Modernism’s focus on individual artistic expression has led to extraordinary buildings like Louis I. Kahn’s Yale art gallery, Frank Lloyd Wright’s Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, and Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Visual Arts. Each represents an attempt by its architect to try what had never been done before,testing the limitsof architectural form and building technology. Their progressiveness, however, made them more susceptible to depredation. And unlike most preceding architectural styles, with their familiar materials and construction techniques, modernist buildings require unique analysis and solutions as novel as those that brought them into being. The recently completed renovations of the Yale Art Gallery and Wexner Center and the Guggenheim’s current facelift bring them into the 21st century while providing an opportunity to revisit landmark moments in architectural history.
Left: Lionel Feininger / courtesy Yale Unversity Art Gallery Archive. Center: Ezra Stoller Esto. Right: Jeff Goldberg Esto
Yale Art Gallery
1953, Louis I. Kahn
Left: Patty Carr Studios / both images courtesy Yale university Art Gallery archives
Left: View of the Yale Art Gallery staircase, 1952.
BY JOSEPH GIOVANNINI
Something about modernist buildings keeps them from aging with grace. They do not look better patinated by time, nor more picturesque when barnacled with accretions. Their purity does not accept the accidental event that might add character on a traditional building. Their abstraction is a demanding, high-maintenance mistress who would prefer to stay forever unblemished.
The Yale Art Gallery by Louis Kahn, finished in 1953, will be receiving its AARP card in a couple of years. The half-century has not been kind to this landmark of modernism, even though Yale is well-practiced at maintaining its rich architectural patrimony. The university’s benign neglect has, over the decades, taken its toll on the gallery, which was not only a seminal work by an American master, but one that kicked off Kahn’s career and Yale’s historic turn to modernism. It was the flagship building that set the precedent for other Modernist buildings at Yale,, said Jock Reynolds, director of the Yale University Art Gallery. We also think of it as a great artwork.. Kahn’s gallery is a masterpiece of understatement.
On Chapel Street, its undecorated brick facade meets the Italianate Gothic Swartwout building, a part of the museum complex, and defers to its elegant arches. Kahn’s brick, austere in its planarity but gentle in its coloring, is a foil to the decorative complexity of the adjacent wall, and a datum of simplicity for the new gallery itself: A stairway up to an entrance between two planes of the bronze-colored brick cleanses the visual palette, and prepares the visitor for the nearly devotional space within.
Kahn was a master of environmental tone, which he modulated through his choice of materials and his handling of light. Just beyond the entrance, the architect achieved a nearly religious aura in the cylindrical concrete stairwell, where a triangulated staircase rises up to light that suffuses the interior of the drum. The cylinder and a nearby prism of smooth-faced concrete block, which contain a service core of bathrooms and an elevator, were the only forms articulating the gallery’s otherwise-open loft space. He conceived the ceiling as a tetrahedral space frame made in concrete, which floats out, freespan, to the glass-and-steel perimeter walls.
Over the decades, two forces eroded the integrity of the design. Pressed for room, the museum started cannibalizing the interiors, adding offices and storage areas within the galleries; the sunken sculpture garden was roofed over in the same desperation for additional square footage. The encroachments reduced the purity of the galleries and obscured the geometric clarity of the concrete cylinder and the block prism. The divisions of space started to impede the way you saw the building,, said Reynolds. Administrators also plastered sheet rock over the concrete block service core and the entire south wall, diminishing the sense of material gravity in a space whose tone was defined by the sobriety and light-absorptive qualities of concrete.
The spatial distress inside was matched by the cumulative failure of the glass facade. By today’s standards, the original wall system was elementallsupported simply on a solid steel frame that conducted cold in and heat out. At dew point, condensation formed, and anticipating the water, the architects actually detailed a gutter pan at the floor that would catch condensate running down the steel. In theory, the radiators next to the pan would evaporate the water. Over the years, however, the water corroded the steel. Furthermore, each bay of the window wall did not have enough tolerance for expansion so the glass wall deformed the edges of the concrete slab, which in turn resisted the pressure, sending bending forces back into the wall. Numerous panes of glass failed.
Yale hired the New York firm Polshek Partnership to restore the building in the first phase of a larger program to create a master plan for the arts district on the campus. Though Kahn’s gallery was the youngest of the three buildings that make up the Yale Art Gallery, it was the neediest. The environmental systems, toooHVAC, lighting, communications lines, securityyalso needed to be updated.
