What does the term “gallery space” invoke? A room stacked floor to ceiling with objects from faraway places? An ornate temple-like space? Or perhaps a plain, white room with high ceilings, showcasing a single painting. In our first week as students of museums, any initial ideas we may have had of these spaces were shaken up, and we were introduced to a wide range of architecture each reflecting many ideas and agendas. For many early institutions, such as the British Museum in London, architects harkened back to Greek and Roman structures, building Neo-classical temples with grand entries, soaring columns, and illustrative friezes. This type of museum tells the visitor that, like the Greeks and Romans, this institution is rational and has a historical awareness.
Museum theory is constantly being revised, and in the twentieth century had arrived at a modern aesthetic. These modernist museums were the antithesis of the Neo-Classical building; they drew from the Machine Age, functional and paring away unnecessary ornamentation. The “white cube gallery” was considered the optimal way to view art, with no distractions for the visitor. However, the theory intended by architects can translate differently to visitors. This was what I wanted to explore when tasked with presenting a museum space to our seminar group. I chose to look at a building that I know very well, so well that I may have lost some perspective on it. I worked within the Louis I. Kahn Building at the Yale University Art Gallery for nearly seven years and wanted to apply the theories that we are learning to try to understand where it fits into the dialogue that architects have had for centuries around art galleries.
The Louis I. Kahn Building was designed by its namesake and completed in 1953. This was Kahn’s first notable commissioned project, and he was tasked with creating a public art museum in the private Yale University. At this point, Kahn would have been aware of the challenges in designing a modernist building that was also approachable. Perhaps it was an attempt to solve this dilemma that led Kahn to develop human scale architecture for this museum. Many elements of the gallery mirror the proportions of an average male; the bricks could fit in the palm of one’s hand, the planks of the wood floor are scaled to the size of human feet, and the ceilings are low for a modernist gallery. Kahn designed “pogo walls”, movable walls that allow curators to tailor each space based on the exhibitions. Also notable is the geometric tetrahedron ceiling, which brings continuity to every floor, balancing the ever-changing wall configurations.
Several visitors to the Louis I. Kahn building have remarked that it is a cold modern building, and an unfortunate departure from the gothic revival architecture running through the rest of Yale’s campus. However many, myself included, instead find the building inviting. The human scale helps visitors to feel comfortable. As well, the movable walls yield a great deal of aesthetic power to those that work in the space. It is unpretentious architecture that acknowledges changing tastes and needs.
The discussion that followed my presentation made me question certain assumptions I had about the building. I was asked, “Did visitors find the ceiling distracting from the art work?” This is a really valid point; I have always enjoyed the sweeping drama of the ceiling, but gave pause that it could visually confuse the aesthetic of a painting. We discussed some of the challenges of human-scale architecture, such as the low ceiling limiting object size. I also received a question that was very familiar from working in the gallery, “is there a gift shop or café?” The gallery has neither primarily to make it feel accessible, with no pressure to spend money while visiting. In addition, being a downtown museum, there are already several shops and cafes close by. However, our seminar leader made an observation that turned that idea completely around. She said, “So, this is truly a temple solely for viewing.” The use of the word “temple” immediately invoked the Neo-Classical buildings that gave little thought to user-friendliness. Could this human-scale, modern cube building actually have more in common with monumental Neo-Classical galleries? Discussions, questions, and ideas such as these arise often in our seminar group, and help us to challenge our pre-existing notions of museum space. Our seminars are quickly becoming forums of new interpretations and provocative discourse.
Caitlin Zaccaro – Art Gallery and Museum Studies MA candidate at the University of Manchester.