horizontal line

Yale and the Promise of the Modern

Yale Art Gallery, New Haven, CT
December 9th, 2006

It is a great pleasure to be here, and, indeed, an honor to follow Professor Scully in what I guess we would have to call this two-lecture series marking the re-opening of the Yale Art Gallery. Since Professor Scully spoke last evening primarily about Louis Kahn, tonight I’m going to say relatively little about Kahn himself, and instead look at the art gallery from a different perspective, trying to figure out how this building fits into the context of Yale, and into the context of the contemporary art museum. So if last evening Professor Scully placed this great building in the universe of Kahn’s own life and work, tonight I’ll try to place it within two different worlds from which it also can be said to have sprung: this place, this university; and then the context of the building type the art gallery represents, the modern art museum.

But the real theme of what I will talk about in the next few minutes is something broader, something that in some way ties these two realms, the university and the art gallery, closer, and that is the notion of the quest for modernism at Yale in the twentieth century. It is an epic, as much as Kahn’s own life is an epic, and like Kahn’s story it is full of ambiguity. Yale has, often simultaneously, been host or repository to some of the twentieth century’s most inventive artistic achievements, and to some of its most conservative. For much of its history, the university has seen its mission as protecting culture and conveying it to the next generation, which it did not always see as the same as advancing it – the result being that Yale took some pride for much of its existence in being not an avant-garde force in the culture but a conservative one. Another way to put this would be to say that modernism set out to remake the world, and Yale was not so sure it wanted the world remade.

Maybe we should not be surprised at this. After all, implicit – and, often enough, explicit – in the work of the great artists, architects, writers, poets, musicians and dancers who created the revolutionary movements in the twentieth century that we collectively call modernism was the idea that what had come before had to be rejected, that we had to clear the decks and start anew. Never mind that we now know that much of this was naïve, as romantic in its way as any of the nineteenth-century art that was being rejected – this conviction that the twentieth century demanded something completely and absolutely and totally new gave modernism much of its power and its passion. Without this conviction, however naïve, I am not sure modern art could have accomplished what it did. But for a university such as Yale, which in those decades tended to operate on the premise that it liked the world as it was, and that its role was to prepare people to take their place in it, no wonder modernism was a somewhat suspect presence.

It became less of one as the decades went on, surely, but to the extent that we can generalize, Yale’s attitude toward the avant-garde was diffident at best, hostile at worst, during the first decades of the twentieth century. Paradoxically, this was not at all reflective of any desire to be free of the arts in general, to which this university has always been exceptionally hospitable. Yale had the nation’s first college art gallery with John Trumbull’s gift in 1832, and it made manifest its deep commitment to the arts by building Street Hall in 1866, when few institutions of higher education were inclined to invest to this extent in an art building. And then, in 1926, came the first portion of Egerton Swartwout’s sumptuous Romanesque art gallery, to which Kahn’s building is, in the most technical sense, an addition. And of course Yale has an equally venerable tradition in music education, and in theater.

Strangely enough, if I can disgress for a moment, it is Harvard, an institution that has always seemed much more conflicted than Yale in general about the arts and the role they can and should play within a large and comprehensive university, that has had a far more comfortable relationship with the avant-garde. We can look at the intertwined lives of people like Lincoln Kirstein, Edward M.M. Warburg, Agnes Mongan, Philip Johnson and others at Harvard in the years between the wars, with the founding of the Harvard Society of Contemporary Art, as Nicholas Fox Weber documented a decade ago in his book Patron Saints, as but one example. And then of course Harvard’s architecture school became the home of Walter Gropius, who made it a vital center of modern, which was to say International Style, design. When Harvard was supporting in Cambridge a kind of avant-garde cell that would eventually seed modernism throughout the country, here in New Haven, Yale was a bastion of conservatism.

I’m not sure why it is that a commitment to cutting-edge creativity has seemed to breed better in Cambridge, and I am certainly not trying to suggest that there is some kind of inverse relationship here, a connection between Yale’s more general openness to the arts and its reluctance to support the avant-garde, any more than there is a causal relationship between Harvard’s skittishness about the arts and its success as a breeding ground for modernist thinking. Maybe it is possible that the intensity of Harvard’s modernist pioneers was forged by the air of rejection that Harvard’s general indifference to the arts seemed to represent – that merely to be interested in art at Harvard put you into the realm of the outsider, so why not go all the way – but frankly I think that is more in the realm of pop psychology than history. In truth, Harvard’s admissions policies were at least marginally less conservative than Yale’s, and in that, as much as anything, we might find at least some of the reason.

