Louis Kahn’s Yale Centre for British Art


Instructor: Peter Eisenman

Completed posthumously, the Yale Centre for British Art is often discussed in the context of Louis Kahn’s death. Chapel Street runs like a truncated timeline between Kahn’s first major commission, the Yale Art Gallery, and his last, the Centre for British Art. The poignancy of this fortuitous arrangement often overshadows any sustained analysis of the building itself, relegating it to a convenient bookend for its prolific creator’s diverse architectural output. This perception is promoted by the apparent simplicity and clarity of the three-dimensional grid that organizes the building. However, it is precisely this element’s complexity and nuance that makes the building critically important and worthy of study.

Structured around a 10 x 6 grid, the building lends itself to analysis due to the subtlety with which Kahn deviates from the apparent formal clarity of the building’s Cartesian system, and the spatial consequences of these deviations. This approach is not typical of Kahn’s work; many of his buildings, such as the Exeter library and National Assembly building in Bangladesh are praised for their absolute formal clarity and organizational logic. In the context of his earlier projects, the Centre for British Art reveals an architect in full command of a highly personal architectural language, composing a building that continually shifts between a classical, mathematically-derived harmony, and the asymmetry and tension of the modern movement. These shifts result in a series of experientially distinct spaces appropriate for displaying a large and diverse collection of artwork.

The building’s geometric clarity and harmony is a function of the rigor with which Kahn applies the golden ratio to determine its proportions (Diagram 1). The origins of this ratio - 5:3 - stretch back to the mathematicians of Ancient Greece, but it particularly fascinated the artists and architects of the Renaissance. The ratio can be defined using a simple geometric operation: the division of a perfect square into two halves, drawing a line from the midpoint of one side to the opposite corner, and using the resultant diagonal as the radius to draw an arc that defines the length of a rectangle whose length and width adhere to the ratio 5:3. The dimensions of a number of elements in the Centre for British Art are determined using this ratio; the plan measures 200 x 120 feet and is divided into bays 20 feet wide and 12 feet tall. Externally, the ratio is expressed in the 10 foot x 6 foot stainless steel panels that act as infill to the structural grid. The ratio occurs in its purest form at street level in the 5 foot x 3 foot openings for the shops and building entrance. The use of the ratio to organize everything from the dimensions of the building to the openings on the façade creates a clearly perceptible part-to-whole relationship between all of the building’s elements that draws from the spatial logic of the High Renaissance, establishing a continuity that serves to connect the distinct spaces within the building, and a clarity appropriate to the building’s function as a space for the contemplation of artwork.

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The use of the ratio to organize multiple elements leads results in a grid system that is experienced throughout the building. At once a pure expression of a geometric conception, a structural armature, and a means of defining space, Kahn explores its full potential as an architectural device. Internally, it is experienced through Kahn’s use of wall panels and contrasting materials to demarcate individual grid units. Additionally, the points of intersection between horizontal and vertical lines are made evident by a column grid whose density mediates progression through the various spaces of the building. On the ground floor, the visitor enters into a full-height atrium entirely free of columns. Entering this space, the grid can still be perceived in the roof beams which are clearly visible from the ground floor and in the wooden panels that line the walls of the atrium, but Kahn takes advantage of the potential of the columns’ absence to choreograph the building’s entry sequence and create an emphatic sense of arrival. If the columns that Kahn has removed are replaced, it is possible to clearly define the missing grid units, and a Greek cross plan emerges (Diagram 2). The Greek cross plan is a rigidly symmetrical church arrangement where the nave and transept are of equal length. Commonly used in the design of Orthodox churches, the Greek cross plan was also employed during the Renaissance, most notably in Bramante’s plan for St. Peter’s basilica. Typically, one enters a Greek cross church through a space of compression - a narthex or vestibule - stretched along the front of the church. A dome surmounts the crossing of nave and transept in the centre of the church, so that progression from the narthex to the crossing becomes an experience of compression and expansion, a metaphorical allusion to the religious experience. In the Centre for British Art, Kahn uses the same principles of compression and expansion to establish an experiential progression akin to that of the Greek cross type, however, the entry vestibule is not located where it would be expected – centrally on High Street – but rather, it is transferred to the corner of the building. It is also stretched in the horizontal direction, emphasizing the experience of compression prior to entering the building – an experience that clearly removes the visitor from the realm of the street and prepares for entry into the building. Reading the building’s ground floor as a Greek cross plan, the role of the dome in providing a vertical expansion is replaced by the verticality of the atrium. However, this is displaced from its expected position at the crossing and is experienced immediately upon entering the building. In this way Kahn compresses the powerful spatial sequence of the Greek cross plan into the space of the entry sequence of the Centre for British Art, creating an incredibly dynamic experience that emphasizes the sense of arrival and separation from the street and that is entirely at odds with the stasis expected from the rigidity of the building’s Cartesian logic.