In what must be the most gratifying aspect of the restoration, Duncan Hazard, partner in charge, and project manager Steven Peppas removed the structures squatting in the galleries to reveal the loft-like spaces. At the same time, they peeled the sheet rock off the smooth-faced block, reestablishing the materiality of the wall and its tonal impact. The architects also removed the roof over the original sculpture garden, which when restored, will be occupied by a site-specific piece by Richard Serra.
The window wall was the most tortuous problem in a difficult project,, attested Hazard. The troublesome steel frames are being recreated in aluminum, with the same profile, but with a thermal break. We built in more allowance for expansion in the connections,, said Hazard.
Another difficult task was updating the building systems. Kahn laid the electrical conduits, HVAC ducts and lighting tracks over the tetrahedral ceiling before pouring the concrete floor slab above, and the architects found it difficult and labor intensive to replace or rework the ducts and conduits within the closed cavity. They managed to snake in new sections of light track by using short sections. Cables for security systems and communications that had been surface-mounted over the years were also laid up into the cavity. The dimensions in the cavity between the ceiling and floor above offered little forgiveness.
What director Reynolds called the absolute simplicity and minimalist sensibilityy of the building was the root of the problems in its restoration, which is scheduled to be complete next year.
It’s amazing how difficult the project has been,, noted Hazard. Buildings from the 1950s and 60s are tremendously difficult to work with because there’s no place to hide anythinggthere’s no pochh, as in traditional buildings. In modernist structures, everything is simple and exposed, making it very difficult to bring in new services. Maintaining that purity is very tough when trying to bring it up to 21st century standards..
The architectural archaeology in this extensive $44 million restoration yielded insights into Kahn’s design. You could retrace his design process and see how he figured things out,, said Hazard. He was working out certain details for the first time, like corner conditions, where he turned the interior back to accommodate a window..
There are brilliant solutions, like placing a heating pipe at the bottom of a cavity in the wall at the front of the building, so that the heat would rise and lift the moisture out of the wall,, added Peppas. That wall looks as good today as it did when it was built..
Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of the restoration is the controversy latent in the confrontation between the imperatives of restoration and today’s curatorial expectations that the white box is the best viewing environment. Properly restored, Kahn’s galleries are not white boxes. Kahn’s spaces have an almost preternatural serenity about them that are unusually conducive for seeing art, but in their materiality and character, they are not neutral. In Yale’s desire to restore the building to Kahn’s intentions, the university is assuming a radical position that critiques the white box in the same way that Kahn himself posited his original critique. In general, museums like white hanging walls made of sheet rock,, said Hazard. We’re not going to have that..
The museum, instead, is going the full nine yards, recreating Kahn’s pogoo wall, a moveable wall-panel system with adjustable poles, spring-loaded at top and bottom, that hold the panels in place by compression. The architects are also uncovering the long south wall (opposite the north window faaade) to reveal the original smooth-faced block. They will add a discreet hanging rail so that pictures will hang on wires. We’re interested in expressing Kahn’s original materiality,, said Peppas.
The effort at restoring a national architectural treasure also masks the controversial fact that fully half the perimeter is glazed. Windows, of course, are usually discouraged or at least minimized in contemporary galleries. The architects have, however, invented a solution that satisfies curatorial demands for protecting art: They simply conceived the interior as a light bank that receives a safe, calibrated amount of light over the year. Motorized black-out shades will drop after closing hours, eliminating a source of deleterious light. Light-permeable scrims over most windows further reduce the total amount of light banked. Scrims over windows in spaces where collections, such as sculpture, can tolerate light, will be left open.
Far from being simply a feel-good restoration of a known and celebrated architectural quantity, the restoration of Kahn’s art gallery resituates the building in the polemic about what constitutes a desirable or optimal viewing environment. The gallery exemplifies a persuasive argument that there are valid alternatives to the supposed neutrality and objectivity of the white cube. Fifty years later, Kahn weighs in again with his brilliant argument about designing for subjectivity in space.
joseph giovannini is a writer and architect who divides his time between New York City and los angeles.
The Yale Art Gallery while under
renovation last year.
Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum
1959, Frank Lloyd Wright
Kathryn Carr SRGF, New York
BY DAVID D’ARCY
It took seventeen years to get the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum built on Fifth Avenue. For the five decades that the museum has been standing, exterior maintenance has consisted mostly of painting. Now the spiral is covered with scaffolding, and the exterior is finally being studied for eventual repairs that are projected to finish in late 2007. The extent of the work is yet to be determined, but the price has been set at about $27 million, ten times what it cost to build the inverted spiral that opened in 1959.