In any event, to come back to New Haven, I think it is fair to say that for the first four decades of the twentieth century, Yale was more comfortable teaching about the art of the past than encouraging the continual development of the art of the present. That’s the real point. In a great research university, the creation of new knowledge is customarily considered as important as the teaching of existing knowledge. But the notion that the making of new kinds of art might be considered the equivalent of scholarship in history, or research in science, was not widely held here. Science was in continual development; art was not – or it was not seen to be developing in a meaningful way. So it was more often believed at Yale than we would today like to admit.

And to add further to the ambiguity of the modernist legacy at Yale, no matter how deep your passions are for the achievements of the modern period, it is woefully simplistic to think of modernism as a white knight rescuing Yale from the forces of darkness – especially in architecture. Indeed, the architectural legacy of Yale is the most ambiguous of all the arts, since so many of the buildings that the early modernists detested, and which were built specifically to convey an image of the university as a conservative force, are now, we realize, among the wisest and most civilizing structures we have, and deservedly the most beloved.

But that gets a bit ahead of the story. Let me focus now a little more on architecture, and begin by saying something about Yale’s architecture around the turn of the century, as the university’s role as a national institution was becoming increasingly apparent. But Yale at that point had very little architecture to express its larger and grander identity. The heart of the university, the Old Campus, was made up mainly of buildings that were vernacular examples of Victorian Gothic, which was pretty much the style of the time, just as the brick buildings of the Old Brick Row, as seen in that altered survivor Connecticut Hall, were built in the style of their time as well. The one exception to the relative modesty of Yale buildings was, appropriately enough, the newest and largest buildings at Yale, the Bicentennial Buildings of 1901-2, by Carrere & Hastings (with Howells & Stokes as architects of the smaller, adjacent Woodbridge Hall). I think it is fair to say that these were the first Yale buildings designed with image, as well as function, at the forefront of their architects’ minds. The monumental grandeur of this structure, containing Woolsey Hall, Commons and the memorial rotunda in the form of a blown-up version of Bramante’s Tempietto, brought a sumptuousness to this campus that it had never before seen.

Of course we could also say that these buildings, too, represented a tendency to follow trends, in this case the grandiose classicism of the City Beautiful movement, but the main motivation was not to be in fashion but to share the sweeping, almost imperialistic impulses behind this movement. As the country felt about itself then, so did Yale.

But if we put these buildings aside for the moment and look at Yale as a totality, there was great diversity in the university’s choices of architectural style in the last half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, and the very absence of an official style seemed, if only by accident, to say a great deal about Yale’s sense of itself. Yale was not only in a city; it was like a city, and it built things chock-a-block together, usually seeking pragmatism as much as grandeur. The university worked with a wide range of architects, most of whom were distinguished if not at the very forefront of the profession, and their work tended to be relatively conservative but typical of the moment in which it was designed. Thus there were Victorian Gothic buildings like Street Hall by Peter B. Wight and Farnam Hall by Russell Sturgis, Jr., Richardsonian Romanesque in Osborne Hall by Bruce Price – on the site of the present Bingham Hall on the Old Campus, and probably the most important piece of architecture Yale has ever demolished – and of course the Beaux-Arts classicism of Carrere & Hastings.

Most of the buildings, however, leaned in one way or another toward some form of what was increasingly coming to be called Collegiate Gothic, and by the late decades of the nineteenth century it represented conservatism. Montgomery Schuyler, the great architecture critic, wrote of Charles Coolidge Haight, designer of Vanderbilt Hall, among numerous other Yale buildings of the 1890’s and beyond: “His business has been, not to fit new requirements with new forms…It has been to cull, from assemblages of forms long ago settled and harmonized, what may best suit modern requirements…and to do this with the very minimum of pretension and self-assertion.”

