The Yale Art Gallery, which reopened last month after a three-year renovation, eminently warrants a visit, but not only for its collection. That collection, to be sure, is splendid, highlighted by Vincent van Gogh’s Night Café (1888), his deeply disconcerting interior “with an atmosphere like the devil’s furnace.” But the building itself is a major work of Louis I. Kahn (1901-1974) and a visit reminds us why he was as important an architect in the second half of the 20th century as Frank Lloyd Wright was in the first.
Kahn was a late bloomer who came right down to the wire, creating no works of distinction or originality until he was fifty. This was the dilemma of his entire generation, which was steeped in the academic classicism of the Ecole des Beaux Arts. Their aesthetic was rendered obsolete almost overnight after 1929, first with the Depression and then with the arrival of European modernists fleeing Nazi Germany. Kahn embraced the flowing space and the abstract volumetric play of modernism, but he never quite jettisoned his classical roots.
Now disencumbered of its later accretions, the Yale Art Gallery depicts Kahn just as he was struggling to reconcile modernism with the lessons of architectural history. All of the devices of high modernism appear in it: the flat roof, the flowing interior space, the laconic expression of wall planes, even the innovative space frame that demonstratively carries the ceiling (or rather rhetorically carries it, since Kahn’s proposed system was too progressive for local building laws). And yet the building also has about it a sense of profound weight and solemnity that recalls the great monuments of the ancient world.
In a certain sense, the building is a failure, for Kahn could not integrate his ideas. The austere masonry cylinders in which the stairs are threaded speak a different architectural language than the all-glass wall facing the building’s courtyard. A decade would pass before his personal architectural language would emerge in such masterpieces as the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California.
Our academic institutions do not always do right by their historic architecture, yet Yale has done so here. Even better, across the street from the gallery is Kahn’s Yale Center for British Art, his last building. I know of no other place in America where you can take the whole measure of an architect’s career so poignantly.