PRINT February 2007


Crown Hall and the Yale University Art Gallery

“TO FIND OUT what architecture really is took me fifty years—half a century,” Ludwig Mies van der Rohe once admitted. Now another half century has passed since Mies completed his mature postwar buildings, and a wave of renovations is forcing us to reconsider what exactly he and his contemporaries found architecture to be and how to handle their discoveries. A convergence of age-related need, heightened historical appreciation, and persistent ignorance has produced a mixed record to date: ranging from the salutary reconstruction of Gordon Bunshaft’s Lever House and the conscientious forensic work on Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, both in New York, to the unnecessary disfigurement of Alvar Aalto’s Woodberry Poetry Room at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the controversial redesign of 2 Columbus Circle in New York. But to these can be added exemplary recent work on Mies’s own S. R. Crown Hall at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago and Louis Kahn’s Yale University Art Gallery in New Haven. These two projects make clear that, done seriously, restoration is an act of exegesis in which even the smallest moves are interpretative.

Designed by Mies for the architecture department he headed, Crown Hall, completed in 1956, was one of the last buildings of Mies’s great campus expansion at IIT and the most refined of his long-span, universal-space structures. Today, as the home base of a booming architecture school, the building continues to be crowded with the messy business of making things. Its restoration is being overseen by a large project team led by Donna Robertson, dean of the School of Architecture, with Mark Sexton and T. Gunny Harboe of the Chicago firms Krueck & Sexton and Harboe Architects, respectively. The most visible phases, including complete reconstruction of the perimeter curtain wall and south porch, are complete. Replanting of the surrounding landscape is ongoing, and important mechanical upgrades—needed to tame the infernal climate of this glass box—are upcoming.

The Yale University Art Gallery, which opened in 1953, was Kahn’s first significant building and has long been seen as an early, but ultimately unresolved, draft of the monumental modernism that he spent the next two decades exploring. Although originally it too housed architecture and design departments, Kahn’s building has been devoted solely to the art gallery since 1963. A major aim of its recently completed renovation, headed by Leslie Myers and Louisa Cunningham of the gallery and Duncan Hazard of Polshek Partnership Architects in New York, was to further liberate space for exhibitions by clearing out staff offices that had accreted over the years.

Both buildings have been celebrated for their honesty—what you see is what you get—but such jargons of aesthetic authenticity founder in the face of a primary modernist material: glass. For the only truth of glass is its variability, its constant shift from transparent to reflective. In the modernist curtain wall, this visually unstable surface is, with some difficulty, made into a boundary of environmental control, the front between a well-tempered interior and the weather outside. Successfully handling these unique characteristics of glass became the central challenge of the Crown Hall and Yale University Art Gallery restorations, and in both buildings, it became a game of fractions of inches.

This was to be expected in a structure by Mies, who long professed that his deity was detail-oriented. Fittingly, the deepest philosophical controversy of the Crown Hall restoration concerned an eighth of an inch. Mies’s original exterior skin was an extreme manifestation of his “almost nothing” (beinahe nichts) architecture: Vast sheets of quarter-inch-thick plate glass, reaching nearly ten feet by thirteen feet in the upper panels, were hung in narrow steel frames and secured by even narrower steel stops. In their Platonic abstraction many of Mies’s buildings have difficulty facing empirical conditions. Normally the trouble is creeping—condensation, corrosion, overheating—but at Crown Hall reality occasionally came crashing in, as when a strong Lake Michigan wind would shatter one of the impossibly thin glass panels. Stopping this spontaneous defenestration (and meeting present-day code) required doubling the glass thickness to half an inch. To hold the extra weight, the “bite” of the stops on the glass needed to be increased from five-eighths of an inch to three-quarters. Great controversy surrounded how this should be done. Simply using thicker stops would make the black steel profile too heavy. The eventual solution was to use stops that tapered from five-eighths on the outside to three-quarters at the point of contact with the glass. This was visually and practically acceptable, but it introduced nonorthogonal planes to Mies’s obsessively rectilinear world; it also meant replacing the original stock steel stops with custom-made ones. Purists on the renovation team saw this as a subtle corruption of the master’s finest building. By giving priority to appearance, the tapered stop favors a contemporary antiessentialist interpretation of Mies that emphasizes the visual impact of his work—but what an impact it is. With the sandblasted lower glass panels also restored and the steel frames repainted to their original “Mies black” (actually a very dark charcoal), the reconstructed building offers gorgeously unified facades that are materially thin and phenomenally deep—revealing, reflecting, defusing, and glowing all at once.