“Not to fit new requirements with new forms [but] to cull from assemblages of forms long ago settled and harmonized.” There could be no clearer statement of a lack of interest in the new. That’s the real point here. Remember, by the end of the 19th century, Louis Sullivan had already produced many of his greatest buildings, Frank Lloyd Wright’s career was off and running, and the winds of architectural change were all about, in the United States and in Europe. To be fair, no university was jumping on the modernist bandwagon – it was not what universities were expected to do – and Yale’s view that it was a conservator of culture at least as much as a creator of culture was a common, if not a universal, one among universities. Merely by jumping on the bandwagon of classicism and the City Beautiful movement with the design of the Bicentennial Buildings – in effect, substituting one kind of historical architecture for another – Yale was indulging in a degree of trendiness that was probably more than some people at the turn of the century might have wished.

This is not the time to trace the history of the architectural development of this campus, which could keep us here all night. The story of these years is best told in Catherine Lynn’s long and brilliant essay, “Building Yale and Razing it from the Civil War to the Great Depression,” in the book Yale in New Haven: Architecture and Urbanism. Right now I want to look at this only in the narrowest way, at the tension between making new and appearing old that, by the late 1920’s and early 1930’s, had become too big to ignore.

You cannot talk about modernism and Yale without talking about James Gamble Rogers, the great architect of almost all of the Yale colleges, Sterling Library, the Hall of Graduate Studies, and the Law School. There is no single architect who has left a clearer mark on this campus than Rogers, who graduated from Yale in 1889, and began to build actively here in the years following 1917, when he got the commission to build the Memorial Quadrangle, the complex that contains the Harkness Tower, and which would in time be converted to Branford and Saybrook Colleges. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the Quadrangle is the most beautiful, elegant, and civilizing set of Gothic buildings created anywhere in the twentieth century.

Rogers understood two things: the art of composition, at which he excelled, producing beautifully detailed, humanly scaled buildings of exquisite proportion, and the notion of architecture as a conveyor of image. He understood fully that Yale not only had to educate a kind of ruling class – which it consciously set out to do, in those days, and of course it was only men – it not only had to educate a ruling class, even more important, it had to look like a place that educated a ruling class. And that required buildings that looked as if they had been there forever, and were not going to challenge anyone’s notion of what architecture ought to be.

Rogers was by nature conservative; he saw himself less as an artist than as a gentleman in a profession, serving other gentlemen who were his clients. He believed himself to be the social peer of his clients, and he saw his mission as bringing security and delight, not intellectual challenge, to their lives. Rogers and his clients were joined in the belief that traditional architectural styles were conveyors of values. To build a Georgian or a Renaissance house or a classical courthouse or a Gothic dormitory was not, to them, a rejection of the twentieth century, but a means of connecting their time with the past, a way of assuring that what they considered the best aspects of the past would enrich the present.

Yet Rogers was no Luddite. He was happy to adopt the technological advances that the modern movement was bringing to architecture. He felt no hesitation in using any of the latest technologies, and it was a point of pride to him that his buildings used the most up-to-date structural systems. His eclecticism carried with it no dogma. Unlike another Gothicist of his period, Ralph Adams Cram, Rogers had no desire to justify his choice of Gothic by means of citing the symbolic connections between Gothic architecture and the ecclesiastical mission of the church. To Rogers, styles were visual and emotional, not ideological. He could move easily from Gothic to Georgian and back again – as, indeed, he did once in the very same building, the York Street wing of Davenport College, which as you know has a Gothic façade facing York Street, and a Georgian façade facing the interior of the college courtyard – the clearest reminder of all that Rogers viewed architecture as a setter of mood, not as a carrier of deeper values.

Rogers was far more pragmatic. In what may have been the most revealing of all the comments the architect made about the quadrangle, he wrote to the Secretary of Yale in 1919 to defend his decision to use tile roofs rather than the slate that might have been more historically authentic because “As far as traditions go, I hope that the only traditions governing us will be Yale traditions and our country’s tradition. Architecturally we will I know keep our effects as essential and not the traditions. Of course we will have to have architectural traditions because in most cases there is no other way of getting the desired effect except by employing the traditions which we use only because in these cases they are necessary to get the effects. It does seem awfully hollow and servilely cringing to use a tradition that means nothing to us.”

