Polshek's Kahn Yale Gallery Restoration
Over the years, to accommodate more staff, a growing collection (now 185,000 objects), more conservatory space, and more visitors, walls were erected, galleries were partitioned off, temporary accommodations became permanent, and the clarity of Kahn's vision became clouded.
Too Much Moisture
The building itself literally became clouded — the large glass panels of its window walls became misty with condensation, making it difficult to see in or out. The steel and glass walls that make up two-thirds of the building envelope had their limitations in New Haven's cold climate. There was literally no insulation in the solid steel window frames, which allowed cold outdoor temperatures to transfer inside.
Museums typically have moist indoor air to help preserve the artwork. In the case of the Yale Art Gallery, the interior relative humidity of 50 percent meant that the window wall sweated buckets.
According to architect Duncan Hazard, who headed up the project team for the Polshek firm, the condensation problem was apparent almost immediately after the building opened in 1953. Kahn designed drip pans to be placed under the window walls to catch the falling condensation. "It was a troubled wall," says Hazard.
In the restoration, the steel frames and glass were completely replaced. An examination of the details and features of the new glass walls reveal that they are designed by the Polshek Partnership to look exactly like Kahn's original wall. But the new glass and steel envelope has insulation to limit thermal transfer, to keep the cold out and stop the condensation problems.
The new glass and steel wall was extended down to the basement level on the building's west side, which now opens out to an open-air courtyard that contains Richard Serra's "Stacks" sculpture. The courtyard was part of the Kahn's original design, but in the 1970s it was covered with a roof and enclosed as new gallery space. It is now the way Kahn intended it to look.
Too Little Lighting
The Yale University Art Gallery was a pioneer in track lighting, which allows light fixtures to be located virtually anywhere along a horizontal track, and which is now the standard around the world for illuminating museums, galleries, and retail spaces.
For the restoration, the number of lighting tracks was doubled to allow greater curatorial flexibility. But the upgrade was a tedious process because the tracks were difficult to get at. They were tucked above Kahn's beautiful concrete triangular-patterned ceiling — the tracks had been installed first, and then the concrete floor was poured above them.
According to Hazard, the old tracks had to be removed by cutting them into short pieces, and new tracks were then installed. The new track lighting is identical to the original, but with twice as many tracks, it is now possible to illuminate a piece of art anywhere in the gallery. It's a good example of what Hazard describes as the guiding approach throughout the project: "To do what was needed without making it obvious."
Upgrading an Icon
Another challenge in the restoration was to provide wheelchair access. The gallery's front door is up a flight of steps, nearly six feet (1.8 meters) above the sidewalk. A ramp in front of Kahn's pristine all-brick facade along Chapel Street was considered out of the question — it would have to be about 75 feet (23 meters) long and would have a huge impact on the building's appearance.
The restoration architects hit upon the idea of tucking a lift just inside the older Yale University Art Gallery building that abuts Kahn's structure next to its front entrance. You reach the lift through a new glass door, and it elegantly solves the access problem. A new elevator inside the building, three times the size of Kahn's original, now allows large works of art to be moved with greater ease.
The newly restored Kahn building is path-breaking in another way. Many buildings designed and constructed in the post-World War II years are now reaching the upper limits of their life-spans, and their restoration or rejuvenation is not as easy to accomplish as that of classical buildings of earlier periods.
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