill out those travertine steps,” recalls Knight. Metal handrails, considered too wide for today’s standards, were replaced with new ones sympathetic to the originals.
Furniture designer Don Chadwick’s modular gallery chairs are an updated version of the ones used originally. The lecture hall’s new seating was reconfigured to improve circulation.
The building looks mostly untouched from the outside, and it was untouched. Though the facade’s “pewter” steel panels were found to be impossible to replicate, behind them, the merely 3-inch-thick walls were completely rebuilt from the interior side, improving thermal performance while maintaining the same ultrathin profile. Stains on concrete throughout the interiors were carefully removed.
As for all that daylight, the center conducted tests on a couple of the works of art next to windows or below skylights and found that they had been unharmed. (Note to museums everywhere.) Sunlight was, however, responsible for bleaching the white oak panels of the entrance court, requiring those to be refinished. But, then again, after 40 years, what—and who—couldn’t use some sprucing up?