Kahn's Yale University Art Gallery
The vertical layering of the floors is a sedimentation. We are presented symbolically with an archeological site, a resistance from which something must be excavated or retrieved. This is our relationship to the contents of the Yale Art Gallery — the condition of art in general.
The entry stair at Yale lies at the bottom of a spatial well, formed by the recession of the blank wall. The recessed entry door itself is defined by an absent increment of the glass fenestration. Kahn invoked a Miesian vision of glass with the recessed wall, reflected on the opaque white curtains behind the fenestration. He dematerialized the wall through which we enter the virtual or imaginary condition of the art gallery.
From the exterior spatial well we enter a vestibule and then deviate to the open loft spaces of the first floor. The horizontal continuity of this space is broken by the core elements: the circular enclosure of the main stair, the elevator and mechanical core, and a secondary exit stair interfacing with the rear garden.
We circulate through the breaks in this spatial blockage as if through a sieve to the open gallery space at the other side. Scully characterized the original interior design as archaic, governed as it was by the exposed concrete tetrahedral ceiling and the peripheral walls of concrete block.
Certainly, Kahn's adoption of the hollow tetrahedral structural system had the advantages of allowing for the allocation of mechanical and electrical systems over the open lofts. Yet it was structurally inefficient, being 60 percent heavier than a more conventional structural solution. Kahn levitated the rigid, hollow stone-like slab over our heads. The ceiling system appears to float.
The circular stair silo that penetrates vertically through the sedimented floor levels is a restatement of human finitude. Entering the stair from the upper floor, the stair runs plunge vertically into spatial depth, into an abyss or a well condition. On this stair, we are ultimately suspended between the basement level and the triangulated roof structure which seals the silo.
But the rim of the silo between the silo roof and the main gallery roof is filled with continuous curved glass blocks allowing a "transcendent" light to fill the silo, leaving the triangular ceiling structure a dark void against the light. This structure is a citation from the tetrahedral floor and ceiling structure of the gallery. The stair generated out of this geometry, an almost helical form, frees itself from the rigidity of the ceiling, only to be encompassed by the new limit of the silo walls.
The Windows Speak
At the rear fenestration of the Yale Art Gallery, the sliding wood shutters appear in giant fixed form in the way the glazing is enframed at the vertical edges through three levels, projecting the glazing forward of the piers and the brick portion of the facade.
The mullions form a cage-like pattern organized within these giant enframings. They are curtain walls stretching from the exterior garden terraces at grade to thin cornices above, and they suggest a horizontal movement that has been stilled. Kahn has refined the industrial sash and curtain walls of such works as the AEG Turbine Hall (1909) of Peter Behrens and the Bauhaus (1925-26) of Walter Gropius, confirming the link between an industrial aesthetic and the new educational programs in art.
A reading of the plan suggests that the entire building is a displaced box whose core elements lock the composition in place. If the core elements were removed, the geometry of the building would collapse to an originating square adjacent to the face of the original 1925 gallery.
At the rear garden terrace, the continuous paving courses parallel to the rear fenestration denote this shift. The virtual shift of the upper terrace uncovers the ground, allowing us to ascend from the lower terrace via the double run of exterior stairs. The position of these outside stairs, seemingly displaced from the datum marked by the internal stairs and the repetition of the upper paving pattern in the lower terrace, reinforce this observation.
The Yale University Art Gallery embodies nearly every architectonic theme or device that Kahn returned to in his later architectural production. His accomplishment was not the formal variation of elements as ends in themselves, but his constant ability to extract from this void means to express his belief in the institutions he was working for.
Jeffry Kieffer is an architect who lives in New York City. He has worked for the NYC Department of Design and Construction, the NYC Transit Authority, and the office of Richard Dattner. He has taught at the New Jersey Institute of Technology School of Architecture and written about Kahn's work for A+U and Space and Society magazines.
This article is excerpted from the first chapter of Readings from the Architecture of Louis I. Kahn, copyright © 2001 by Jeffry Kieffer, available from Xlibris and from Amazon.com.
Note: The images in the book are in black and white.