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Kahn further undermines the logic of the Greek cross plan in the horizontal dimension. The shifting of the entry vestibule to the corner of the building results in a diagonal entry into a space otherwise characterized by its bi-axial symmetry. The diagonal approach establishes a tension between inside and outside that is appropriate to the act of entry, whilst challenging the apparent symmetry and harmony that is expressed on the building’s façade.

This tension is echoed in the floors above. Despite the apparent clarity of the grid, and its inherent suggestion of a centre, the building resists a clear perception of a single origin or focus. The gallery spaces are organized around two large atria, one at the entrance that stretches the full height of the building, and a second beyond the building’s cylindrical stairwell, rising from the second floor to the roof (Diagram 3). Initially, the volume of the atria appears to be different; the eastern atrium has an area of four blocks within the grid system, while the western atrium is elongated, stretched in the x direction by a distance of one block so that it is composed of a total of 6 blocks. However, the presence of the cylindrical stairwall in the larger of the two atria serves to subdivide its area, so that both atria can be read as having the same area. The question of size is an important one, since the atria act as two distinct cores within the building; an initial reading of two atria of different sizes introduces the destabilizing potential of hierarchy into the inherently uniform system of the grid. However, this hierarchy is not emphatically established, and remains as a suggestion that charges the connection between the two sides of the building. Kahn achieves this ambiguity by displacing the larger atrium vertically - an action which reduces its overall volume - and inserting the mass of the cylindrical stairwell into the atrium, further reducing its perceived volume. The circulation space thus becomes crucial in relation in the overall organization of the building, a fact that is significant in the context of Kahn’s body of work due to the concept of separation of servant and served spaces that is clearly present in many of his earlier projects. At Exeter library, the central atrium is treated as the undeniable central focus of the building. Circulation occurs around the atrium’s perimeter, while stairwells are relegated to the outermost part of the library, segregated from the main volume spatially, but also materially through the transition from concrete to the rougher texture of brick in the stairwell. By contrast, at the Centre for British Art, the stairwell becomes a focal point, dividing and eroding the dominance of the atrium. Its concrete construction only serves to highlight its mass and presence as an object, so that circulating around the western atrium also becomes an act of circulating around the stairwell. Additionally, any perception of the size or volume of the atrium itself is directly affected by a viewer’s proximity to the stairwell.

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Kahn’s resistance to creating a clearly perceptible relationship between the two atria and two sides of the building is evident in further analysis of the plan (Diagram 4). The building’s plan can be bisected into two rectangles of 5 units x 6 units or two overlapping squares of 6 units x 6 units. The rectangular composition of the facades and plans of the building suggests a bi-axial symmetry that supports the first of these two readings; the building’s transverse line of symmetry is articulated on the façade by the positioning of a single column on the ground floor at the midpoint of the façade, and internally by the position of certain service elements: the edge of the elevator banks and the diagonal arrangement of the building’s ventilation cores. The alternate reading - of two overlapping squares – is relevant in the context of the building’s larger division into square bays, and is emphasized by the distribution of the circulation and service elements precisely in the area of overlap between the two squares. Both readings are therefore present within the building’s organizational logic, and moving through the centre of the building and around the two atria, results in an inevitable crossing of alternate lines of symmetry and subdivision, creating a fluid and dynamic separation of space within the regularity of the grid system that allows for multiple curatorial opportunities and the potential to establish complex, overlapping relationships between artworks.