“We will keep our effects as essential and not the traditions” – Rogers could not have said more clearly that he had no interest in designing authentically Gothic buildings. No wonder, then, that the Memorial Quadrangle, for all its lilting, graceful beauty, was sharply attacked by modernists in the years after its completion in 1921. Rogers produced a building that openly spurned the idea of moral truth in architecture at precisely the time that morality was coming to the forefront of architectural ideology. Being honest was what architecture was supposed to be about, or so the modernists claimed – and Rogers didn’t even pretend to any honesty. No wonder he drove the modernists crazy. He sailed above them, blithely secure in his elegant world. In place of moral force Rogers was offering picturesqueness, and charm. But what charm! James Gamble Rogers had the ability, almost unmatched, to conjure out of charm the power of the monumental

As the 1920’s wore on, and International Style modernism began slowly to spread through Europe and eventually across the Atlantic, an increasing number of critics came to share the view that modernism possessed a kind of moral authority that more traditional forms of architecture lacked. Modernism was original; the other stuff was a copy – or so the modernists claimed, and they took offense at the very idea that charm, even if presented with the formal brilliance of Rogers, might be a valid architectural virtue. Among them was William Harlan Hale, who edited a Yale publication called, appropriately enough, the Harkness Hoot. In 1930, by which time the buildings of the Memorial Quadrangle were nine years old and modern architecture had become increasingly visible in the urban, if not the academic, realm, Hale was clearly under the spell of Le Corbusier. He wrote of the Memorial Quadrangle: “It seems almost incredible. When the world is witnessing a sweeping rebirth of genuine architecture, and when every clear-headed designer who is not bound to copies and formulas is envisioning a new order of forms and masses and relationships, then the builders of Yale join the tribe of impotent imitators who grind out their lifeless plagiarisms.”

Hale was not content to challenge Rogers’s historicism; he took issue also with the fact that the architect was so free in his interpretations. The quadrangle, Hale wrote, “violates all canons of taste by deliberately misusing the Gothic details and ornaments with which it abounds. How can students be educated to artistic appreciation under the eaves of an architecture that puts water tanks into church towers, and lavatories into oriels? It seems dubious just what lesson of honesty the young man can derive from such misuses and untruths.”

Hale’s attacks on Yale’s architecture were vividly written, but they hardly raised new points: he re-stated the two favorite arguments of the modernists, that modern architecture reflected the spirit of the age, whatever that was, and that it was structurally honest. Both of these things, of course, have turned out to be myths, as romantic, in their way, as any dreams of English rustic charm propagated by James Gamble Rogers.

Still, a few years later, when Rogers’ Sterling Memorial Library opened, Hale was ready again. The Harkness Hoot, asked, “Is the Sterling Library beautiful? Is anything admirable in a highly functional building which dresses up like a cathedral, its entrance hall a nave, its reading rooms a crossing, and its delivery desk a high altar? All this, in the University whose motto is Lux et Veritas. There is not one suggestion of Veritas in the Sterling Library; — and for that matter there is precious little of Lux.”

In fact, the book tower of Sterling, with its powerful vertical lancet windows, some running the full height of the tower, is not without a certain sleekness. For all practical purposes, it is a modern skyscraper, given a Gothic sheathing. It’s worth saying here that this building was heavily influenced by the sketches of Bertram Goodhue, one of the few architects who started out as a traditionalist and by the end of his career had brilliantly evolved a modern style of his own. Goodhue’s sudden death in 1924 led to the awarding of the commission to design the library to Rogers, and Rogers leaned heavily on Goodhue’s preliminary drawings. It’s doubtful that he would have done it entirely by himself – although a slightly later building, the Hall of Graduate Studies, has a tower that I have described as Jazz Gothic, suggests that Rogers was paying at least a little bit of attention to the developing strands of Art Moderne and Art Deco in those years, and trying to synthesize them with the picturesque Gothic architecture he was spreading across the Yale campus.

Anyway, all of this eventually ran out of steam, and there are several reasons. By the years after World War II, modernism had moved into the mainstream in American architecture, and it was harder for Yale to justify continuing to build architecture that was not only not at the cutting edge, but each year seemed more and more conservative. While Yale was uncomfortable waving the banner of the avant-garde, it was equally uneasy, I think, appearing to lead the forces of reaction. The gentility of James Gamble Rogers’ architecture no longer represented a respectable middle ground.