The project is still in its study phase, said the architects from Wank Adams Slavin Associates LLP (WASA), who will do the preservation work. In March 2005, sensors were placed on the building’s exterior to measure contraction and expansion. In December, the paint was stripped off to reveal the concrete walls underneath: vast Twombly-esque abstract surfaces with scratched patterns and cracks that look like beginnings of Clyfford Still crevices. Architects are now studying these mostly vertical cracks, and trying to determine their causes before any repairs begin.
It was a challenge when it was built almost 50 years ago. If we had to build it today, it would still be a challenge, because of the geometry of the building, the construction techniques, and the use of concrete to the extent that it was done here,, said project architect Angel Ayon of WASA.
Part of the building’s uniqueness stems from Wright’s goal to make its form a continuouss uninterrupted pattern of circles, spheres, and a ramp that spiraled upward. Those continuous elliptical walls that we all know about are walls that he didn’t want to put expansion joints in. As a result, there is a lot of cracking,, Ayon noted.
The 6-inch walls are made of Gunnite, a sprayed concrete mixture. Our goal is obviously to keep as much original material as we can and then to do a minimal intervention, first to understand exactly what’s wrong, the extent of the damage, and then how to repair it in the least obtrusive way,, said Ayon. A lot of the work we do is based on having done similar buildings. You develop a tool chest of problems and repairs. This building is so unique that we have to approach it from scratch..
Cracking had been a problem since the concrete was poured, Ayon said, noting that Wright had used a vinyl-based paint called the cocoonn in the hope that the coating would breach the cracks. Yet cracks were always visible, as were abrasions, bubbles, and craters in the concrete under the paint, even 12 coats later, in 2005. In the 1990s, studies based on limited samplings examined the cracking. What’s different now is that the team can remove the paint and study the extent of the cracking,, Ayon said.
Structural engineer Robert Silman, also part of the team, doubts that the cracks pose a structural risk: The risk is only that, as a crack opens, water gets into it and the water can cause corrosion of reinforcing steel. Over a long period of time, it’s a maintenance headache. Will it cause a collapse? Not likely.. Silman said that a laser survey, underway as this article goes to press, will indicate where the building could be under stress.
Exterior cracking is the most visible problem. The terrazzo floors on the interior ramp are also cracked, the rotunda suffers from condensation (an annoying dilemma for anyone operating a climate-controlled space), and the front of the building, on the upper levels of the spiral near the skylight, is moving forward for reasons not yet known. The sidewalk, which Wright embedded with stainless steel circles (which, like the building, are landmarked), is also set for renovation. It was repaired in 1992 as part of the renovation that included the museum’s expansion below ground.
The momentum for repairing the exterior seems to have come from one individual, Peter B. Lewis, the former chairman of the Progressive Corporation, who has now contributed $15 million to the project. Lewis was chairman of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation from 1998 to 2005, and he donated a total of some $90 million before resigning his chairmanship in a dispute with Guggenheim director Thomas Krens. Lewis thought that Kren’s expansion policies were draining the foundation’s resources. It is the building, after all, that is the museum’s most valuable work of art,, said Lewis.
Lewis was always an admirer of the Frank Lloyd Wright structure but he was also, he noted, always conscious of how badly the toilets worked.. Lewis offered $15 million towards the renovation, and the board subsequently came up with an additional $5 million. But it still isn’t clear whether that will be enough. Lewis said last spring. The building needs a lot of work, and whether $20 million is enough remains to be seen..
The insurance mogul was right. An additional $7 million came from New York Cityyabout $5 million by early 2005 and an additional $2 million around the time of last November’s mayoral election. The project is overseen by the Paratus Group, the firm that Lewis designated as owner’s representative which reports to Lewis and Guggenheim vice president Mark Steglitz.
When the project was initially conceived, a strong and comprehensive maintenance program wasn’t in place,, said Jon Maass, an architect with the Paratus Group. The repair policy up to this point was, If it’s dirty, if it’s faded, if there are cracks, add more paint to it.’ What will be part of this project is not only fixing what’s underneath the paint, but designing a more comprehensive maintenance program for the museum. The public may see more maintenance on the building on a regular basis as opposed to just putting more paint on..