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Kahn’s ability to employ the grid system and subtly manipulate it is also evident in his treatment of the facades of the building. The height of each grid unit is 12 feet and is articulated through the visual presence of the building’s concrete structural system on each façade (Diagram 5). The structural system continues uninterrupted around the entire volume of the building; at the natural points of inflection such as the building’s corners, Kahn locates vertical piers that run the full height of the façade. Considered as vertical elements within the grid, these piers are integral to the geometric logic of each of the facades meeting at the corner, and therefore serve to emphasize the continuity of the system rather than its separation into distinct components. By emphasizing the system’s continuity and inherent logic as a means of ordering the facades, Kahn points to the organization of space within, while ensuring an understanding of the building as a single, volumetric entity. This reading adds an important dimension to the experience of the grid internally, not only as a mechanism for dividing space, but also for extracting from it. Thus the building’s interior can be read as the interplay of positive and negative space between the galleries and atria, and by extension, the interplay between the sense of exteriority created by the act of excavation that forms the atria, and sense of interiority within the galleries themselves. This condition allows for two distinct viewing environments that directly relate to the artwork on display – from the portraiture that is better suited to the intimacy of an English country house drawing room, to the pastoral landscapes and Stubbs paintings better suited to the expansive nature of the western atrium.

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Within the structural grid of the façade, each geometric unit is articulated by stainless steel panels and glazing units. Although the grid acts as a rigidly geometric presence, Kahn’s positioning of the glazing units serves to set up a syncopated, dissonant rhythm on the façade. The arrangement of these units echoes the internal layout of the building, where moveable screens create secondary spaces within the primary Cartesian lattice. The connection between the articulation of the facades and the spatial organization of the interior is emphasized if the facades are misread as plans; each of the figures created by the positioning of glazing units become the variable spaces demarcated by the sliding screens internally. However, it is important to note that the facades express a far more rigorous application of the grid, wherein any deviation from the system occurs within a clearly demarcated zone of a façade panel, and therefore adheres to the overarching logic of the grid. The potential interrelation of façade and plan is expressed most clearly on the building’s High Street façade. Kahn positions six windows in the centre of the façade, flanking the building’s line of longitudinal symmetry and precisely demarcating the position of the building’s stair core. Typical of the modernist tradition, the strategy of expressing a building’s internal layout through the façade is employed by Kahn to make visible the building’s main organizing elements – the grid and stair core – but Kahn does not extend this strategy to expressing other elements of the interior on the facades. By choosing to express the stair core on the façade, Kahn suggests a clarity and transparency that is complementary to the grid, but is in fact drawing attention to the very element that most emphatically calls into question this very clarity. The significance of the superposition of these two logics internally has already been discussed, but the High Street façade (Diagram 6) is the point at which this theme is inscribed on the exterior of the building, a subtle suggestion of the tension within.

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In addition to using the grid as an organizational device, Kahn uses its structural characteristics to suggest weight and give the building a physical presence that contrasts its abstract, geometric nature (Diagram 7). On the ground floor, the necessity of glazed panels to allow pedestrians to see into commercial units contrasts with the steel and concrete mass of the building above. The resulting arrangement echoes a modernist pilotis condition, but Kahn ensures the building remains visually anchored to the ground by thickening the ground floor columns and pulling them free from the glazing that stretches between them. This creates a sense of mass while maintaining the openness required for the commercial program. The preservation of a sense of mass is important in relation to a number of elements of the building, enhancing both the sense of compression in the entry vestibule, and the volumetric reading of the building that leads to the internal juxtaposition of intimacy and openness. The thickening and thinning of the columns is also used didactically to express their structural function, reflecting Kahn’s interest in the essential honesty of material and structure. The columns express the degree of load they absorb, becoming progressively thinner on the upper storeys. Kahn counterbalances the resultant sense of verticality and weightlessness by thickening the roof beams to the point of excess. However, the beams do not become overbearing; rather, the light pouring in from the glazed roof panels floods the two atria with light, emphasizing the sense of openness created within.

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Through his masterful use of material, geometry and light, Kahn succeeds in creating a building that resonates with the influence of a multitude of architectural periods, yet can be traced to none. A highly idiosyncratic building, the Yale Centre for British Art is typical of Kahn’s constantly evolving architectural ambitions. Confidently departing from certain themes established in earlier works, whilst elaborating and refining others, Kahn creates a building truly suited to the artworks on display. The complexity and nuance with which he achieves this, point not only to his ability as an architect, but also to the building’s critical importance and value as a subject for analysis.