Dean Robert A.M. Stern, in his splendid biography of George Howe, Toward a Modern American Architecture, has noted that Philip Goodwin, co-architect of the original Museum of Modern Art of 1939, had produced designs for a modern addition to the Yale Art Gallery as far back as 1941 – spurred, presumably, by the donation to Yale that year of the extraordinary collection of the Societe Anonyme, the organization founded by Katherine Dreier, Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray to encourage support for avant-garde art in the United States, and which eventually accumulated enough art of its own to constitute a significant collection. In some ways the gift of the Societe Anonyme collection of art marks the real beginning of modernism at Yale. Nothing came of these Goodwin designs because Yale was hardly going to build during the war, or in its immediate aftermath. But by the late 1940’s, Yale was a different place, as the world was a different place. What had seemed radical in the 1920’s was now, as I said, coming close to the mainstream.

Making things more different still was the death, in 1947, of Everett V. Meeks, the longtime dean of the School of Fine Arts, which contained the Yale architecture program. Meeks was a resolute anti-modernist, and heaven knows what he thought of the Ernsts and Mondrians and Duchamps that thanks to the Societe Anonyme were now part of Yale’s art collection. In any case I suspect Meeks would have brought all of his influence to bear to prevent the Goodwin building from going up even if Yale had been able to build during the war. Meeks was, if nothing else, a strong leader, and immediately after his death Yale’s art and architecture programs were in some disarray, with none of the sense of being at the center of what was happening that characterized Harvard. At that point Yale had neither Meeks’ determined conservatism nor the resolute modernism that was the calling-card of Harvard; Yale’s art and architecture programs seemed to lack strong leadership, although the architecture department did have a relatively little-known architect in his mid-forties, who had built fairly little but was an exceptionally gifted teacher, coming up regularly by train from Philadelphia to serve as a senior critic.

That architect was, of course, Louis Kahn, and he would have a profound effect on how Yale would evolve. Kahn urged that one possible way out of Yale’s doldrums would be to name his Philadelphia colleague and former partner George Howe as chairman of the Yale architecture department, which is precisely what happened at the end of 1949. Howe brought both energy and rigor to the school, and most importantly, he opened Yale to modern architecture without embracing the narrow, ideologically-driven modernism of Harvard. It’s an important distinction: Yale’s relative indifference to ideology as compared to other architecture programs in those years. Howe’s ability to welcome modernism without using it as a club of moral superiority with which to bludgeon those of more cautious bent, his reluctance to sneer at everything else as beneath contempt, was important, and I think very characteristic of Yale’s general tendency to avoid an excessive degree of dogma. The Yale tone remained non-ideological, as it had in the days when what I have called Rogers’s romantic pragmatism reigned.

Howe proved a perfect partner to the man who was ultimately to do the most to bring Yale architecture into the twentieth century, so to speak: Whitney Griswold, who became president in 1950, around the time that Howe was taking over the architecture department. “It was Griswold who in general shepherded the university into the new postwar world,” Vincent Scully has written. “Modernism now reigned, alike in the Departments of Architecture and History of Art as in Griswold’s heart.”

I should digress from architecture for just a moment to point out that around the same time, Josef Albers took over the art department, bringing further dramatic change to Yale’s attitude toward the visual arts. And some key developments were occurring in other parts of the university – most notably, perhaps, in the university’s collections. In literature, Donald Gallup, the curator of American literature, began to collect important twentieth-century manuscripts, and it was through his influence that Yale eventually became the repository of the papers of Gertrude Stein, among many other significant modernist writers, making the manuscript and book collections the equivalent of the Societe Anonyme art collection. So it was a new day in lots of ways.

Whitney Griswold, true to the Yale tradition, was an evolutionary, not a revolutionary: he did not want to rip the university apart, only to awaken it and bring it along. By Griswold’s time modern art and architecture were hardly revolutionary any longer – modern architecture in particular was rapidly becoming a corporate style, symbolic not of radical change, as its creators had envisioned, as of the very continuity that Yale as an institution sought to represent. So by commissioning works of modern architecture in the postwar era, Griswold was not taking Yale all that much farther from the mainstream than it had traditionally been. I say that not to diminish his accomplishments, or to minimize the opposition he surely faced when hiring the likes of Louis Kahn and Paul Rudolph – only to say that by the 1950’s, the world had changed a lot more than Yale had, and Griswold was helping Yale catch up.