Given Kahn’s reputation as an architect of brute materiality, it is more surprising that the Yale University Art Gallery renovation demanded a similarly high level of finesse. While images typically stress the solidity of the tetrahedral ceiling and the opacity of the brick facade, three-fifths of the perimeter of the building is, in fact, glass-and-steel curtain wall. Because Kahn used a more advanced, insulated double-paned glass, his transparent facades never shattered but deteriorated steadily. When the restoration began, nearly all the glass panels were obscured by internal fogging; in cold weather the interior sides of the highly conductive steel frames also dripped with condensation. The elegant solution was to replace the glass and substitute thermally broken aluminum for the steel frames with only minor changes in their profiles. The reconstructed curtain walls are the greatest revelation of the project, providing a crystalline wrapper for Kahn’s famously massive floor plates.

Naturally, materiality is still a major source of the pleasure offered by the YUAG, but the careful refinishing of the interior shows the materials to be far more refined than the building’s common Brutalist tag would suggest. To contemporary eyes the materials seem to be handled not in the service of existential authenticity (a common interpretation) but as a palette of contrasting colors and textures—warm oak parquet, coarse matte concrete, polished black terrazzo—in a manner that suggests the work of Herzog & de Meuron. The famous concrete-block interior walls, which are now nearly all reexposed after spending years under plasterboard, appear demonstratively unfinished not because that is “what a wall wants to be” (it probably wants to have its joints properly struck), but because of the contrast such crudeness makes against the glossy terrazzo. The sight of Reynolds and Renoir on concrete block does produce a shock, but Kahn’s use of such a provocative surface in a gallery challenges not so much the inauthenticity of the white plasterboard norm but its banality (the hundreds of white-box gallery spaces around the world are just as real but just not as interesting). Unlike the expanded Museum of Modern Art in New York, Kahn’s gallery does not attempt a doomed disappearing act; and unlike a Frank Gehry museum, it does not constantly clamor for attention. Instead, the YUAG stands in balance with the art it contains—supportive but independent.

Since its conception Kahn’s building has been described as a raw, adaptable “loft” structure; in the renovated gallery this concept has been interpreted to mean that installations must be completely demountable—none of the floor, wall, or ceiling surfaces can be pierced. For the most part this is a productive restriction, resulting in exhibitions that charge the space by pressing against the permanent structure of the building while remaining separate from it. All hanging works are either suspended from picture rails or mounted on freestanding “pogo” walls. These walls, wisely restored to their original dimensions, are really floating partitions supported by adjustable poles that wedge between the floor and ceiling—allowing great flexibility in their placement while maintaining the visual continuity of the galleries. The opening installation shows off the diverse environments that the wall system can create: from their complete absence in a remarkable student-curated show in the first-floor temporary gallery, to a loose, open-field arrangement in the modern and contemporary gallery, to a roomlike sequence for early European art. The exhibition space gained in the renovation has also allowed the creation of a new African gallery, based on the recent gift of the Charles B. Benenson collection, and greatly expanded coverage of Asian art.

The virtues that demountability can breed are best displayed in the smart new entry-level addition by New York–based Joel Sanders Architect. Picking up on Kahn’s black terrazzo bands, Sanders has designed a freestanding snake of ebonized oak cabinetry that carries the reception desk, retail display, small bar, banquet seating, and a retractable video screen. With beveled corners that recall Tony Smith’s sculptures and Kahn’s own triangulating geometries, the assemblage provides an appropriately adaptable base for the varied media and services demanded by a contemporary museum.

The brave use of a markedly new element—rather than a faux Kahn construction—in such a prominent location exemplifies the sort of tough choices that will inevitably arise in other high-profile postwar renovations (including Yale’s Art and Architecture Building by Paul Rudolph, which is beginning its own complex restoration). There can be no dogmatic approach to these decisions—they must be adjudicated on a case-by-case basis. Happily, at the Yale University Art Gallery and at Crown Hall they have been made with enough knowledge and concern to allow adjustments and additions that are respectful without being slavish; which is to say that both projects have found ways to make postwar architecture new again.

Sean Keller is a visiting lecturer in the department of the history of art at Yale Universirty in New Haven, CT.