Issue Number: 96
Visionary architect Louis Kahn designed soaring buildings, open to the environment and the free exchange of ideas. Peter Conrad describes his creative relationship with his patron Paul Mellon, whose patience and deep pockets enabled Kahn to design the luminous Yale Center for British Art.
Stainless steel exterior of the Yale Center for British Art Photo: Norman McGrath
Kubla Khan decreed a pleasure dome; the architect Louis Kahn, more an idealist than a hedonist, designed utopias. His buildings are secular temples, shrines devoted to knowledge and to the freedom of intellectual exchange.
In Southern California, he constructed a research institute for Jonas Salk that dazzlingly balances on a headland above the Pacific, open to the ocean and to the sky. In Dhaka, he planned a floating fortress whose debating chambers and interlocking corridors protected the experimental democracy of Bangladesh. His library for Phillips Exeter Academy, a prep school in New Hampshire, is a brick cube with a core of light that even manages to instil reverence in the teenagers who use it.
Kahn’s career began and ended on the same street in New Haven, where he was hired in 1947 by the architecture department of Yale University. He had settled for a teaching appointment because the extravagant impracticality of his projects frightened potential clients. Eventually, at the age of 50, he got the chance to design his first significant building: a new art gallery for the university, whose cavernous spaces contained a stair tower that was both a miracle of engineering and a symbol of intellectual aspiration, confidently mounting towards the light.
His final commission, on the other side of the same block, was the Yale Center for British Art, a gallery of a very different kind with an even more transcendental staircase secreted in a cylinder of concrete. By the time it opened in 1977, Kahn had been dead for three years, after suffering a heart attack at Pennsylvania Station in New York.
Kahn and his patron Paul Mellon, whose collection of art works and books was to be housed in the Center, came from different worlds. The architect was the child of poor Jewish immigrants from Estonia, who initially named him Leiser-Itze Schmuilowsky. The client was the pampered son of a robber baron who owed his fortune to lumber, steel, oil and shipbuilding.
Kahn grew up in the Philadelphia ghetto; Mellon took his ease on a stud farm in rural Virginia, where he rode and hunted while his wife, a Listerine heiress, tended her elaborate gardens. Whereas Mellon had the instincts of a patrician, Kahn was a doughty democrat who refused to ride in the back seat of taxis as that implied he was somehow the driver’s superior.
Yet Mellon was something of a traitor to the profiteering dynasty his father had founded. He had no interest in business, and spent his life giving Andrew Mellon’s money away: philanthrophy has tax advantages in America, but when practised on this scale it turns into an almost saintly selfabnegation.
Kahn in his own way was an imperious creature, a Kubla Khan empowered by an uncompromising genius. One of his students at Yale likened him to ‘a philosopher king on the edge of society’: marginalised but still regal, elevated by the gift of vision. Mellon, to his credit, recognised this, even though – as I was told by Professor Jules Prown, the art historian who brought them together – he probably viewed Kahn as ‘a funny little man’.
When the three of them met for breakfast after Mellon had visited the Salk Institute, Kahn babbled mystically about symbolic thresholds while scribbling sketches for the gallery and library on some flimsy paper napkins. After they left the restaurant, Mellon, the inveterate collector, suffered a twinge of regret: ‘I forgot to pick up the napkins,’ he said.
‘Mellon,’ Prown explained, ‘always hired the best advice, whether it was about his horses or his private plane or his art collection. He was very much a gentleman. He became insecure when he felt that Kahn was heading off in a screwy direction or preaching about light and silence, though he always expressed his discomfort very indirectly. But he judged by results, and he was proud of what Kahn built for him.’
At the Salk Institute and in Bangladesh, Kahn constructed modern versions of the Acropolis or the castellated hilltop towns of the Italian Renaissance; setting out to replan downtown Philadelphia, he designed (but never built) lofty geometrical skyscrapers and a cliff-like barricade of semicircular parking garages. However, in deference to Mellon, he agreed to work on a smaller, snugger scale and even took it in good part when inflation forced him to rethink his original plan, eliminating a third of the space.
The art in Mellon’s collection was domestic in character: ancestral portraits, conversation pieces, landscapes that favour calm and quiet to noisy sublimity, anecdotal urban scenes. Mellon’s favourite British painters did not turn out altarpieces for cathedrals or swaggering epic tableaux to be hung in town halls. They painted for private homes, and Kahn – not himself an especially domesticated character, who often slept on the floor of his office and died in a public washroom – honoured this intimate sociability.
‘He worked in modules of twenty square feet,’ said Prown as we walked around. ‘For him, that was the size of the average room in which human beings are comfortable. He wanted to get away from the big open modern loft, which was the kind of space you find in his University Art Gallery just across the street.’