In some ways Yale was lucky that it waited as long as it did to dip its toe into the modernist waters, since if it had happened earlier, Yale might have ended up with the likes of Walter Gropius at Harvard, a modernist ideologue if there ever was one. By the postwar era, modernism was becoming softer, less utopian in its ambitions, less absolutist and more open to a range of approaches – more Yale-like, we might say. If there is any true Yale doctrine, it is pluralism. And it is even luckier that James Gamble Rogers and his predecessors left such a rich and potent fabric of older buildings – it made it impossible for modernism to do here on the Yale campus what it would be doing elsewhere in New Haven, and in cities around the world, which was to rip places apart, tearing away streets and buildings so as to start with a clean slate. There could be no clean slates at Yale, and so Whitney Griswold could only ask modern architects to do what they did best – which was not to build entire cities or, in this case, entire campuses, but simply to create great individual works of distinction.

Griswold wanted to revive the dormant plan to extend the Yale Art Gallery, but by 1950, Philip Goodwin was retired and uninterested in the commission. George Howe suggested that Griswold hire Louis Kahn, and the rest, as they say, is history. Kahn produced his first great building, the building we celebrate tonight. I will come back to it in a moment – for now, let me say just that it was the symbolic though hardly the actual beginning of Kahn’s career, but it was truly the beginning of meaningful modern architecture at Yale.

As the 1950’s went on, Griswold – emboldened by the success of the Yale Art Gallery – commissioned Eero Saarinen to design the Ingalls Rink and later Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges; Paul Rudolph to design the Greeley Lab at the School of Forestry and married student housing and then, as both his masterwork and, in some ways, his downfall, the Art and Architecture Building. And Griswold also brought Philip Johnson to do the Kline Biology Tower and its surrounding buildings; and Gordon Bunshaft to design the Beinecke Library and the original Yale computer center. He was a fierce defender of his architects, even to the point of, as Vincent Scully recounts in his eloquent memoir of those years in the book Yale in New Haven, even to the point of asking the history of art department to defend Saarinen’s design for the hockey rink as a significant work of architecture when the university’s bean counters deemed it so expensive that they tried to block its construction. It was a notable moment when the university president asks for the support of architectural historians to help him make a case for spending a lot of money on a new and, for the mid-1950’s, quite daring piece of architecture.

As Scully has also told us, Griswold was happier working with Eero Saarinen than with Louis Kahn. Saarinen was a great communicator to lay people: he desperately wanted to make modernism accessible, not to say exciting, to laymen, and he pretty much did so. Kahn spoke in almost mystic terms; architecture was a spiritual quest for him, and the results were not only harder for laymen to understand, they could seem, on first viewing, to exude harshness rather than the exhilaration that Saarinen buildings projected. Kahn’s “silence and light,” the brooding quality of his forms – these things were not Saarinen. For Kahn’s agonized quest for the sublime, Saarinen substituted a quest for modernist joy. No wonder he was more popular, among laymen and college presidents alike.

In any event all of these buildings have been as discussed and analyzed as any in the United States, and this is not the place to go over them all again. Suffice it to say for our circumstances tonight that the ambition of every one of them was beyond question, and that each of them, in one way or another, told you something about where American architecture was going. Taken together, they represent an astonishing range, too: from Saarinen’s sculptural inventions to Rudolph’s compositional genius to Johnson’s urbane flirtations with history.

The Art and Architecture Building was the most talked-about building in the country, if not the world, for a period after its completion in 1963, and it remains not only a stunningly beautiful composition, but a poignant reminder of both the strengths and the weaknesses of postwar modernism: difficult to use, arrogant, and quasi-functional at best, it is nonetheless inspiring and quite beautiful. It is in many ways as complete a manifestation of the heroic aspirations of modernism as there is: a noble form, sculptural and yet magnificently urbane and connected to its context at the same time. And somehow Rudolph managed to create a form that, by combining influences of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Larkin Building and Le Corbusier’s monastery at Latourette, did the impossible: unite the opposing forces of modernism, Wright and Le Corbusier, and symbolically transcending their differences.

I loved that building; I saw it in a magazine when I was a teenager, and I have to say it was one of the reasons I wanted to go to Yale. Any place that could build so boldly, any school that would commission a piece of architecture like that and want to be known for it, was a place I wanted to be. In those days I, like so many other people interested in architecture, thought of the old Gothic buildings of Yale as tired and even something of an embarrassment. After all, they had no ideas. They seemed to have no power. They offered only comfort and beauty and visual ease. How timid, how pointless, how self-indulgent these things seemed. Who could think anything as simpleminded as comfort could matter. Architecture was supposed to be about challenge, not comfort, and to me in those days Yale seemed like an institution that understood that.

