Fred A. Bernstein

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Restoring Louis Kahn's "Undergraduate Project" at Yale

The Yale University Art Gallery gets an extensive, but faithful, renovation

Published in The New York Times, November 7, 2004

IN the film ''My Architect,'' Nathaniel Kahn set out to learn the truth about his father, Louis Kahn, who died in 1974. His journey included two trips to Connecticut: one to New Canaan to interview the architect Philip Johnson, and the other to New Haven, where his father designed both the Yale University Art Gallery and the Yale Center for British Art.

Now another effort to uncover the real Louis Kahn is underway in New Haven. The Yale art gallery, completed by Mr. Kahn in 1953, is in the midst of a three-year renovation meant to restore it to its original state.

The building was Mr. Kahn's first major public commission. Twenty years later, he built the more opulent British art center across the street.

''I think of them as Kahn's undergraduate and graduate projects,'' said Anna Hammond, the art gallery's deputy director.

Cesar Pelli, a former dean of Yale's architecture school, called the art gallery ''a revelation.''

''It was extraordinarily important architecturally, and a great, great gallery,'' he said. ''It's the building that made Lou's career.''

The gallery was the first modernist building at Yale. Many 1950's buildings were flimsy and forgettable, but Mr. Kahn found a way to give modern architecture gravitas. With its sculptural concrete elements and windowless street facade, it feels as timeless as the Italian Gothic Swartout building, Yale's original art gallery, next door.

Inside, Mr. Kahn used modern technology to create open spaces that could be configured to meet changing needs. A central stairway, contained in a cylinder of rough concrete, provides access to the building's loft-like spaces. In the galleries, the only walls are movable partitions, which curators can deploy as needed.

While the front of the building, facing Chapel Street, is brick, its west facade, overlooking Yale's 1960's Art and Architecture Building, is glass. Between the gallery and the Art and Architecture Building, a sculpture court once stood behind a Kahn-designed concrete wall.

Perhaps the building's most unusual feature is its ceiling, composed of hundreds of poured-in-place concrete triangles. Mr. Kahn ran ductwork, electrical conduits and lighting tracks above the triangular coffers; they are readily accessible but barely visible because the only way to see them is to look straight up.

In many modern buildings, ceilings are not really designed, but surrendered to lights, vents, sprinklers and other hardware. Mr. Kahn made the ceiling an important piece of the architectural composition, like an expansive concrete sculpture.

When the building was completed, its top floor was an open studio for architecture students. The Manhattan architect James Polshek was in the first class of students to be trained there, with Mr. Kahn himself as an instructor. He remembers the building as inspiring, but also problematic.

''We were shocked that the windows didn't open,'' Mr. Polshek said. ''That was a new thing then.''

To improve ventilation, Mr. Polshek and his classmates propped open the emergency doors, and to cut glare in the studio, they hung tracing paper over the walls of glass.

Mr. Polshek's firm, Polshek Partnership Architects of Manhattan, is overseeing the $19 million renovation. When he was interviewed for the job, Mr. Polshek said, ''I pledged to protect the integrity of the building.''

Over the years, the building has suffered many degradations. Some could have been avoided, as when the sculpture court was enclosed, or when warrens of offices replaced the open studio on the building's top floor.

Others problems came from the use of methods and materials that lagged behind Mr. Kahn's vision. The west facade consists of two layers of glass within 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 frame gets so cold that water condenses on it.

''Right from the beginning, there were pans to catch the condensation,'' said Duncan Hazard, a partner in the Polshek firm. But that is unacceptable in a gallery that contains priceless art, including paintings by Van Gogh and Picasso.

Mr. Hazard said he wanted ''to put in a 68-degree, 50 percent relative humidity environment that can be maintained year round.'' That means rebuilding the glass wall. Its new aluminum frames will have small gaps between their inner and outer layers. What Mr. Hazard called ''a thermally broken wall,'' will keep outside temperatures from being felt indoors. But because of the gaps, the new frame will protrude a bit farther into the building than the old one.

Anticipating criticism, Mr. Hazard said that, from the outside, the window frames will look exactly as they did a half century ago.

A mock-up of the new glass wall has been fabricated in Pennsylvania. The wall itself is only now being built, which is one reason the building will not reopen before 2006.

The wooden gallery floors are now covered; they will be refinished after the glass walls are in place. A temporary climate control system will keep the boards from warping while new heating and air conditioning systems are installed. The concrete stairwell is also being repaired, and a handicapped entrance has been added.

Mr. Hazard compared the renovation to restoring an important work of art.

''The building,'' he said, ''is one of the great pieces in Yale's collection.''