The official story from the Guggenheim is that the broader renovation proceeded in stages, beginning with the construction of the current tower on the northeastern corner of the site and the renovation of the Frank Lloyd Wright interior, opened in 1992, which was followed by the renovation of the below-ground theater, now named the Peter B. Lewis Theater in recognition of his $15 million gift for that project. The exterior was always next, say Guggenheim officials.
There was never a sense that this was urgent, in the way that the interior restoration was. It looked fine,, said Anthony Calnek, a Guggenheim spokesman. Every time you scraped away the old flaking paint and repainted it, it looked pretty good. It was sort of the last thing that needed to be done. You go from the most urgent thing to the least urgent thing.. Yet the architects working on the building say the exterior was disfigured, with cracks widening just above the entrance, and hardly looked fine..
Once the work is done, sometime in 2007, the Guggenheim will open an exhibition devoted to Frank Lloyd Wright and the building, organized by junior architecture curator Monica Ramirez-Montagut.
Yet the experts stress that it’s still uncertain what they’ll be celebrating. The exterior finish now is pretty rough and ready. You could see a lot of blemishes through the paint,, said Robert Silman. When the sun struck the building at a very flat angle, all of these blemishes showed. To me it’s not very handsome. I don’t think there’s a paint that would cover them. It doesn’t look at all like the interior spiral, which is beautifully smooth, like sour cream. The ramp wall is just gorgeous..
I can’t imagine that Mr. Wright wouldn’t want the outside to look like that as well, but it never did,, Silman said. Will our repairs be invasive enough that it’s going to require us to do some kind of patching of the outside? What will that patching look like under the paint? We don’t know what we have to do yet, if anything..
david d’arcy is a regular contributor to the art newspaper.
David M. Heald SRGF, New York
The Guggenheim Museum’s scaffolding follows the curve of the spiral.
Wexner Center for the Visual Arts
1989, Eisenman Robertson Architects
Jeff Goldberg Esto
BY JAYNE MERKEL
When Peter Eisenman’s Wexner Center for the Visual Arts at Ohio State University opened in 1989, admirers lined up to get the architect’s autograph, a series of famous artists performed, and the Ohio State Marching Band paraded from the new art center to the football stadium.
When the Wexner Center reopened last fall after Arup’s three-year, $15.8 million renovation, the architect was nowhere to be found. A series of performances took place, and supporters of the institution came from miles around, but there was no parade. Architecture, it turns out, is a complicated business. Having a famous, challenging building had been deemed worth the inconvenience and expense, but having this particular famous, challenging building was also, obviously, a mixed blessing.
How could a 13-year-old, $43 million building possibly require a three-year, $15.8 million renovation, largely financed with state funds ($14.8 milion from Ohio Sate University, $1.3 million from the Wexner Center Foundation) at a time of rising tuitions and cuts in student loans?
A university press release cautiously explained why: The new curtain wall system results in significant improvements over the original, both in terms of light levels in the galleries and in temperature and humidity controll[It provides] a threefold improvement in air filtration over the original, which was built to the best 1980s standards. The new system also specifies thermal and condensation resistance tests that were not widely available in the 1980s. The skylight was entirely redesigned, including its unusual dual-directional slope, to better manage rainwater and protect the exterior seals and glazing gaskets. The new curtain wall framing systemmsignificantly improves the thermal performance of the curtain wall. The curtain wall and skylight glass have been upgraded from the best material available in the 1980s (1-inch dual-pane glass) to contemporary high-performance material (1 5/8-inch heat-strengthened, low-iron triple-pane glass, with inert argon-filled air spaces, reflective coatings, and other features). The new glass reduces visible light to curatorial standards via transmission and diffusion filters and removes ultraviolet light via PVB interlayers. It also benefits the temperature and humidity control in the galleries..
We are not talking about an ancient hut sheathed with animal skins here. Surely building technology has not leaped forward so dramatically in a decade and a half that such drastic measures should be necessary? What the press release did not say was that all this was necessary because the roof leaked badly, the original curtain wall subjected works of art to ultraviolet glare, and the inside temperature could shift as much as 40 degrees.
And while innovative buildings do often encounter technical difficulties, not all innovative buildings do. Eero Saarinen’s, for example, have survived astoundingly well for over half a century even though almost every one used new materials, structural systems, or technologies. On the other hand, university officials are rarely wild men. If they decided to make an investment of this kind, they must have decided that the building was worth its weight in gold.