Once I had lived for very long on this campus, however, I realized how different the reality actually was – not that the modern monuments of Yale weren’t as exciting as I had thought, but how little they mattered to the experience of daily life here. What shaped that experience, what architecture defined it, were the older buildings, the colleges by James Gamble Rogers and others, and the buildings of the Old Campus and Hillhouse Avenue and so forth. It was the fabric that Rogers and others had created that defined Yale; the modern buildings were but punctuation marks within it. Yale was lucky, as I said, since its needs by definition restrained modernism’s excesses, and showed off its strengths. It is not an accident that we view modern architecture as having had a more benign effect on the Yale campus than on the City of New Haven overall – Yale was able to keep its old fabric, whereas the city did not. And with the fabric of the city torn away, modernism’s inability to replace it became painfully clear. Thus we got the Coliseum and the Oak Street Connector and the telephone building and so forth and so on – an empty landscape, not a city.

The context of the Yale campus was so strong that even Eero Saarinen, who tended to ignore surroundings almost as a matter of principle, was moved in Ezra Stiles and Morse Colleges to respond gracefully, even eloquently, to them. The great arc of open space facing Payne Whitney Gymnasium, the pedestrian walk through the colleges, the towers – all of these things weave these buildings into the urban fabric beautifully. I lived for three years in those buildings and continue to have a certain affection for them, and I think that their quasi-historicism, the way in which Saarinen made them a kind of abstracted version of an Italian hill town, trite as it can seem, actually does work moderately well, and paved the way in some ways for the historicism of the post-modern period. Saarinen made it acceptable for a building to be designed around a sense of mood, which was actually more like what James Gamble Rogers did than what the typical modern architect tended to do.

I should point out here that a couple of years ago, when my youngest son enrolled at Yale, he told me he did not want to live in Eero Saarinen’s Ezra Stiles College, which when I lived there in the late 1960’s were almost brand-new. My son explained to me that these buildings are considered old and tired by students today, and have not been renovated or restored like so many other buildings on the Yale campus. He is right, of course: and his comment gave me pause. Saarinen’s buildings, which symbolized newness to me and my generation, are now older than most of James Gamble Rogers’s great Gothic buildings of Yale were when I was a student. After all, in 1968 many of the Gothic colleges were forty years old, give or take a few years. Now the new, modern buildings of Yale are older than that. The Kahn art gallery, at 53, is now older than Harkness Tower was when I arrived at Yale. In 1968 Sterling Library was only 38. The Beinecke Library is today older than that.

What does all of this prove, beyond the not-very-profound facts that time goes on and that we go on with it? I mention all of this because we inevitably view architecture not only in a physical context, but also in a context of time: our own evolution and the larger evolution of culture over time. And in the context of time today, the modern buildings of Yale are historical artifacts, to be cherished as much as their predecessors. Thankfully Yale now realizes this, and not only has the art gallery been brilliantly restored, the Art and Architecture Building is about to be. The heroic period of mid-century modernism is as much a historical period as any other, and I think we can safely say, as vital.

Looking at buildings in terms of comparative age is perhaps a good way to segue into the art gallery itself, and its relationship to museums of its time. This building is important not only in terms of Kahn’s work, but also in terms of the evolution of this building type. Not a lot of modern museums had been built in 1951, when Kahn got the commission. After all, if I may return for a moment to my preoccupation with comparative ages, the National Gallery by John Russell Pope was only ten years old when Kahn began the Yale Art Gallery – it was finished in 1941, the last gasp, we might say, of a heroic classical period of museum-building. An incomparably great gasp it was, of course, even though the National Gallery is in many ways an anachronism – by the time it opened, the original Museum of Modern Art by Goodwin and Stone had already been open for two years. Once, I found this anachronism to be a troubling reminder that the National Gallery was a building put up after its time – but now I am much more inclined to say, what of it. As the Yale campus teaches us, now it hardly matters that James Gamble Rogers was building the Memorial Quadrangle and Harkness Tower long after Wright had done much of his most important work, or that Sterling Library is roughly contemporary with the Daily News Building and the McGraw-Hill Building. We know better than to think of architecture as a linear story, and to dismiss what doesn’t fit the single narrative as irrelevant.

