Fred A. Bernstein

Letting Kahn Be Kahn

Restoring the Yale University Art Gallery

Published in The New York Times, December 10, 2006

JOCK REYNOLDS, the ebullient director of the Yale University Art Gallery, pointed to one of the museum's masterworks: a 13th-century Florentine painting of the Madonna and Child. Over the centuries, large parts of the tempera had cracked off. Painting new scenes in the gaps wasn't an option, but neither was leaving the composition badly fractured. Instead, a restorer spent almost two years working with a single-hair brush to insert a subtle pattern, reminiscent of wood grain, that gently unifies the painting.

The restorer, Mr. Reynolds said, "quieted down the wear and tear, without denying that it had occurred."

Mr. Reynolds could just as easily be describing the restoration of the gallery, designed by Louis Kahn and considered a masterpiece of 20th-century architecture. Completed in 1953, it was Mr. Kahn's first public commission and Yale's first modernist building. But by its 50th birthday the gallery was crumbling almost as badly as the 700-year-old painting. Among other offenses, curators had attached sheetrock to Mr. Kahn's famous concrete block walls, leaving them riddled with holes. Thanks to nail guns, the walls "were literally shot up," Mr. Reynolds said.

The holes are filled in now, but they are still visible if you look closely. Replacing Mr. Kahn's walls wasn't an option, but neither was leaving the building in its damaged state. "We didn't try to make you feel that nothing had happened," Mr. Reynolds said. As with the painting, he said, "we just wanted to calm things down."

The restoration was a three-year, $44 million operation spearheaded by Polshek Partnership Architects of New York City. When it came to discerning Mr. Kahn's intentions, it helped that James Polshek, the firm's founder, had studied architecture in the building soon after it opened. (Mr. Kahn was one of his professors at the time.) Then, too, the original form of the building, which was initially Yale's architecture studio and its art museum, was amply documented in blueprints and vintage photos. Those photos reveal the building's glories: the west-facing wall of glass overlooking a sunken sculpture court; the ceilings composed of hundreds of poured-in-place concrete tetrahedrons; and the cylindrical stairwell, one of the powerful forms that makes Mr. Kahn's architecture feel timeless. Throughout, the palette is surprisingly warm - Mr. Kahn's concrete blocks have a pinkish cast - in a way that many modernist buildings are not.

But over the years, as the building's functions changed, the building changed, too. To create more room for exhibitions, curators put a roof over the sunken courtyard. To add more offices, walls were installed where Mr. Kahn had intended open, loftlike spaces. And endless encrustations, from signage to bookcases (not to mention architecture students' graffiti), had damaged nearly every surface of the building.

Some of the problems were the result of Mr. Kahn's attempts to go beyond what 1950s materials permitted. On the window walls, Mr. Kahn used two layers of glass set into rudimentary steel frames. Over the years, moisture and dirt found their way into the space between the layers, taking the windows from clear to cloudy. In winter, the inner surface of the steel frames became so cold that water condensed on it. Students, Mr. Polshek remembered, installed drip pans to collect the condensation.

Updating the window walls, while respecting Mr. Kahn's aesthetic, was one of the restorers' greatest challenges. The new window frames required a "thermal break," a gap, between the inside and outside edges. But that had to be done without changing the building's exterior appearance. So the frames now intrude an extra few inches into the galleries - a small price to pay to keep moisture out of a building that houses priceless artworks.

The windows have been treated with coatings to keep harmful ultraviolet rays off the paintings and drawings. But the coatings aren't enough; the architects also installed vinyl shades inside the windows. During my visit, the shades made the glass-walled galleries - conceived by Mr. Kahn before the effects of ultraviolet rays on artworks were understood - seem claustrophobic.

Otherwise, the restorers' reverence is palpable throughout the building, where new systems, including a greatly expanded elevator, slip almost invisibly into the master's elegant spaces. In the lobby, Joel Sanders, a Yale architecture professor and Manhattan practitioner, was tapped to design a gift shop, information desk and student lounge that could also be used for receptions and lectures. He created an ingenious series of furnishings that, while appearing to be built-in, are almost entirely free-standing. His mandate, he said, was to avoid making permanent changes to Mr. Kahn's building.

That was the right approach. Yale, whose art conservators have brought many masterpieces back to life, has done the same for this one. "It's a nice building," said Mr. Reynolds. "Don't you think?"