The Center for the Visual Arts (as the project was initially called before Leslie H. Wexner pledged $25 million) was not a building created to house an existing institution. It was conceived to create energy on and draw artistic activity to a campus known more for its football team than anything else. Ohio, unlike other midwestern states, does not have one major dominant university, like as in states like Michigan. Instead, there are half a dozen state schools with various strengths and appeals. Ohio State is the biggest research university and has many solid departments, but its flat, spread out campus is not very lively, and the school was not known for academic excellence or artistic daring. Also, Columbus did not have major art museums like Cleveland, Cincinnati and Toledo. The Wexner Center has helped change all that.
Peter Eisenman (who was practicing with Jacquelin Robertson at the time) won the commission to design the center (with capable Columbus architects Trott & Bean) in a highly publicized national competition in 1983, edging out finalists Arthur Erickson, Michael Graves, Cesar Pelli, and Kallman McKinnell & Wood. It was Eisenman’s first major building. And since his scheme and that of his old friend Michael Graves were easily the two most successful, it amounted to a contest between modernist and postmodern approaches and a duel between friendly rivals.
Working as a critic in Ohio at the time, I was initially attracted to Graves’ entry, which was eminently sensible, occupying an ugly underused site, elegant, and dignifiedda proper museum on a proper site. But Ohio State didn’t need a museum. It didn’t have an art collection and was not likely to get one. It needed an energizer, something to get people excited about the arts and about life on campus, and the Eisenman Robertson scheme did just that.
It slashed between two existing buildings (2,500-seat Mershon Auditorium and Weigel Hall, which has a 770-seat theater) at a 12 1/2-degree angle, aligning itself with the city grid beyond the campus confines instead of the campus grid, which is slightly ajarrtherefore, symbolically at least, tying together town and gown. It resurrected the crenellated towers from a medieval-style armory that had once occupied the site, but the scheme housed most of the facilities in a glass-walled cruciform grid where sloping corridors overlap with exhibition spaces.
The building definitely stands out on the campus, in an interesting and inviting way. And its wider impact was enormous. When it opened, schemes with shifted grids appeared on student drawing boards throughout the nation.
Although it was not suitable for the exhibition of many works of art, Syracuse University architecture dean Mark Robbins, who served as the Wexner’s first curator of architecture and also showed his own work there, said, I liked the active quality of the space. As an artist, I liked being able to play off the errant structural system. The building was flexible when we mounted exhibitions that had been organized for more traditional spaces..
The only thing that rankled him was that there was not enough space for the staff. It had been cut from the budgettnot surprisingly. The original budget for the center was $16 million. By the time it was completed six years later, it had cost almost three times that.
Some of the practical problems at the Wexner are attributable to the fact that when it was built, it had no strong client voice, as represented by a museum director or curators to insist on appropriate light levels and other criteria.
Eisenman has often suggested that once he has finished a project, he is finished with it. New York Times reporter Robin Pogrebin seemed scandalized at his apparent lack of remorse for the many leaks and faults in the Wexner; an article dated September 18, 2005, quoted him as saying of his buildings, Once they’re up, they lose any magic for me..
The energetic current director, Sherri Geldin, also finds it mysterious that the architects did not consider these things. But she said, Still, I love this building. It has made so many things possible.. It seemed essential to correct its deficiencies. And correct they have: some of the most important elements of the new Wexner are indistinguishable from the old. According to principal Nigel Nicholls of Arup, his firm went to great pains to make sure that the curtain wall, which is so central to Eisenman’s design, looks no different from its predecessor, though it functions in a much more efficient fashion. They maintained the notational system Eisenman developed for the glass panels, in which the panes darken or lighten depending on what is behind them, but reduced the overall light levels inside. Nicholls explained, There was too much light inside from day one, so we kept the relationship of one shade to another while shifting them all down the scale..
The Wexner Center story dramatically raises the question: What does a building need in order to be considered great, important, or significant? Is it enough to be interesting, or does it also have to be, as Mies believed, goodd? Architecture, especially greatt architecture, really needs to be both.
Jayne Merkel was architecture critic of The Cincinnati Enquirer in the 1980s and reported on the Wexner Center competition for Inland Architect.
Courtesy Wexner Center for the Visual Arts
During its three-year renovation, the Wexner Center for the visual Arts’ curtain wall (below) had to be redesigned to reduce light levels in the galleries and to stop water damage. Arup was charged with making it look as similar as possible to its 1989 appearance.