In any case, by 1950 there were lots of modern skyscrapers and single-family houses, but relatively few important modern civic buildings, particularly museums. There was the Des Moines Art Center, by Eliel Saarinen, father of Eero, and of course Cranbrook, also by Saarinen. But it is an astonishingly short list, in part because the late forties and early fifties were not a major period for museum growth and expansion, whatever the architectural choices. A few years later came Philip Johnson’s Munson Williams Procter Institute in Utica, New York, a building that might be called mannerist International Style, if that term makes any sense, as well as his vaguely classicizing Sheldon Art Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska, and his Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth – but whatever the virtues of these buildings, they had none of the forthrightness, the toughness, and the blunt strength of the Kahn building at Yale. And neither did much of anything else constructed in the decade following the opening of this building in 1953. It wasn’t until 1966 that Marcel Breuer’s Whitney was finished on Madison Avenue in New York, and another two years before I.M. Pei’s Everson Museum in Syracuse. Pei’s East Building of the National Gallery came a decade later, in 1978, and only after that did the current explosion of museum architecture truly begin.

So for a long time Kahn’s building stood alone, or nearly alone, as an attempt to create a modern art museum – almost as much of a beginning to the saga of postwar museums in general as it is a beginning to the saga of modern architecture at Yale. The open, horizontal space, the flexible panels, were all stunningly new ways in which to display art at that time. The tetrahedronal concrete ceiling, spanning these broad, wide-open spaces, providing a constant sense of visual energy, geometric clarity, and physical pressure, not to mention the powerful geometry of the stair tower, all made it clear that this was not going to be a neutral white modern box. Others would take the display of modern art in that direction; Kahn went off in a different way, deferential to art but determinedly not neutral as an architectural presence. That is the key thing here – the determination with which Kahn broke away from the only real model there was at that time, Goodwin and Stone’s Museum of Modern Art, with its assertion of modernism as neutral container. Kahn would have neither John Russell Pope’s classicism nor Goodwin and Stone’s cool neutrality.

If Kahn set a tone of trying to balance architectural assertiveness with deference to art – which he ultimately did with more finesse at the end of his career, in the Yale Center for British Art across the street – in so doing he set the direction for an entire generation of architects who were to follow him in the struggle to balance architecture and art. Actually, it is more like two generations, since for half a century architects have thrashed about in the dilemma Kahn set before them: to be modern and yet not to be neutral, to be assertive and yet to be respectful of the needs of art. Beside so much of what has been built in the boom of museum architecture that we have lived through, Kahn only seems to look better and better – in comparison to so many recent museums, the Yale Art Gallery has rigor, discipline, toughness and – perhaps most precious of all – modesty.

On the exterior of the art gallery, Kahn created just as strong a model for a modernism that sought to balance competing demands. What an impossible problem this is, extending Swartwout’s building, and how brilliantly Kahn did it. By pulling back the entrance, he created a break, deferring to the older building and allowing it some breathing space. His almost blank façade, which Vincent Scully has wonderfully called “a primitive version of the Italian palazzo, heightened by the horizontal stringcourses Kahn finally employed,” defers, too, but it also asserts itself. There is somber power to this quiet façade – the last thing in the world it is is truly blank – and its horizontal lines provide the most subtle counterpoint to Swartwout’s rhythmic arches. The glass wall over the door, and the glass at the other end, remind us that this is just a façade – a wall of masonry put there for an urbanistic purpose, a reminder that the whole building fits gracefully into a complicated site.

In this building Kahn invoked the new while at the same time dignifying the old, celebrating the new world that modernism promised and yet refusing to reject the old world that preceded him. The new does not have to deny the old; the two can coexist, each with its own presence, and together becoming something more than either could be on its own. This was not the lesson of the early modernist ideologues, who too often wanted to pretend the past could disappear. But it was Louis Kahn’s lesson: he knew that the past is with us, and that a modernism that does not make a peace with it will not create a civilized place. This is the lesson that Kahn has bequeathed to us in this building, and there can be no more generous a beginning to the story of modernism at Yale, and no greater legacy.

horizontal line