The buildings of the Yale campus behind the Center for British Art fussily mimic the architecture of Oxford and Cambridge, with decorative turrets and absurd escutcheons. Kahn of course avoids such pastiche: with its concrete pillars and its cladding of stainless steel, the Center is defiantly modern, employing materials that have been engineered into malleability –‘molten stone’ (how he described concrete), metal that flexes and bends. Yet inside this shell, Kahn subtly invokes the atmosphere of Britain, the fanciful homeland of Mellon the gentrified WASP.
Fourth Floor Gallery at the Yale Center for British Art, where JMW Turner’s ‘Dort, or Dordrecht, the Dort Packet-boat from Rotterdam Becalmed’, 1818, hangs. Photo: Richard Caspole
Mellon’s collection of Elizabethan portraits is displayed in what might be the long gallery of a country house, even though it is surveyed through glass walls by offices crammed with computers. The staircase, enclosed in its concrete drum, sits in a well that Kahn thought of as the entry hall of this imaginary house; he wanted the mysterious cylinder, which contains light but not heat, to serve the same purpose as the blazing hearth that might illuminate and warm a chilly, gloomy baronial pile. Sofas in the galleries invite you to relax, as if you were a guest here. Thoroughbred bronze dogs stand guard, along with a single miniaturised metal stallion, as if Mellon had smuggled his pet mount indoors.
The concrete on the ceilings sympathises with the sometimes murky, cloudy tonality of the landscapes on view: in a room containing the studies Constable made on Hampstead Heath, you look up at what might be a low English sky. Every surface is irresistibly tactile. Near the door to one room, I found myself mesmerised by three parallel strips that represent the
building’s constituents: a sleek skin of steel, beside it a slab of pock-marked concrete, next to that a square of grainy white oak. For a moment, the wall upstaged the art hung on it. You can’t, of course, touch Mellon’s paintings or sculptures, but you can get away with surreptitiously caressing Kahn’s building.
Much of the painting displayed here is literary, illustrating scenes from Shakespeare and Milton or – in the Victorian period – hinting at emotional entanglements between characters who belong in unwritten novels. As Prown told me, Kahn considered the building to be primarily a library, and he even imagined the galleries bibliographically. The long perspectives are interrupted by movable walls, so that as you advance from one small, provisional room to the next you seem to be turning the pages of a book, following a pictorial narrative.
The evocation of Britain concludes on the street outside, where a row of shopfronts is fitted into the façade. This was one of Yale’s concessions to the city of New Haven, ensuring that the local burghers retained some commercial rents; in the 1970s, long before museums began to think of themselves as money-makers, it was a mildly scandalous innovation. But what better tribute could there be to the nation of shopkeepers whose art is housed upstairs?
This homely, comforting quality is, however, only one aspect of Kahn’s building. Although he was derided, as Prown put it, because he dreamed up ‘castles in the air’, what makes the Yale Center for British Art so exhilarating is the sense of weightlessness and luminosity that surprises you when, almost crouching as if clambering into a cave, you enter. In a courtyard that rises through four floors to the skylights, you drown in radiance. Constable called the sky ‘the source of light in nature’, and Kahn, who disapproved of artificial light in galleries, constantly directs your eyes upwards to that source.
To climb the stairs inside their stone cylinder is a spiritual ascent: looking up, you glimpse the sky through a grid of metal and concrete, as if you are bound for a geometrical heaven. Kahn beautifully described matter to be ‘spent light’, and his walls glow with the memory of the light they have absorbed.
On the top floor, the open, empty space of the courtyard just under the skylights might be a tabernacle. The air it contains is palpable – sometimes dense and misty, sometimes (when the sky above clears) almost blindingly bright. Kahn’s mysticism here articulates the true religion of painters: as Turner allegedly said on his deathbed, ‘the sun is God’.
Kahn kept his intentions for the exterior a secret, and only late in the day announced he wanted to clad it in stainless steel (he hoped it would pass for unshiny lead or pewter). Prown, expressing Yale’s anxiety, nagged him about what the building would look like: ‘he replied that on a cloudy day it would look like a moth, on a sunny day like a butterfly’.
Kahn enjoyed such oracular riddles, but I can testify that in this case the metaphor was telling the truth. I arrived in New Haven under a sullen, seeping, miserably British sky, and the Center did possess the grey, downy softness of a moth’s wing. Later in the day the thunderstorms rolled off into the Atlantic and the sun revived. At once the building kept Kahn’s promise by mutating into a butterfly, fluttery and diaphanous. As I stood there gaping, I would not have been surprised to see it take flight.
Architecture is meant to be grounded, anchored. But Kahn’s building is almost too good for our downtrodden earth; even before you see Mellon’s paintings, it makes you feel you are walking on air.